Bridger Middle School English language arts teacher Laurie Cadwell asks her class, "Would you rather ... see the future or change the past?"
After a short period to think about it, a little more than a half of her sixth grade students shift to the "past" side of the room, while the remaining students – except for two – meander to the "future" side.
She then asks the students to have a discussion with their peers about why they chose that side. "Turn and talk," she says, prompting a few minutes of talk amongst the students. Cadwell then asks the students to share why they chose the "past" or or the future," and they give their answers.
Two students remain in the middle, and she asks why they chose to remain there. "Because we like to stay in the present," one student answers. "That's interesting," she replies, "so instead of choosing both, you are choosing neither."
This is the present for the approximately 850 sixth grade students at Bridger, who are part of a new learning system called AVID being implemented this school year by the Independence School District.
AVID is an acronym for Advancement Via Individual Determination and is based on teaching "real-world strategies to accelerate their performance for success in college and life," according to a flier for the program.
AVID has been taught in various school districts starting with 32 students at Claremont High School in California and spreading to more than 2 million students nationwide. It features a more student-centered way of instruction that includes a more collaborative effort, problem solving and discussion rather than just rote memorization. The district wants to use this model to get students college ready and improve academic success and retention.
"It's been very positive," Bridger Principal Jeff Williams said. "I feel like we're developing a stronger student in multiple areas by the end of the year. ... Rote recall is just not prevalent within the classes. It's very collaborative with a lot more student engagement."
Cadwell, who also serves as an AVID site coordinator, said she has seen a difference in her students this school year, especially in the students who used to struggle.
"The ones who are using the strategy, you're seeing a huge difference," she said. "And our principals see that there's less calls to those classrooms for assistance and the kids are more engaged."
AVID has largely been used by other school districts as an elective to benefit a few talented students. ISD, though, is using the new strategy with all of its students in the sixth grade this school year. And it plans to spread it to the seventh and eighth grades at Pioneer Ridge, Bingham and Nowlin next year.
"We saw the benefits of it, and why would we isolate to only targeting a certain population of our students when we see that the benefits would help all of our students," Williams said.
Said Cadwell: "It used to be you only had that AVID elective, but the superintendent (Dale Herl) said, 'No, these are skills that everyone needs.' I wish that my own children had had it when they were in school because I have two in college now and boy, is it an eye-opener to walk onto that college campus and you just have to figure out what you're supposed to do – the thinking, the note taking, everything. We need to do this for every student."
The program has four basic tenets – instruction, systems, leadership and culture.
Systems, which deals with the organization, expectations and the continuity to support the program, was a focus at first, especially organization.
When the Bridger students started the school year, they were given a binder that had everything they needed and were taught how to organize it. Instead of having a primary desk, like in elementary school, it had to be mobile because middle school students move around the building to six different classes a day.
"To us, that replaces a student's desk (in elementary) so that they are prepared when they enter their classes," Williams said. "I will tell you that's always been a challenge for us because some students are not as responsible as others unfortunately, but having that systematically schoolwide has been a huge, huge support, a very easy tangible benefit that we're already seeing."
Teachers are noticing the difference as well.
"This is all new to (the students), so they don't see a difference," Cadwell said. "We, on the other hand, see a huge difference because we struggled with kids all the time coming to class prepared and some had some lower grades because of not having what they needed, and they weren't taking home what they needed to have at home. Now, by putting everything in that one binder and having consistent binder checks, they learn that organization that will help them later."
A big part of that organization is teaching the students how to take notes. Bridger is using the Cornell notes taking system – a highly organized way of taking notes that helps in studying.
"I would say one of the major differences from last year to this year is the way that we take notes," said Amanda Layman, another AVID site coordinator and mathematics teacher. "It's definitely more organized. ... I notice students asking more. They know how to study from their notes more, whereas before it was just, 'Write it down, I hope you remember.' There's definitely a lot more thinking involved."
The students and their parents have also noticed a difference at home.
"I feel more organized," said sixth grader Brianna Wyenandt. "I usually show my mom my notes, and she'll flip through my binder and she realizes how organized I am now since I've been using AVID. She said she notices that I help out a lot more at home because I feel more confident in myself. Using AVID at school, sometimes I stay a lot more organized at home too."
Added sixth grader Christian Crooks: "It's helped me a lot more because it's helped keep me more organized. And it's a lot of fun too."
AVID's instructional focus is based on another acronym, WICOR, which stands for Writing to learn, Inquiry, Collaboration, Organization and Reading to learn.
Sixth grader Brynnlee Gentry says the new system has helped her.
"There's less stress to doing the work," she said. "I like the 'Would you rather' stuff more than just sitting down, reading and memorizing something."
Eight staff members from Bridger went to AVID headquarters last summer to learn how to implement it and instructed the rest of the school's staff how to use it when they returned.
Now it's part of the culture of the school, Williams said.
"I think the culture part is the most visible piece," he said. "We want students to think beyond what their experiences are here, think about how their experience, their learning here is going to help them in their future and their preparation for college readiness. We want all students by the time they graduate to see they're setting that foundation here in sixth grade."