Classrooms at the Intrinsic Schools Belmont Campus in Chicago don’t look anything like a regular classroom. No desks lined up in cemetery-style rows, no teacher standing up in front delivering 50-minutes of top-down instruction aimed at an average level of skill and ability.
Instead, each classroom is called a pod. It’s a carefully designed space divided into sections, and students rotate between instruction, independent work, group work, and discussion in class periods that, in the case of math and English, last for 90 minutes.
Math and English classes also have anywhere from two to three teachers—two general education teachers and one special education teacher—and every student has his or her own Chromebook, a slimmed down laptop that relies on a Chrome operating system to access classwork and homework via the cloud.
A primary goal of Intrinsic Schools is to leverage technology as a tool for personalizing and differentiating instruction and to make sure that different students at different levels are interacting as much as possible, said Solomon Lieberman, a spokesperson for Intrinsic Schools, a new cluster of charter schools that includes the Belmont Campus and four others slated to open in the next five to seven years.
But using technology for technology’s sake, he said, is not the point. “We definitely don’t consider ourselves a technology school,” he says. “We use it very clearly for two things—to achieve a differentiated classroom and for small group instruction. If technology is not solving an educational issue or supporting the mission of where we want to go with our model, we don’t use it, and we’ll remove it.”
In math, for example, it’s easier for students to work through problems using scrap paper. In other instances—close reading and writing, for example—technology has proven to be effective.
Intrinsic uses ThinkCERCA, which takes students through a series of online steps aimed at helping them research and write argumentative and informational essays. The first step is a short writing exercise to get them thinking about their own connection to the topic at hand—for example, how do social media and mobile technology affect everyday life?
The remaining steps include a reading assignment and a quiz followed by a screen equipped with highlighting and note-taking tools so students can select the information they need for their essays. Once that’s completed, another screen takes them through the process of writing an outline, and then a blank word-like document appears, one where students can cut, paste, and drag their earlier work to write the final essay.
ThinkCERCA also provides teachers and students with leveled reading assignments, so all students can address the same essential question while reading material tailored to their specific needs and skill levels.
In Bryan Podell’s 9th grade English class, ThinkCERCA is a standard part of teaching and learning. Podell, who co-teaches with fellow English teacher Ashley Haywood, uses a rotational model in which students spend a part of each class period working on their own in an area of the pod known as the coastline.
The coastline is where ThinkCERCA comes into play. That’s where Intrinsic 9th graders work on their ThinkCERCA essays, writing one roughly every two weeks while teachers monitor their work from afar. From the teacher dashboard, Podell says, he can see each student’s work and check in with them if they need help. “I can see their entire work,” he says.
Once students have completed the multi-step process, they come together at the end of the week to discuss what they learned in a socratic seminar. By then, Podell says, the students are well-informed; they bring something new to the table, they feed off of each other, and in the end, they have a very fresh and engaging discussion.
The genius of ThinkCERCA, Podell says, is that it brings several instructional strategies together in one easy-to-access place. It provides a diverse group of students with user-friendly reading and writing tools that are conducive to collaboration, relevant to their day-to-day lives, and differentiated to meet their individual needs.
Such digital tools also provide students with reading and writing skills that will serve them well in the long run. “I always tell them that ‘you’re going to go to college and have to write a paper where you’re going to have to be pulling from multiple texts, from different pieces of evidence, and organizing it,’” he says. “And they have the structure down.”