Lake Norman & Mooresville

Teaching away from the test

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools added 45 minutes to the elementary school day this year, and one Huntersville school is using the extra time to take a break from test-focused instruction.

While other area schools - including J.V. Washam and Blythe elementary schools - have opted to spend that extra time focusing on core areas such as reading and math, Barnette Elementary School is taking a more open-ended approach.

From Monday to Wednesday, students will attend the school's new Reading Adventures program for the last 45 minutes of the school day. Teachers in each grade level will offer a book and students can choose which book they want to read for the semester.

These books will likely be on more exciting topics for children than the usual required reading, said second-grade teacher Lindsay Cassam. For instance, one book she's selected for her class is about pirates

"We'll do more fun kinds of activities with the readings," she said. "It will be more creative kinds of things, which we haven't been able to do with all the emphasis on teaching to the test. We have some more freedom."

Then, on Thursdays and Fridays, all students will participate in the school's new Connect 21 programs, which allow students to participate in activities that typically have been considered clubs.

Students will be able to pick between such blocks as basketball, cultural dancing, chess, science Olympiad, math Olympiad, dancing, puzzles, drama, science club, newspaper, robotics and more.

Students in grade 3-5 will rotate blocks across grade levels, while kindergarten through second grade will stay with pupils their own age.

One common thread among the blocks will be that they'll incorporate such teaching techniques as critical thinking and problem-solving, said Cassam.

"When I started out years ago, our teaching was more integrated. Now we don't teach anything unless it is objective or it's on the test," said Cassam. "I think you can burn teachers and kids out that way. You have to have fun things to keep them engaged and get them excited about coming to school. With Connect 21, they'll be practicing those skills, but it will be fun for them and hopefully you'll get the payoff."

This is the second program that Barnette has implemented this year that focuses on 21st-century teaching.

This fall, the school also introduced a project-based learning block that all grade levels will attend for 90 minutes a week.

The program will challenge students to address real-world problems, said the program's instructor, Amanda Womack.

Barnette parent Karen Bavis said many parents she knows are excited about the new programs that Barnette is offering - especially Connect 21.

Bavis said she hopes it encourages her three sons - who are in kindergarten, second and fifth grades - to explore their interests and start considering possible careers they'd like to have.

While her second-grader is thrilled about the Legos class, her fifth-grader is considering taking a newspaper block.

"I feel like kids today have such limited amount of time to just be a kid and do things they're interested in," said Bavis, a Huntersville resident. "I think it's good for the kids to take that little break at the end of the day. They're so focused on tests and academics, this is a nice way to take those academics and apply them toward real-world situations and interests."

Cassam said the program is also beneficial because it exposes all students to a variety of extracurricular activities - not just to the students whose parents can afford to pick them up after school.

"From everything I've seem, it sounds like a fabulous idea," said Bavis. "This is something new that no one's seen or done before. Everyone seems really positive about it."