November 24, 2017
School & Youth
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  • Overhead projectors, chalkboards — so many of the tools used by teachers have become obsolete in the modern classroom, but what else has changed over the decades? Are middle school students solving algebra problems at a younger age? Are high schoolers still reading “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” by Mark Twain? Using responses from teachers and students polled by the Severna Park Voice, the graphic below compares classrooms of the ‘70s, ‘80s and ‘90s with the classrooms of the 21st century.
    Overhead projectors, chalkboards — so many of the tools used by teachers have become obsolete in the modern classroom, but what else has changed over the decades? Are middle school students solving algebra problems at a younger age? Are high schoolers still reading “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” by Mark Twain? Using responses from teachers and students polled by the Severna Park Voice, the graphic below compares classrooms of the ‘70s, ‘80s and ‘90s with the classrooms of the 21st century.

Education Now And Then: How Classroom Learning Has Changed

Zach Sparks
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September 7, 2017

When Severna Park Middle School eighth-grade math teacher Mary White was a student in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, calculators were not used and all material was presented via a chalkboard or overhead projector.

“There was no discovery learning, no collaboration with other students, no real problem-solving,” White said.

Today’s students are learning new concepts — linear regression equations, scatter plots, and systems of linear and non-linear functions — but the biggest difference she has witnessed is the way concepts are taught and when the concepts are taught.

“The Pythagorean theorem was usually introduced in high school geometry but is now a major topic in eighth-grade math,” she explained. “On the idea of rigor, back then we would solve for A, B or C in the Pythagorean theorem, given the triangle, whereas today, students would see more rigorous real-world problems. For example, they might be given certain parameters about fitting a large table through a doorway, and would the table fit through, etc.”

Stacey Coppock, a fifth-grade math teacher at Folger McKinsey Elementary, agreed that today’s students are expected to apply skills, not just learn them. When she was in fifth grade (1992-1993), she was given dittos that tasked her with using a standard algorithm to solve problems with a number line in front of her.

“Math seemed to be very straightforward when I was in school. You were given a page number in a textbook and were asked to complete all the odd-numbered problems,” Coppock said. “I was not given the opportunity to explore math like students are today. There was only one way to solve a problem and usually only one answer to a problem.”

With iPads and Chromebooks at their fingertips, students are now taught multiple strategies to solve a problem.

“They enjoy talking math and respectfully argue with one another to facilitate their own learning through collaboration and exploration,” Coppock said. “Students are encouraged to make sense of problems and to persevere to solve them.”

Science instruction has also changed. “In the area of biology, we used to label some cell parts as ‘function unknown’ and now we are teaching about these cell parts, what they do, what their molecular structure is and how they work together in cells and in living systems,” said Sue Barnes Hannahs, the science department chair at Severna Park High School. “The understanding of the human genome was considered almost ‘unknowable’ according to my teachers, and we never dreamed it would be mapped. Now, people spit into a test tube and learn about their ancient ancestors.”

Plastic pollution in the oceans, ocean acidification and global climate change are all topics that have been introduced into science classrooms.

Andrea Alcombright, the foreign language department chair at Severna Park Middle School, noted the variety of instruction that now exists. She said her classes shift tasks every 10 or 15 minutes to keep kids more engaged. Many of the examples she chooses are plucked from the real world.

“I’m not going to the textbook or some teacher-generated resource. I’m writing an assignment using a newscast in Mexico,” she said. “Working in a middle school, especially one where there is small amount of exposure to the diversity of the world around them, it’s great for them to see what the world is like as opposed to reading a textbook.”

Kids are encouraged to think critically. “Now it’s OK to make mistakes if you’re getting your point across,” she said. “We’re less stressed about making them little grammarians. From a language perspective, it’s a great way to keep students engaged and feeling confident.”

Folger McKinsey second-grade teacher Jessica Meredith previously worked with kindergartners and first-graders. Coming from a small Catholic school in Florida that distributed plenty of assignments from worksheets and textbooks, she feels that educators are encouraged to find the differences in students.

We do a great deal of differentiating instruction based on the students' needs, interests and levels,” Meredith said. “This requires the majority of my day to be taught in small groups.”

Heather Barnstead is the Signature lead teacher at Severna Park High School, where students are still taking business and technology classes, but the curriculum has been enriched. Classes now include Business Management, Leadership, Accounting, Marketing, Advertising, Webpage Design, Microsoft, and Entrepreneurship. Students can even take college-level exams for the potential to get a credit.

“In today’s classrooms, instruction is all about brain-based learning, using purposeful student engagement and movement, taking the teaching beyond the classroom through field trips, job shadows and even internships, as well as real-life connections,” said Barnstead, who attended high school in the mid ‘90s. “Our students know that so many of us are working hard to change the old lecture style of teaching to a more engaging, dynamic, multi-leveled learning experience.”

As for English, yes, students still read classics like “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” “The Grapes of Wrath,” “Macbeth” and “The Diary of a Young Girl: Anne Frank,” but they are also reading newer works. Set in Nazi Germany, “The Book Thief” by Markus Zuska follows a foster girl who shares her love of reading with neighbors during bombing raids. Jeannette Walls’ memoir “The Glass Castle” takes readers along for her poverty-stricken childhood and journey to New York as the Walls children learned to feed, clothe and protect one another. “A Thousand Splendid Suns,” a novel by Khaled Hosseini, is an exploration of Afghan society and a tale of two women brought together by war, loss and fate.


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