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Wyoming teachers fostering student autonomy and engagement in ongoing, experimental initiative

The RIDE Initiative, established by Gov. Mark Gordon's Office in 2021, aims to breach barriers to learning and search for new avenues to student-centered teaching.

Keri Melmed with 2Revolutions addresses educators and Wyoming State leaders Thursday, Feb. 22 at the "Celebration of Learning" event for LCSD1 inside the district's administration building. (Jared Gendron/Cap City News)

CHEYENNE, Wyo. — Wyoming educators are carving out new pathways for students to engage with their education. For several teachers, this process has been uncomfortable, chaotic and maybe confusing. However, they believe it’s leading to much-needed growth.

On Thursday, educators and Wyoming state employees attended a “Celebration of Learning” event in Cheyenne’s LCSD1 administration building to see the results of five local teachers’ experimental RIDE Initiative projects. The program, which stands for Reimagining and Innovating the Delivery of Education, was established by Gov. Mark Gordon’s Office in 2021. The program’s purpose is to support more student-centered learning and assess opportunities for state-level policy changes in education.

Members with the Wyoming Department of Education, University of Wyoming, State Governor’s Office, Laramie County District 1 Board of Trustees and other school districts were present at Thursday’s event. They’re using the RIDE Initiative as a launch pad to develop new entry points to learn.

“I think this work has really been about listening to districts and where they are and trying to customize a program of support to take them to a more student-centered approach,” said Adam Rubin, founder and CEO of 2Revolutions, an education design organization facilitating development of the RIDE Initiative.

Adam Rubin, founder and CEO of education organization 2Revolutions, discusses the goals of the RIDE Initiative on Thursday, Feb. 22 at the “Celebration of Learning” event for LCSD1 inside the district’s administration building. (Jared Gendron/Cap City News)

Rubin wants to cultivate a forum for educators and state officials so they can discuss approaches to teaching that grant students more control over their education. Specifically, he and his team are striving to discover a balance between standardized tests and performance-based coursework.

Rubin and his team are working with nine Wyoming school districts to experiment with RIDE pilot teaching projects. Most of the districts have already held their own “Celebration of Learning” events. Aside from LCSD1, the other eight districts are:

  • Albany County School District 1
  • Converse County School District 1
  • Lincoln County School District 1
  • Park County School District 6
  • Park County School District 16
  • Sweetwater County School District 2
  • Teton County School District 1
  • Weston County School District 7

“We’re working in a paradigm right now that, as educators, we know is not necessarily the best for kids,” Keri Melmed, education coach with 2Revolutions, told Cap City News. She and other educators want to institute teaching frameworks that promote interdisciplinary education. “So how do we create the conditions in our classrooms to prepare kids for the future that they want to create for themselves?”

The path forward to change the status quo in public education is a long one, several education staff members say. But the reward — for both the education process and student’s individual outcomes — is worth the effort.

“Their [students’] journey is just starting now,” said Jim Fraley, assistant superintendent of instruction for LCSD1. During his opening speech, Fraley said he hopes the initiative will allow students to feel more passionate and positive about learning.

“Our K–12 is not finished. It’s just the springboard — it’s the diving board into a world that we’re going to hopefully provide for them. Their future, not our past.”

LCSD1 Superintendent of Public Instruction Jim Fraley talks with educators about the future of learning in Wyoming on Thursday, Feb. 22 at the “Celebration of Learning” event for LCSD1 at the district’s administration building. (Jared Gendron/Cap City News)

Project takeaways

The five teachers, all Cheyenne high school educators, shared their pilot projects, how they designed them and the lessons they learned. A majority of the speakers discussed how standardized tests aren’t always effective tools for measuring knowledge learned; this is the reason they worked with students to develop assessment-based projects. As the educators explained, this allowed teens to more meaningfully engage with course material and demonstrate knowledge accrued over time.

A major theme educators discussed was taking risks and teaching in new ways that require moving out of one’s comfort zone. Liz Edington, a psychology teacher at Central High School, had her students work on diagnosing mental disorders as if they were psychologists. She said one of her pilot project goals was to get comfortable being uncomfortable and doing tasks differently.

“I feel inspired from what I’ve heard from Mr. Fraley today that this is what we’re going to do to move forward,” Edington said during her presentation. “I’m also a little nervous, but it’s going to be worth it. I’m gonna sit in that discomfort, because that’s how we grow.”

Another focus the teachers reflected on was student mindset and how they could tap into a wider range of self-expression and choice. For instance, Truman Essex, a social studies teacher at South High School, allowed his students to take tests with open-book notes. As part of his project, students researched and diagnosed psychological disorders for assessments. On these tests, Essex was more concerned about observing a student’s thought process and the quality of their explanations rather than grading an answer’s accuracy.

Shannon Hall, an East High School teacher, had students come up with allegories with World War II. The teens had the choice of making a poem, song, drawing or story that conveyed the messages they desired to express. Another teacher, Danielle Michael with Triumph High School, centered her project around the Civil Rights Movement. Her students designed memorials based on nonviolent protests and researched existing memorials to form the blueprint for their own creations.

The Cheyenne teachers are also concerned about how well their course units carry over to real-world skills that employers value. Tom Bradley, a history teacher at Central High School, said he assessed students based on demonstrable skills like analysis and vocabulary. Hall, too, said she prompted students to collaborate with one another for their allegories. She wanted to see them demonstrate 21st century skills like communication and adaptability.

Shannon Hall with Cheyenne’s East High School presents the results of her RIDE Initiative pilot project to other statewide educators Thursday, Feb. 22 at the “Celebration of Learning” event for LCSD1 at the district’s administration building. (Jared Gendron/Cap City News)
Tom Bradley with Cheyenne Central High School shows educators his course rubric Thursday, Feb. 22 at the “Celebration of Learning” event for LCSD1 at the district’s administration building. (Jared Gendron/Cap City News)

Next steps for RIDE

The RIDE Initiative is part of a multi-year process of redefining education, Wyoming Superintendent of Public Instruction Megan Degenfelder said. So far, she has attended two “Celebration of Learning” meetings and has noticed how the districts discussed different lessons and themes.

“It’s been really neat to see the differences” in RIDE initiative project discussions and takeaways, Degenfelder told Cap City News. “I think that’s what makes this pilot program so powerful, is that it’s not one size fits all — that we have allowed districts to keep autonomy. We believe in local control in Wyoming.”

Employees with the Wyoming Department of Education, University of Wyoming, State Governor’s Office and Laramie County District 1 Board of Trustees listen to a presentation on a RIDE Initiative pilot program Thursday, Feb. 22 at the “Celebration of Learning” event for LCSD1 at the district’s administration building. (Jared Gendron/Cap City News)

Education leaders are also exploring opportunities at the state level to reduce regulations, which will help address barriers to learning, Degenfelder adds. The effort is part of a larger systematic change that won’t happen overnight. For instance, she and other educators at the event want to reassess how students accrue credit, which is typically tied to the amount of time students attend classes.

“We’re a big ship,” Fraley with LCSD1 said about the state education system. “It’s hard to change a cruise ship, but it’s easy to change” the direction of a raft.

All Wyoming school districts currently involved with RIDE will come together for a statewide “Celebration of Learning” event on May 3 in Riverton in Fremont County, Rubin said. Degenfelder said other districts will eventually participate in the RIDE Initiative. News on the initiative’s expansion will be announced in the coming weeks, she said.