A group of Effingham educators has been chosen from a multistate regional conference to take their idea to reform education beyond the classrooms in Unit 40.

At Monday’s Effingham School Board meeting, assistant superintendent Jason Fox and Effingham Junior High Principal Cody Lewis announced that a group of high school teachers was chosen as just three teams out of 30 to pitch their ideas for education reform next spring.

“Education has been stuck in tradition for a long time,” said Fox. “We’re training kids for jobs that aren’t going to exist 10 years from now. And we don’t even know what jobs are going to exist, so we have to give them a set of skills that regardless of what comes out, they can go out and work.”

But the idea to rethink education came by accident in the spring of 2016 after Fox and Lewis traveled to Dubai for the Varkey Foundation’s second annual Global Prize announcement, of which high school teacher Joe Fatheree was a finalist.

While there, Fox and Lewis attended various seminars and heard from leaders across the world for the need to rethink education.

“Whether you are in Africa, United States, UK, leaders from around the world in education said there’s a problem,” said Lewis. “And that problem centered around a few things — student engagement, skills, which is now called 21st-century skill learning … there’s a disconnect between what we’re doing in schools, how we’re assessing kids and then what they have to do to get a job.”

So when they came back to their small corner of the planet, the two enlisted in what is now referred to as the "original eight" – eight Effingham High School teachers across different subject matters who came together and rethought classroom instruction.

The educators include Erin Schackmann, Ryan Ervin, Megan Tylka, Charlie Huber, Rebecca McIntire, Melissa Habing, Julie Flack and Charlie Schwerman.

Together the eight educators created a model known as "Bringing Leadership, Creativity and Innovation Back into the Classroom."

“They helped us find our solution, Effingham’s solution to that issue,” said Lewis.

The model initially included four parts or spokes, as if the larger idea was a wheel — control, empowerment, application and celebration. Later on, a fifth spoke was added — collaboration.

This requires teachers to give students more voice in how they learned about certain subject matters and encourage them to make mistakes. Teachers then arranged creative ways — often based on student input — on how to test knowledge, which in turn is celebrated and recognized.

This past spring, five of the eight educators went to Columbus, Ohio, for a Teach to Lead Summit, where they refined and presented their model. Over 300 schools across the country applied to attend the conference with just 30 being chosen to present their ideas. That group was then narrowed to just three team finalists in late October.

“It was two full intensive days,” described Fox.

But just how is this model working in the classroom?

For Schackmann, a math teacher at the high school, it was a water park.

Students could choose the layout of their park but had to figure everything from the slope and equation of lines between buildings, the intersection of lines where workers would meet, and ratios and proportions of buildings to figure the actual size.

“I had no idea what it would look like whenever we got done,” said Schackmann. “It was pretty awesome to see the kids get involved. Some of the kids that I never see do anything on paper and pencil tests, they were all about it and loved it.”

Charlie Schwerman, then a multimedia teacher at the high school who is now the assistant principal at the junior high, asked his students what they wanted to learn about and they answered.

“We started just with screen printing and then we got into vinyl and then dye sublimation,” explained Schwerman. “A lot of these ideas are kids seeing these types of things and saying, ‘Hey, can we try this?’”

As if rethinking education wasn’t enough work, the original eight now prepare to host local, state and nationwide businesses, government officials, educators and other stakeholders to learn about their model with the idea that others may wish to replicate part or even all of what is being used at Unit 40.

The presentation of the model will be held April 12 in a Teach to Lead Leadership Lab — something only the three team finalists from the Columbus Summit were chosen to do.

And for Superintendent Mark Doan, that’s “a big deal.”

“This is a huge, huge step for our district,” said Doan. “I want to make sure everyone understands how fortunate we are as a district to be a part of this.”

“We feel it’s going to have a huge impact for us,” added Fox. “But it will also let us go out and improve other districts as well.”

Contact Keith Stewart at keith.stewart@effinghamdailynews.com or 217-347-7151, ext. 132.

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