Classical music played softly in the background of Amanda Plaisted's dimly lit portable classroom as her fourth-graders practiced multiplication.
Some sat in brightly colored papasan chairs, solving problems on iPads. Others sprawled across the floor, challenging one another to a card game of multiplication war. Still others worked with pencil and paper.
Everyone had to complete a half-page "quick check" of their skills so that Plaisted would know who needed more instruction. But they had 45 minutes before the 11 a.m. small group lesson.
Until then, the Chester Taylor Elementary School students chose how they wanted to hone their math skills. Plaisted circulated, consulting with students individually, occasionally reminding them how much time remained.
"She gives us 'can do's' and 'must do's,' " said Tim McGuinness, 9, after winning a war game. "It's better than regular school, doing work all day. We all like it."
He referred to his school's foray into the Learner Active, Technology-Infused Classroom. The model, developed by Innovative Design for Education Corp., aims to give children more choices and responsibility in their education.
Teachers don't lecture so much as guide and assist. They limit whole-group instruction, favoring student-led collaborative problem solving. Kids rarely just sit and listen.
"Engagement is a lot higher," said kindergarten teacher Kanin Wynne, who makes videos that her students can watch and rewatch to reinforce lessons. "When you walk in, everyone is doing something and they're excited."
Getting students more actively involved in their learning was key for principal Julie Marks as she sought strategies to advance the school, which in the spring faced a state-mandated turnaround effort if it received a third straight "D" grade.
The school got a "C." But Marks wanted to build on the success. So when she found the learner active concept, and had teachers willing to revamp their classrooms, she jumped at it.
The teachers spent 50 hours training over the summer, offering one another support and ideas to pull off the transformation. Marks saw the benefits almost immediately, as she watched 5-year-olds figure out what they wanted to do in class then set about doing it.
"It's so cool — I don't even know how to say it any other way — to see students even in kindergarten owning their learning," Marks said.
That piece is critical in getting children to improve academically, said University of Minnesota education professor Deborah Dillon, who researches student motivation.
Teachers can have great materials and lessons, Dillon said. "But if they don't really get (the students) motivated, even with the best materials and strategies, it's going to be less than optimal," she said. "The more kids feel like they can control their own learning, the more they are willing to take up activities and persevere."
For full effect, teachers must make sure they offer lessons that challenge without being too hard or too easy, Dillon said. They also must give students room to make decisions without fear of punishment, while also making clear that consequences do exist if they don't complete their requirements.
That means lots of planning, as well as conversations with the children so they learn from their choices and actions.
Fourth-grade teacher John Jacobs said the change did not come easily for some children, who over four years weren't granted so much classroom freedom.
Suddenly given the room to choose, Jacobs said, many fourth-graders struggled. As a result, the teachers decided to scale back the initiative and build it up slowly.
"It's something you've got to work with," Jacobs said. "The alternative is staying where we were."
The switch came to kindergarten more smoothly. Most of the children had no preconceived notion about classroom operations, so they accepted the model as normal.
"I like to pick," said Drake Cole, 5, during breakfast. "It's just so fun."
Jorgeliz Suarez, 6, traveled her classroom, first finding and writing her classmates' names then items that begin with vowels. Around her, children drew self portraits, worked on computers and met with teacher Danielle Jensen in a small group.
"We're allowed to go anywhere we want," Jorgeliz said, noting that they have no assigned seats. "We don't work that much," she added, deeming the activities in class "awesome."
Jensen said she likes that the class isn't bound by a schedule on the white board or a manual telling her exactly what to do .
"The students are in charge of their learning. My role has changed," the fourth-year educator said. "When I graduated from college, this is what I thought of as teaching. . . . I'm happier and the kids are happier."
Marks plans to expand the initiative to the first and fifth grades next year, and the second and third grades the following year. Three other Pasco elementary schools — Lacoochee, Gulf Highlands and Schrader — are also putting the program in place.
Contact Jeffrey S. Solochek at [email protected] or (813) 909-4614. Follow @jeffsolochek.