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Educators go back to school at Constructivist Conference

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CANTON — The Institute for Learning Centered Education is holding its 21st Constructivist Design Conference for Educational Improvement this week in St. Lawrence University’s student center.

Energy filled the building as 39 teams from schools all over the state and even one group from California collaborated with one another to conceptualize and learn methods of constructivist teaching and how to incorporate those theories within their districts.

“The conference is designed to promote and teach about constructivism, which is an educational philosophy that people learn better when they’re directly engaged in helping to build their own learning rather than sitting and receiving knowledge from an expert who stands and delivers,” said Stephen J. Todd, assistant superintendent of instruction at St. Lawrence-Lewis Board of Cooperative Educational Services. “This whole conference is built on the premise that participants are there engaging in constructivist learning of their own while building experiences that they want to take back to their school.”

Mr. Todd said St. Lawrence-Lewis BOCES, which represents 18 school districts, is helping to sponsor the conference.

“We’ve seen participation among our districts go up pretty significantly this year,” he said. “Last year we had 13 teams from our 18 school districts participating. This year we have 22.”

Don E. Mesibov, co-founder and director of the Institute for Learning Centered Education, Potsdam, said the week-long conference has grown this year because of the state’s new evaluation system for teachers that incorporates constructivist theories.

“The difference between being satisfactory and being the top rating is whether or not you’re letting students drive the lessons,” he said. “Teaching constructivist theory was going against the grain when we started, but now teachers are being required to teach the way we have been trying to model for years.”

Each team determines a specific task they wish to accomplish by the end of the week, such as curriculum development, school improvements or strategies to implement constructivist practices in the classroom.

Mr.Mesibov pairs up expert facilitators to work with each team according to their task.

Frank Pickus, Saratoga Springs, has been a facilitator at the conferences for 12 years. As assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction for the Gloversville School District, Mr. Pickus has been acting as a conference facilitator for the Canton administration team two years in a row.

“It’s interesting for me to see the kinds of things that other people are dealing with that are similar to what we have,” he said. “That’s what keeps me coming back because, even though I come here to help other groups, I always come away having learned something.”

Joe D. McDonough, principal of Banford Elementary School, Canton, and Mark T. Passamonte, principal of Hugh C. Williams High School, Canton, are part of the Canton administrative team of five. They said that they come to the conference each year because they value having five uninterrupted days to work on a number of tasks. This year their team is working to design a comprehensive Common Core State Standards plan to implement within their schools.

“Just having the amount of people here all working on similar topics gives us the ability to have conversations with people who are in the same situations, and gives us stories and ideas to bring back to our schools,” Mr. McDonough said.

A team of seven that traveled from California to attend the session included representatives from California State University as well as Sycamore Academy of Science and Cultural Arts in Wildomar. Their task for the week was to create a West Coast Constructivist Conference for next year.

“If we were to offer a conference on the West Coast, we would have a wider impact on student success than just word of mouth,” said Dionna E. Fitch, teacher and curriculum specialist for Sycamore Academy. “The unique thing about this conference in comparison to other conferences is that it’s like a mirror image of what a constructivist-based class would look like.”

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