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Good to Go Blog

At St. John's, good knows no bounds. It's greater than great academics. Here are snapshots of what it means at the Prep. Something amazing happens when you're open to good!


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Chyanne SmithMiddle School science teacher Chyanne Smith is a big fan of her department’s curriculum, which takes its cues from the Smithsonian Institute’s Science and Technology Concepts program. The learning framework is designed to align with Next Generation Science Standards, whereby science and engineering practices, teachable core ideas, and crosscutting concepts are integrated in every lesson. Good stuff all around, to be sure.

As she wrapped up her first year of teaching at the Middle School last spring, however, Smith experienced a flash of insight: To take the student experience to higher heights, she and her colleagues would need three different textbooks to truly deliver upon the Smithsonian’s hands-on-execution foundation. Alternatively, she could write her own.

One semester (and one very busy summer later), Smith’s textbook—produced in iBooks Author with some advice from the EdTech staff at the Prep—is a core component of the grade six course of study.

“My vision of the end product was powerful enough to see that it would be worth it,” says Smith. “Having taught the class, I loved the flexibility of taking core content and enriching it to highlight the things that are really important.”

The result is a 36-page, interactive textbook complete with embedded video, clickable images and graphical interfaces that, for example, email students the results of a Google Forms quiz they take at the end of each section. Smith’s book encompasses the first of three units for students of her grade level. A customized text for unit two is in progress and the third will follow. Colleagues Tim Creamer and Louise Nelson, who also teach the class, offered input to the final edit.

The plan moving forward is to generate new editions before every school year. Tops on Smith’s wish list is to add interactive graphical labs as well as video instruction of lab setups.

POWERFUL EXAMPLES of a customized learning experience for Prep students are thriving at the High School as well.

PHYSICS: “One of the great joys of teaching here that we have the support and creative flexibility to meet the needs of our students in the most effective way we can,” says St. John’s Science Department Chair Gary Smith, who believes customized materials enhance the student experience in three important ways:

  • First, Prep teachers can produce original content that dovetails with students’ pencil-and-paper lab experience, amplifying their ability to acquire problem-solving skills.
  • Second, teachers can put the science that they’re teaching into a real-world context, using the connectivity of the iPad so students can work with key information, but also understand the methodology behind its collection.
  • Finally, customization enables teachers to address student misconceptions in a broadly supportive manner. “Over time, we’ve built up a library of tutorials called ‘helpful Eagles’ that outlines new material, coaches students in our methods, and maximizes actual lab time in the classroom,” says Smith. Adds junior Will Poulin, “I think the physics curriculum allows teachers to easily convey the material because they created it themselves, rather than just handing out a universal, online printed copy. The videos that go along with many of the digital worksheets are helpful because it’s your own teacher speaking in both the video and writing the questions."

COMPUTER SCIENCE: Since 2014, the St. John’s Computer Science Department has harvested online units from a course developed at the University of Texas, and augmented it with supplemental materials selected by Prep teachers. “Computer Science has a strong tradition as a discipline of open source instructional materials,” says Department Chair Bernie Gilmore. “As a department, we also use Apple's free, open-sourced curriculum for our iOS class, which uses Apple Swift language and a textbook and materials all provided free with rights to alter and use the material as teachers see fit.” Given the latitude to customize and adapt material from the people who know the most about programming in Swift for iOS, Prep computer science teachers have seen extraordinary benefits to the student experience.

LATIN: In order to complete the AP Latin syllabus, students at St. John’s must read and analyze large segments of Latin text at a rapid pace. To facilitate this task, Ms. Elizabeth Solomon has developed a customized digital text that she updates every year to provide students with the grammatical support and cues they need to read the words of Vergil and Caesar with fluency. “Although this digitized text does not provide easy answers, it’s formatted and color-coded in order to steer students away from common pitfalls that can hamper their ability to translate,” she says.

“Customization for the benefit of the students creates a more energized learning experience,” says Mark McManmon, the assistant principal for academics, grades 11 and 12. “This approach gives teachers every opportunity to revise and update their materials to reflect changes in the field of study as well as feedback from the students. It is teachers—not an inanimate commercial textbook—who know which topics should be paired together or scaffolded in the just the right way for the benefit of the students in front of them.”

Posted by Mr. Chad Konecky in Inspired Academics on Friday February, 16

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