Nov 262015

By Lindsay Steele
The Catholic Messenger

FORT MADISON — Holy Trinity junior/senior high school students beamed while showing off their new 21st Century Classroom at an open house earlier this month. For months, the youths were busy planning every aspect of the space, from choosing chairs and benches for group work to polling teachers and students on what kind of technology they would find most useful.

Lindsay Steele  Maille Sheerin and Elle Rashid, both eighth-graders at Holy Trinity Junior/Senior High School in Fort Madison, use the video studio in the school’s student-designed 21st Century Classroom Nov. 18.

Lindsay Steele
Maille Sheerin and Elle Rashid, both eighth-graders at Holy Trinity Junior/Senior High School in Fort Madison, use the video studio in the school’s student-designed 21st Century Classroom Nov. 18.

“We call it the ‘Spark Room,’” said sophomore Maya Rashid. “We want new ideas to be created in here. You can really have imagination bloom while learning at the same time.”

Inside the classroom

The classroom space was carved out from two rooms – an unused classroom and adjacent library. The library has been moved to another part of the building. One side of the new classroom is intended for group work and presentations. This area contains six-sided, two-piece tables that can be rearranged depending on the size of the group using them. Monitors that easily hook up to iPads line the walls. A projector and screen are part of the setup. On the other side of the room are additional monitors and restaurant-style seating to accommodate groups of four to six, along with more pull-apart seating for larger groups. To aid students in developing possible career paths, the room also contains a programmable drone, a programmable Lego vehicle, 3D printer and a video station.

Teachers can reserve the room for group projects or other uses. Students appreciate the flexible seating options while doing group work. They are only allowed to use the space during school hours and for about an hour after school with a teacher’s permission. “It’s not a hangout space,” said Avery Malinski, a junior. “That wasn’t our intention.”

“We wanted it to be a place to learn,” chimed in Avery’s twin sister, Addie. Both girls were on the student team that helped plan the project.

Being progressive

Michael Sheerin, principal of Holy Trinity, believes that Catholic schools sometimes find themselves in a pattern of “catching up” to what public schools are doing. “We wanted to be a leader in education in southeast Iowa,” he said. “We wanted (other schools) to look at us instead of us looking to them.”

Sheerin, along with talented and gifted teacher Allison Arevalo, saw an opportunity in the idea of building a 21st Century Classroom after visiting a test room at Great Prairie Area Education Agency in Burlington earlier this year.

They took the idea a step further by involving students in the process of building the classroom. Students, including Sheerin’s daughter, Maille, were enthusiastic about the project. “We were like, ‘Let’s do this!’” the eight-grader said.

Seth Denney, instructional technology specialist for Great Prairie Area Education Agency, said few schools in the area have undertaken and executed such a project, let alone with students at the helm.

Learning life skills

A core group of about a dozen students at the junior/senior high school began the planning process by creating and distributing a survey asking students and teachers what they’d like to see in such a classroom and whether they thought it would be a good idea. The students spoke to teachers at an in-service, addressing any concerns. “We learned a lot about people’s natures and how to talk to them in ways they will understand and will make them feel good about what we are doing,” said Addie.

Next, the students made a presentation to the school board and helped the administration secure donations. Maille noted that making the presentation helped her become more comfortable with public speaking.

Initially the students had about $10,000 in donations to work with. Ultimately, individual donors, local businesses and organizations donated about $50,000.

The collaborative process that followed included budgeting, cost comparisons, choosing usable furniture and determining which pieces of technology to purchase. Arevalo said, “It opened up the kids’ eyes to things they hadn’t thought about before.”

Eighth-grader Blake Crabtree said he and others learned how to cope with setbacks along the way. “If something doesn’t work, you have to find another solution.”

Students said the collaborative process of designing the classroom will help them when they go to college and enter the workplace in the future. “There were definitely a lot of life lessons!” eight-grader Elle Rashid said.

An opportunity to explore

Eighth-grader Wyatt Hellman has an interest in engineering. Thanks to the programmable drone and Lego robot and a 3D printer in the 21st Century Classroom, he now has a place to indulge his interest and prepare for college. “(Hands on) is a good way to learn, and it’s cool for people to see that it’s not that hard to program things,” he said.

Maille said the school started an audio/visual club last year, but didn’t have a lot of technology to work with. The addition of a video station, complete with green screen and programmable backgrounds, is going to be a huge asset to the budding club.

Students involved with the classroom think there is potential for more clubs to form because of the technological tools and items available in the classroom. Maya believes the hands-on elements in the classroom will help students explore different fields and help them decide what they want to do as a career.

Maille said the classroom will continue to evolve as technology evolves, so that it won’t just be a “2015” space, but a continuously developing space made for the times.

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