Innovative Summer School Class Helps Students Succeed, Together

Students working on presentations at Central Middle School. From left: Edward Hazelton, Draven Maynard, Alissa Steinbich, and Kayleigh Godbee. Photo courtesy of Aura Beatty.
Students working on presentations at Central Middle School. From left: Edward Hazelton, Draven Maynard, Alissa Steinbich, and Kayleigh Godbee. Photo courtesy of Aura Beatty.

What happens when you throw a mix of middle school kids who all learn at different levels into one class then hand them a couple of college-level texts? An innovative, collaborative approach to teaching that gets students to pay attention. That’s what happened at a summer school class at Central Middle School.

Listen now:

Soon-to-be ninth grader Draven Maynard didn’t choose to go to summer school.

“I failed social studies, and my mom said that I should go to summer school,” he admits. “I’m guessing as kind of a punishment rather than actual keeping up with classes, I guess.”

It’s the start of the second week and Maynard acts low-key, almost apathetic. He says forced writing isn’t his thing but for this summer….

“I like the writing class because it’s actually– most of the stuff that they are covering are things that I don’t mind writing about.”

The topic? Omnivore’s Dilemma–how do humans decide what to eat, especially in a world with factory farms, huge variety, and a changing food culture.

Two weeks later, Maynard’s apathetic front has trickled way. He’s taken over editing the PowerPoint slides for a group presentation on the merits of genetically modified foods.

“I’ve been the person who’s been going to each one and re-writing them to sound better, I guess,” he says while typing on his school laptop.

“He’s a hard worker,” chimes in Edward Hazelton, his new friend.

The pair had never met before this summer because they go to different schools. “I didn’t know them. I just imposed upon their group of friends,” Hazelton quips.

“He’s a good friend, though. Don’t worry,” Maynard assures me.

The students are a mix. Some are on the gifted track. Others have individual learning plans. Some just fly under the radar. But in summer school it doesn’t matter. Everyone has the same lessons, the same expectations.

The class is working from the young readers edition of Michael Pollen’s Omnivore’s Dilemma, though some kids are sneaking in chapters of the adult version on the side. They’re also reading articles that challenge Pollen’s arguments.

Teacher Aura Beatty says the material is sparking conversations. “And they don’t always all agree with each other, but they’re still talking and thinking about their world. And they’re making connections about their world and their role in it.”

Reading teacher Amanda Brueschke, who is collaborating with Beatty, says the high level of interest from the mixed up group of kids is pulling the disengaged students into conversations because they see value what they’re doing.

They’re also asking the students to read chapters from a college-level book about the history of uranium.

“And I have kids who are no where near that as far as their reading level, but they’re so interested because the other kids are talking about it,” Brueschke says.

The two teachers say their high expectations are helping the kids take ownership over their work and their group presentations. But some students, like Hazleton don’t really realize it.

“There’s always the freeloaders and then there’s the really hard workers and then there’s the middlemen,” he says, reflecting on typical school group dynamics.

He says he falls somewhere between the middlemen and the freeloaders, Maynard, the self-appointed group leader, doesn’t see Hazleton that way.

“He does try,” Maynard says assuredly as Hazleton chats with another classmate. “And we really appreciate it. He’s a problem solver. He thinks of things that could help him do better work, and I think it’s a good trait to have.”

Though the material is complicated, Maynard thinks its good for everyone.”I think everyone of every variety can be in this class and actually learn something.”

But some students, like Madison Hill, will never agree. She says she would never take a class like this again.

“I actually don’t like language arts,” she confesses, though she tests very highly in the subject. “I mean, I don’t have a problem with it. It’s just not my thing.”

Anchorage Middle School Summer Academy ends this week.