PLAINFIELD – Eighth graders in Tabitha Galaty's Ira Jones Middle School science class tried to decide how much modeling clay to allocate to the Earth versus Pluto.
The students gazed at the paper cutouts of the solar system hanging from the ceiling and compared it to solar system pictured on the white board.
Galaty told the students to use the information they have and their own observations to make a modeling clay replica of the planets.
Last year, Galaty said, she would have given them each planet's mass, size and weight to use as they constructed their own models.
However, this year, teachers are encouraging and guiding students to solve problems for themselves as part of the new K-12 Next Generation School Science Standards implemented at the middle school level this school year.
The new science standards are one of several changes District 202 implemented in its middle school curriculum this school year.
The changes also include adding entry-level Spanish for seventh graders and shortening class periods to allow students to take additional classes.
The Next Generation Science Standards put the "doing of science" in students' hands, Galaty said.
Teachers are seeing early, encouraging signs of success already, said Paula Sereleas, Director for Middle School Curriculum and Instruction.
The new science standards were implemented in conjunction with a shift away from the hybrid block scheduling system the district adopted in 2008-09. District 202 implemented the middle school hybrid block schedule as part of the No Child Left Behind Act to focus on math and English.
Now students take science daily which supports inquiry-based learning better, Sereleas said. As well, middle school students now take science and social studies daily, which promotes shared responsibility of literacy and math standards that apply across all content areas.
The teacher and students aren't referring back to material they discussed several days ago. "Inquiry is happening as soon as kids walk in the classroom," she said.
Spanish in middle schools
This year, for the first time ever, seventh graders can also take the equivalent of the first semester of entry-level high school Spanish over the course of one school year.
If students take the second year in eighth grade (the equivalent of the second semester of entry-level high school Spanish) they can earn high school credit and be placed into High School Spanish 2 as freshmen.
New middle school Spanish teachers Jessica Froidcoeur and Rebecca Renaud agree middle school is a great place to introduce a foreign language.
The expectations for the middle school students taking Spanish is high because the two-year program will translate into high school credits, Sereleas said.
And no students have dropped the class so that's a good initial indicator of success, she said.
Froidcoeur and Renaud split their time between John F. Kennedy and Timber Ridge middle schools. They use a variety of teaching techniques to help students absorb the new language.
Froidcoeur has her students sing a song to learn the capitols in South American countries.
Renaud wants to bring in speakers who can show students about a particular Spanish culture.
Offering Spanish in middle school helps students prepare for the faster pace of high school, Froidcoeur said.
The goal is also for students to be comfortable enough with Spanish to be able to converse with a native Spanish speaker, which could be important in the near future. The United States Census Bureau predicts that Hispanics will be the majority U.S. population by 2050.