CHS Senior and Speech and Debate President Alice Wang helps to run Speech and Debate’s Clayton Fall Classic tournament.
CHS Senior and Speech and Debate President Alice Wang helps to run Speech and Debate’s Clayton Fall Classic tournament.

Empowered Learning

How students and teachers across the district are impacted by a new initiative aimed at increasing student independence and autonomy.

January 12, 2023

Glenridge Elementary fifth grader Tommy Castellano had a genius plan to make the playground at his school more inclusive. He created this plan with a group of his classmates for his Agents of Change project in literacy class. Groups of students began by studying young heroes in their communities, then identified a problem and researched it before creating Shark Tank-style presentations to present to parents and community members on topics such as inclusion, school lunches and an accessible playground. Tommy and his group even developed a survey to send out to all Glenridge families to obtain their feedback and input on the existing playground. 

Through this project, Tommy collaborated with his classmates, pursued a passion and practiced researching and writing argumentatively. 

Collaborating with classmates was hard at some points. It was helpful to have more people to help, and we each had a part, but sometimes someone was adding things that upset the team, and at points, I wished I could have done things by myself,” said Castellano. “What I’m feeling right now, (close to the end of the project), is that I’m a little proud to be close to the end, I’m kind of confident that things will go well, and a little frustrated that one of my teammates is disagreeing with the team on some changes on things.” 

Glenridge fifth grader Tommy Castellano and his classmates present their Agents of Change projects to teachers, parents and classmates. (Cara Barnes)

This project fulfills several characteristics of Empowered Learning, a new district-wide initiative to give students more agency over their learning. 

In 2019, the School District announced a new strategic plan focused on educating, inspiring and empowering students. The front-facing tagline is “Educate, Inspire, Empower.” 

Milena Garganigo, Assistant Superintendent of Teaching and Learning, spent the last few years focusing on the last part of that mission. Garanigo’s guiding question throughout the process was “how do we help students to be independent with their learning?” 

Garanigo and other administrators identified five key strategies: path, place, pace, voice and choice for teachers to use in order to promote 21st-century skills.

While administrators work to implement this program through teacher professional development, the main premise of the program, giving students more independence and agency over their learning, has existed in various forms throughout the district for many years. 

Debbie Reilly, the Director of the Family Center, thinks that student choice in learning should begin at a young age. 

“It’s through the children’s interests that they are learning, not through a curriculum they’re going page by page in,” Reilly said. 

She recalled an instance where students found a feather on the playground. The teachers encouraged the students’ discovery of the feathers through various activities such as drawing and writing.

Students researched and studied feathers for weeks, as teachers engaged them in math, writing and art activities based on a common interest. Engaging students around real-world topics, such as nature, helps students to connect in-school learning to the outside world. 

It creates a thinking that learning is constant, not just something that you do at school,” Reilly said. 

“It creates a thinking that learning is constant, not just something that you do at school.”

— Debbie Reilly

This constant learning moves with students from their pre-school years into elementary school. Glenridge Elementary school first graders are engaged in a collaborative writing project, with students given partners from another homeroom. This helps students to build both written and spoken communication skills, as well as develop new social connections and pursue their interests. 

“It’s not just superficial, or things that I care about. It’s got to be what they care about,” said Alicia Schuh, Glenridge first-grade teacher. 

Outside of special projects, elementary students are given choice within their daily math lessons. Students are given sheets with options of how to enhance, practice and demonstrate their learning through partner activities, individual worksheets and review videos. 

Teachers assign each student “must-do” activities. After they complete these assigned items, teachers then allow students to choose additional tasks based on their own assessment of their needs, building independence and personal awareness about their learning.

While elementary school curriculum is much more flexible, middle school is typically viewed as a time for school to tighten up and for students to practice study skills and work habits that they will need in high school. But WMS eighth grade science teacher Barry Crook believes that eighth grade is the perfect time to give students the freedom to explore intellectually. 

“Part of eighth grade is this chance to explore things that you can’t necessarily explore in high school because once you get to high school the grades, the GPAs, the credits start, and there are advanced classes, and then there are AP classes and all that stuff starts to matter,” said Crook. 

Barry Crook’s students explore their passions daily through open-ended labs and projects, but most prominently through their city projects. The only prompt given is that students have to design a sustainable city, as part of their learning on climate change. With this open-ended framing, student projects are unique and innovative. 

“Students ask ‘Can I build mind maps with pop-ups? Can I instead build a city for 30 million people? Can I build one for 10 million people? Or does it matter if I build mine on the water? Or does it matter if I build underwater? Or could I build a mine on the moon?’ All of those choices lead to interest,” said Crook. 

This theme of intellectual independence can also be found in CHS English classes. Students in both Honors American Literature and AP Literature complete author’s projects, where they craft essays and presentations about an author of their choice. The preparation for these products is intensive, with students reading several books by their author and hundreds of pages of academic, critical essays about them. 

“Students are not going to be interested or like enthusiastic about their learning unless they’re learning about something they’re truly passionate about.”

— Claire Taussig

CHS senior Claire Taussig is studying American author Willa Cather for her project. She believes the choice of author and topic in this assignment encourages students to put forth more effort. 

You pick your author, you pick your books. Students are not going to be interested or like enthusiastic about their learning unless they’re learning about something they’re truly passionate about,” said Taussig. 

Freshmen in College Prep Geometry developed similar skills around intellectual independence during self-paced, computer-based units in their math classes last year. Students worked independently through instructional videos, practice tasks and progress checks on their laptops, while teachers circulated to support. Teachers chose specific units for this learning model later in the school year, after class cohesion and familiarity between students and teachers had already been established. 

“We tried to be intentional about the units that we used it for, like proof writing, which requires a lot of individual feedback,” said College Prep Geometry teacher Spencer Hollenbach. 

When teachers teach in a whole class manner, struggling students with questions may be left behind, and students who master material easily may be bored. This self-paced method increases the efficiency of a class. 

“I really liked it so I could keep going at my pace and not have to wait for others,” said CHS sophomore Ally Ord, former College Prep Geometry student. 

Hollenbach also believed that this method decreased pressure on students to perform and master content at a particular pace set by the teacher. 

“The way you might typically learn math is you have to meet a certain pace and rigor of the classroom, which can be a stressful thing,” said Hollenbach. 

Mastery of concepts builds student confidence, which drives them to continue learning. 

However, the individual nature of these computer-based lessons presented a major challenge, each student was in a completely different place on the lessons. This created internal stress for students who felt they had to catch up to classmates moving more quickly than them.

Ord described a spreadsheet posted on the smartboard at the front of the classroom showing each student’s pace and progress through the unit. 

“The spreadsheet made me feel a little insecure because I was feeling like I was going slower than everyone when I when in reality, I was going at a normal pace and I understood what was happening,” Ord said. 

The individuality of pace also isolated students from each other. Students paced on different activities were less likely to collaborate or engage with each other, instead just engrossed in their own laptops.  

Everyone was off in their own world doing different stuff,” Ord said. 

Both Hollenbach and Garganigo acknowledge this lack of connection as a flaw inherent to increased student independence in the classroom. 

“With this model, it is really hard to get students working with one another,” said Hollenbach.

Sometimes empowered learning is everybody together. But a lot of times there’s a lot of everybody doing sort of what they need,” said Garganigo. 

Programs in the CTE, or Career and Technical Education department of CHS, encourage students to develop communication and leadership skills. These programs range from full year, school day classes, to more casual clubs, all centered around providing real-life learning opportunities for high school students. 

Scott Kreher had been teaching English at Parkway North High School for 13 years prior to coming to teach yearbook full-time at CHS this year. 

He believes the choice element of the yearbook helps increase student buy-in and interest. The yearbook is an elective class and editors can choose whether they would like to edit advertisements, design, write, or take photos. 

“I feel like when I’ve tried to do this [empowered learning] in English, it feels somewhat forced. If you’re in video production, if you are in yearbook, you chose to be in there,” said Kreher. 

Another CTE program, Speech and Debate is a mostly student-run organization, students host weekly meetings with upperclassmen captains who teach them how to prepare for and compete in their particular events. 

Kim Zustiak, Speech and Debate coach and Video Production teacher oversees program logistics. This past November, Zustiak oversaw the team’s annual CFC or Clayton Fall Classic tournament. While much of the organization was her responsibility, strong student leadership ran most of the large event, including Speech and Debate President Alice Wang.

You guys (students) are the ones kind of steering the ship, and we’re just making sure you don’t steer it off course,” said Zustiak. 

Clayton High School’s participation in programs like DECA (Distributive Education Clubs of America) and Catalyst aims to help students engage with real-world topics in a meaningful way by providing them with, among other opportunities, community-sponsored internships. 

Justin Hildebrand, Business Teacher, DECA Sponsor and Catalyst Advisor, uses an atypical approach with his classes. 

CHS Seniors Maci Klaus (left), Paige Conrad (center), and Harry Pardo (right) participate in Catalyst service-learning activities. (Justin Hildebrand)

“We’ve been trained to think that the grade is the most important thing to come out of school. Right? So if I got an A in a class, that means I did well in that class. And sure, that means that you excelled in the class, but did you actually learn anything you’re going to apply to life later on?” Hildebrand said. 

One of the qualities he tries to instill in all of his students is professionalism, “professionalism is something that you can’t teach,” he said. “You can talk about what it means to be a professional but looking like a professional and actually acting professionally are two entirely different things. And you don’t learn that until you’re actually doing it and you’re seeing other people do it.”

Another important quality that Hildebrand tries to foster in his classes is independence. By allowing students to choose what to learn further about gives them agency and independence which gives them confidence. 

“It’s not something that they specifically track down and so the fact that they can go out and find their own internships, gives them a chance to find something that really interested in but also it gives you that sense of like accomplishment, and like look, I did this I found this I set this up and so I’m gonna put more effort into it as opposed to like, the feeling that it’s just an assignment,” he said.

Despite the district’s new focus on the skills of leadership and communication from the empowered learning initiative, programs such as yearbook, speech and debate and DECA have existed for decades. 

Empowered Learning is sometimes also used to achieve another purpose of the strategic plan, to help students feel connected to the school community. 

In Amanda Ketzer’s second-grade class at Captain Elementary school, students lead circle discussions about topics that are important to them and their classmates. 

 “We’ve set the circle discussions up in such a way where the students know that they’re a part of this community and that they can advocate and share ideas and make decisions about themselves,” Ketzer said. 

Administration shares this goal of using Empowered Learning to create connections to school. 

Janet Crews is the Instructional Coach for CHS and WMS as well as the District Coordinator of Professional Development, supervising how teachers are educated about Empowered Learning, particularly at the secondary level. Crews believes the ultimate goal of the initiative is to strengthen student connections to school and learning. 

“I hope that kids would want to be here, they would see the purpose.”

— Janet Crews

I hope that kids would want to be here, they would see the purpose,” said Crews. 

According to the CDC, feeling connected to school decreases the risk for young people to experience poor mental health, violence, and substance abuse. Giving students input into their community and opportunities to collaborate and form connections allows students to feel more connected to adults and peers at school. 

Garganigo created the Empowered Learning initiative with the intention to give students independence and agency, both aspects of learning that cannot be measured by grades and test scores. Some teachers hope that with this new initiative will come a decreased emphasis on grades and standardized testing, which along with community connectedness will decrease student stress. 

High school Gifted Specialist and District Gifted Curriculum Coordinator Megan Margherio runs her classroom very differently than a traditional one. Students are given the opportunity to explore and develop solutions to complex problems, either individually or in groups. Margherio believes that standardized testing and grades put undue pressure on her students, and that they feel discouraged by education’s singular focus on grades and tests. 

“I would love to see the removal of that high-stakes testing kind of environment where that is so much of the driver of what education looks like,” said Margherio. 

Hildebrand also believes that a singular focus on grades and tests is out of step with what students will experience in the workforce. 

In the real world, you’re not graded, you’re evaluated. So it’s all about growing as an individual and as a professional,” said Hildebrand. 

The Empowered Learning initiative has made no changes to standardized testing or grading policies. 

Empowered Learning can also impose additional demands on teachers. Many empowered learning models require the creation of additional lesson plans, which requires more work on the part of teachers.

But the administration is attempting to alleviate this issue by encouraging teachers to share lesson plans across grade level or content area teams, providing time for lesson planning during the summer or professional development days, or during half-day releases, removing teachers from the classroom to give them additional time to write curriculum. Garganigo maintains that empowered learning is not an additional stress on teachers. 

It’s not about doing more,” said Garganigo, “it’s about thinking differently.”

“It’s not about doing more, it’s about thinking differently.”

— Milena Garganigo

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