A select group of educators from the Mahopac Central School District met last week to discuss, plan, brainstorm and model elements of what Assistant Superintendent Dr. Adam Pease has termed “Breakthrough Classrooms.”
“Many of our teachers have been doing exciting, innovative things in their classrooms for years—thinking outside the box,” said Pease. “But we didn’t have a system to coordinate these pockets of innovation. Breakthrough Classrooms has done that.”
The idea behind Breakthrough Classrooms is to create a cohort of teachers to share cutting-edge ways of teaching across schools. There are four Breakthrough Classrooms in each elementary school, six at the middle school, and five at the high school, according to Pease. “The innovation involves everything from the way teachers use space, to the way they use technology, mindfulness, and many other areas of instruction,” Pease said.
Teachers were given the book “The Innovator’s Mindset,” a guide to help educators unlock creativity within themselves and their students, by innovative-education expert George Couros, back in the summer.
“The world that we are preparing our students for is changing rapidly,” Pease said. “We are preparing our students for jobs that don’t exist yet. We are certain that the best of these jobs, the ones that we want our graduates to have, will require innovation, creativity, collaboration, and the ability to solve complex problems.
“The traditional system of education emphasized content because content was hard to get,” according to Pease. “Now content is at our fingertips. Students who can use this content to solve problems, innovate, invent, and the like, will be in strong demand.”
About 30 teachers were invited to pilot Breakthrough Classrooms in the district, and the group has been meeting along with Pease and Assistant Superintendent Dr. Greg Stowell throughout the year. During the most recent work session participants attended workshops on Mindfulness, given by Mahopac High School Psychologist Dr. Deborah Zides and Middle School Guidance Counselor Ofri Felder; Technology, given by Instructional Technology Specialist John Sebalos; and Classroom Space, given by Pease.
During the mindfulness workshop, one teacher was given headphones, another a pair of gloves, and another a ball to balance on her knee, all while having to attend to a lesson and answer questions to an online quiz. The idea was for teachers to experience what some of their students who struggle in school feel during class.
“We tried to make it as challenging as possible for you,” said Zides, who also sent texts to each teacher’s phone to add to the distraction. “It helps you see what your students might be feeling.” The activity was meant to help teachers be more attune to students dealing with physical or emotional issues, family conflicts, or other stresses in their lives.
“It really makes you see things a different way,” one teacher commented.
Pease, who gave the workshop on Classroom Space, said, “It is not just about buying new furniture, but it is about using what we have in a different way. Setting up nooks and spaces where students can work independently or in collaboration with each other.”
Mahopac High School teacher Sharon Forman, one of the teachers invited to the cohort, said that she has always felt that students should be allowed to use the space of their classroom as they see fit. “If a student learns better standing,” she said, “then I let him stand.” This approach, which she has been using for years, works incredibly well. “When students are comfortable, they learn better,” she said.
Middle School teacher Brian Cauthers agrees. “I think the teachers in this cohort have always been open to trying new things, even if they are just small differences from the norm,” he said. Cauthers has been a proponent of using technology in the classroom long before it became popular to do so. Cauthers has had students prepare lesson plans on Google Slides and used a space-journey app to allow students to go on a “virtual field trip” into space.
When Middle School teacher Margaret Fox began teaching 25 years ago in the district, “students were seated in rows,” she said. “But I let go of that because I found that students respond better academically when they can interact with each other. My students know that they can sit or stand where they like in their classroom, which makes them feel more comfortable, which in turn enables them to learn better.”
“The great thing about what we are doing with Breakthrough Classrooms is the collaboration,” Pease said. “So that while one teacher may be gifted at technology, another might use space in an interesting way, and all of these things are shared, so that the teachers take what they have learned from each other back to their own classrooms.”
“Another benefit,” Forman said, “is that with this type of learning environment, we see grades go up. Because students make the class their own, they are more engaged.”
“They really do take ownership for their learning when you give them the freedom to do so,” Cauthers agreed.