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Sheryl Holle says that keeping kids interested in their studies helps them to learn. She teaches 4th and 5th graders in Ridge Road Elementary School’s Integrated Day program. (Photo by Nathan Hughart/The Courier | Buy This Photo)
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Sheryl Holle has been teaching in the Integrated Day (ID) program for most of her last 17 years in the North Haven School District, but her familiarity with the 45-year-old program goes back farther than that— she started out right where her kids are today.
From 3rd to 6th grade, Sheryl was an ID student at Ridge Road Elementary School, where she is now a 4th and 5th grade teacher in a multi-age classroom.
“I definitely think it helped mold me,” she says.
She graduated from Clark University with a business degree but knew the career wasn’t for her. When she heard about a program starting up at Southern Connecticut State University led by the woman who pioneered the North Haven ID program, Sheryl had found her career.
The program puts two age groups together, 4th and 5th or 2nd and 3rd, for project-based learning alongside traditional classroom elements.
The ID program also runs for Kindergarteners and 1st graders, though those age groups were recently split into separate classrooms.
“[Students] can choose projects to study based on their desires, their interests,” Sheryl says. “The goal is that if the kids are interested in what they’re learning, they’re going to learn more rapidly.”
Students in the ID program have a lot of freedom to choose what they want to learn about. In Sheryl’s classroom, a board shows the topics her students have picked. They range from subjects as broad as “galaxies” to interests as narrow as “slime” and as exotic as “Norway.”
Because the kids are allowed to research based on their interests, Sheryl says they work diligently to learn about the details of even the most mundane topics.
“It’s a little bit more report-oriented, notetaking, all of those skills that we’re teaching them, but they get to do that through their own topic,” Sheryl says.
With everything in the world for students to choose from, project-based learning is more about learning to research and ask questions than it is about the actual content.
“If you know how to answer questions, then you can find the information wherever,” Sheryl says.
When the program started, students had to rely on book research. Now, part of teaching the students to find the answers to their questions is about teaching them to use the Internet—effectively—via school-supplied Chromebook laptops.
“They think they can really just look at Google and just ask whatever they want the answer to,” she says. “That’s not the way it works.”
Because the students are all working on different things, everyone in the classroom has a chance to learn from one another, and in this case “everyone” includes Sheryl.
“One of the things I love about teaching ID is I don’t have all the answers either, so I learn right along with the kids,” she says. “My sister always tells me that I always have knowledge of the most unique facts.”
ID students throughout the school meet weekly on Fridays to talk about their projects and what they’ve learned. Sheryl says this is in part to keep kids interested and inspired by what their peers are doing.
Sometimes, the kids’ projects are more teacher-directed to fit in with certain curriculum items. For example, during a social studies unit on westward expansion, students researched topics like the Louisiana Purchase, ghost towns, and the roles of different pioneers.
“They got to still choose what topic they wanted to focus on and then we had a big presentation together,” she says. “Then they all learn from each other.”
The mere fact that students spend two years in the same classroom integrated with two grade levels offers an important exchange of information.
“The fact that there’s 4th and 5th graders, you spend one year kind of getting mentored by role models and you spend the second year being the role models,” Sheryl says.
This means that half of her students come into Sheryl’s classroom knowing its rules and routines and the other half learn quickly.
Cutting down on that setup time at the beginning of the year helps to get learning started, but teaching two grade levels their own curriculum can sometimes be a challenge.
“Our coordinators are working really hard to mesh the two [curricula] together,” Sheryl says. “It’s definitely a work in progress every year because as we get new curriculum, things always change.”
Sheryl thinks that it’s worth it in the end. Her students leave for middle school with the research skills they need to succeed.
“To me, when kids are really invested in what they’re learning, there’s nothing better,” Sheryl says.
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