Jacob Nutter and Brysen Lewis huddled at a table in the center of their fourth-grade classroom pod, poring over the details of their "Rock Hounds" poster.
The partners had spent the week learning about rocks and minerals, picking and choosing the lessons they found most interesting and helpful to boost their understanding. Now they had to complete the unit with a presentation on natural resources that would demonstrate their knowledge of the standards teacher Lynn Slate had set forth.
Others in the class worked on videos, while still others prepared slide shows. Some worked individually, some in groups. Slate circulated among them, stopping to answer questions and determine whether her students were making sufficient progress.
"We can do it the way we want," Jacob explained. "We just have to follow the rules."
That’s the way classes look throughout Chester Taylor Elementary School, which uses a "learner-activated, technology-infused" approach to almost all its instruction. It’s proven so successful and popular that other schools in the Pasco County school district are adopting it, too.
Teachers prepare multiple activities of varying difficulties and styles for their students, then set the children on their way. The kids select among the materials, working at their own pace, while the teachers circulate, rarely gathering everyone together for lengthy lectures.
If a student feels confused, he can put his name on the classroom help board, and the teacher will get there as soon as possible. Better yet, the student can seek assistance from a classmate who might be on the "expert" list, or just figure it out for herself.
At the end of each unit, the students complete a project that incorporates their content knowledge, as well as their ability to communicate, solve problems and collaborate.
"When you take a standard and create a ‘felt need,’ they really want to learn," principal Julie Marks said. "These students are making choices about what they’re doing, how they’re going to do it. It teaches everything."
And it has turned Chester Taylor Elementary around.
Facing a state-imposed improvement plan in 2014, after receiving two consecutive D grades in the accountability system, Marks turned to what the school refers to as LATI. Her teachers knew the standards that students were supposed to learn, she said, but the students weren’t interested.
This model promised to fix that problem.
Four years in, the school has lifted its state grade to B, and it outperforms the state average in language arts, math and science, as well as in student gains in key areas.
"For me, I feel like I’m preparing students more for what they’re actually going to do when they get out of school," said Slate, one of the school’s first teachers to use the approach.
Music teacher Ryan Bintz taught in Lakeland for eight years using more traditional methods before joining Chester Taylor Elementary. The transition was tough, he said, because it takes a large amount of advance preparation of the myriad lessons from which students choose.
Now in his second year, Bintz said, "I really enjoy it. I don’t talk at them so much. ... They’re 100 percent engaged, and behavior is much better doing it this way."
Hearing of such successes, Bayonet Point Middle principal Shelly Carrino decided to give LATI a look for her school, which recently reopened after renovations as a STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) magnet school.
"I saw these kids, with little to no teacher direction, learning," Carrino said after a visit to neighboring Schrader Elementary, which employed the model for a few years but dropped it among curriculum changes. "It was just jaw-dropping to see the incredible work these students were producing, and the teacher was just the facilitator."
The school started LATI in 2016-17. Unlike Chester Taylor, which phased it in over time, Bayonet Point had all its teachers begin the effort at once.
Many still are working through the shift.
Robotics teacher Kate D’Avanzo said her first-semester class didn’t work out nearly as well as she had hoped. It was too focused on a computerized lesson module, with not enough choice, she said.
Relying on the philosophy of "failing forward," D’Avanzo rebooted for second semester with more small group sessions and more "purposeful" hands-on assignments in her units of air, land and sea automation.
Her class sizes have ballooned as a result. That’s a good thing, she said, because interest has grown.
"There’s no other way I’d want to teach," she said, as students worked at their computers. "This allows me to meet each kid where they’re at."
Seventh-grader Matthew Eggers figured out basic computer coding in a game, as a precursor to programming robots to move. He said the approach is more interesting than the sit-listen-and-take-notes system.
"The other way, it was just like preparing us for standardized tests, instead of getting us ready for the real world," Eggers said.
In a nearby math class, teacher Matt Babiarz moved around his classroom on his wheeled chair, checking in with students as they worked on algebraic equations. He then headed back to a small table.
"Small group mini lesson! Anyone for a small group mini lesson?" he asked. "Bring your notes."
As four sixth-graders gathered for review, others soldiered toward "expert" status. Grace Reiners was so far ahead, she was working on a virtual seventh-grade math lesson.
"It never stops you. You’re never held back," Reiners said. "People who need help, they get help. And people who want to advance, they have a facilitator. It’s really different."
Nancy Sulla, a consultant who developed the LATI model, said the concept makes sense for schools that are seeking to get students more involved in their education. Setting up goals based on real-world questions, and giving them multiple approaches to reach the end line, helps prepare children for life after school, she said.
Teachers can collaborate on ideas and methods, as well, as they help children solve problems rather than just spoon feed them information.
"We need students to be grappling with bigger problems to build that ‘felt need’ to learn," Sulla said.
If she had one concern, it was the state’s insistence that struggling schools improve in two years. If Chester Taylor Elementary had that time frame, it wouldn’t know if LATI worked or not.
Given time, though, several Pasco County schools are finding the learner-activated lessons the way to go. Count School Board member Colleen Beaudoin, a veteran educator, among the supporters.
"The kids know exactly what they’re supposed to be doing. They’re choosing what activities they want to do to learn the standards. They own it," Beaudoin said after a visit to Chester Taylor. "I was really impressed."
Contact Jeffrey S. Solochek at [email protected] Follow @jeffsolochek.