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Birmingham Covington: Building a Student-Centered School

Educators take on the role of guides and motivate students to direct their own learning.

Young students are working at tables in a large multipurpose room with large colorful-shaped decorations hanging from the ceiling.
Young students are working at tables in a large multipurpose room with large colorful-shaped decorations hanging from the ceiling.
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A group of middle school students in full beekeeping gear examines one of the hives their school keeps in the woods nearby. “Ooh, there’s honey!” says one excitedly. “I see nectar!” says another.

These eager fifth and sixth graders from Birmingham Covington, a public magnet school in suburban Michigan focused on science and technology, are empowered to become self-directed learners through hands-on experiences in and outside their classroom.

Birmingham Covington’s student-centered philosophy is embedded throughout the curriculum, from third- and fourth-grade classes focused on teaching individual resourcefulness to an almost wholly independent capstone class in seventh and eighth grade called Thinkering Studio. Teachers at the school often say they’re “teaching kids to teach themselves” and rarely answer questions directly; instead they ask students to consider other sources of information first. Even the classrooms, with their spacious communal tables and movable walls, emphasize fluid group and peer-to-peer dynamics over teacher-led instruction.

The 650-student school offers grades 3 through 8 only and pairs grades together, following research that shows that mixing age groups accelerates learning. For more than a decade, Birmingham Covington’s students have ranked at or above the 95th percentile in overall performance for all Michigan elementary and middle schools.

By relentlessly focusing the classwork on student interest and independence, the educators at Birmingham Covington hope to transform students into active learners who will be successful throughout their lifetimes.

“When you get kids collaborating together, they become more resourceful and they see themselves as experts,” said Mark Morawski, who’s been the principal since 2013. "All of a sudden you’ve opened the ceiling to what kids are able to do, and they surprise you sometimes." 

Solving Real-World Problems: The Bee Project

Birmingham Covington’s unique bee project, like much of the coursework prioritized at the school, was driven by student interest. After reading an article about the extinction of honeybees in their science literacy class, fifth- and sixth-grade students said they wanted to do something to help.

In the class, which combines inquiry-based science and English language arts (ELA), students build their research, literacy, and collaboration skills through small group projects aimed at effecting lasting change around real-world problems. Working on a range of activities—from building a website to managing a real beehive—students become more active and engaged learners, teachers say.

“Science literacy is teaching our kids to be curious about the world around them, with the problems they identify,” said ELA teacher Pauline Roberts, who co-teaches the class. “Even as students, they are learning how to become effective agents of change. It’s bigger than the science content—it’s about helping to develop the citizens that we hope our children become.”

Teaching Resourcefulness

Throughout Birmingham Covington, both coursework and instruction push students to learn lifelong skills like independence and resourcefulness, which teachers encourage early on in the primary grades.

Third- and fourth-grade teacher Jessie Heckman says she empowers her students to become more resourceful by solving common problems with the support of their classmates. Instead of raising their hands when they have a question or encounter a hurdle, for example, Heckman’s students clip clothespins to their computers and fellow students circulate around to troubleshoot—a system she calls the help desk.

“Kids need to learn teamwork-based skills because every other class in any other subject that they have—third through eighth grade—requires them to work in different sized groups accomplishing different tasks,” Heckman explains.

Modeling Collaboration: Teacher Labs

Students aren’t the only ones at Birmingham Covington improving their collaboration skills—teachers also identify as a “community of learners” who use planned, peer-to-peer feedback to help each other raise student outcomes throughout the school.

The school’s voluntary Teacher Labs—facilitated by an instructional coach and organized around a clear, written protocol—enable teachers to reflect on their craft with support from their peers. Through the labs, small groups of teachers observe each other’s classes and then offer constructive feedback around a stated objective.

“We’re really asking teachers to step outside of their comfort zones,” said Roberts, who serves as the lead facilitator in the labs. “We are creatures who live behind closed doors. To experience being in someone else’s classroom is really powerful.”

Increasing Independence for Older Learners

As they near the end of their time at the school, Birmingham Covington seventh- and eighth-grade students are accustomed to self-reliance and problem-solving. They put these skills to use in Thinkering Studio, an elective class where they design their own independent learning projects, and Engage, a class focused on design thinking—a system of solving problems that follows the steps of inquiry, ideation, prototyping, and testing.

In Engage, teachers Roy McCloud and Mathew Brown guide students to work on various self-directed, team-oriented projects like designing a new sport for third graders or building a roller coaster. Their support and feedback direct students toward the right resources while encouraging them to dig deeper: Did students ask the right questions? Did they get the right information? Did they go to other groups for feedback?

In these culminating classes, as in the curriculum more generally, teachers act as guides rather than instructors, directing students toward helpful resources but ultimately insisting they solve their own problems.

This innovative, student-centered approach to learning—the bedrock of the school’s vision—takes the long view, helping students develop skills and interests they can continue to draw on after they leave the school. The school believes that this model better prepares students for real-world challenges, since modern workplaces are increasingly collaborative and involve complex, interdisciplinary problem solving.

“The ultimate questions we’re going to be asked by future employers is ‘Can this person work well in a team? Does this person have the ability to problem solve and critically think?’” said Morawski. "Because our students are more resourceful, they have more intrinsic motivation in the learning process and ultimately, are learning to be learners.”

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Kpasl's picture

This is an innovative idea, but I'm not sure how it would be implemented in districts with less financial means; bound with state mandated testing and required to teach specific curriculum.

BalancEdTech's picture

I started as a 6th grade teacher (all subjects) and later taught middle school social studies. Most of the ideas in Thinkering Studio and Engage have their roots in earlier pedagogical models. They don't require more money (though more options are available with more funding) and many elements can be integrated into classes with state mandated curriculum as I still do in my 7th/8th grade social studies class. You might start by looking for Sara Wilkie's work on "small shifts" or considering Harris & Hofer's learning activity types

nora's picture

Agreed. Much of implementing or thinking about the ideas in Thinkering Studio and Engage need professionals to think out of the box - not necessarily large infusions of money.

Clare Harwood's picture

This sounds like a wonderful idea. I would love to see students becoming their own teachers and learning from each other. However, I wonder how this could work in a public elementary school when teaching to the test is such a prominent factor. Are there any suggestions you have on trying to implement this within a public school that is so bound by these requirements of testing?

BalancEdTech's picture

Our school is bound by the same requirements as all Michigan public schools in terms of testing.
1) Build in student choice (even constrained choice) wherever you can.
2) Take existing activities and find ways to integrate technology -
3) Use Think-Pair-Shares or a Jigsaw approach to get the students teaching each other on a smaller scale
4) Try presenting assignments as mini challenges or challenges instead of preplanning and directing each step
5) Find a project made by someone else, modify it to fit your students/curriculum, you can still meet standards -
6) Try out a Genius Hour, a PBL project, a Challenge Based Learning project, etc. on a small scale
7) Listen to what the students say about any of the above, tweak it and try again ...

terence burger's picture

This is a great story and I wish that more schools operated this way. It is evident that the school prides itself in fostering critical theory and allowing students to become active citizens in their own education by allowing them to study their interests further through activities like the bee project. Far too often, schools focus on test scores rather than what students really learned about themselves and what is important in the world and you seem to realize that is morally wrong.

Allowing students to learn through inquiry-based lessons and having them focus on issues in their community or the world teaches them to be advocates and better learners of themselves. Paolo Friere wrote, "Any situation in which some men prevent others from engaging in the process of inquiry is one of violence;... to alienate humans from their own decision making is to change them into objects." Your classes are teaching students to become independent, understand their thought processes, and teach communication, which will be necessary outside of school.

I am interested in knowing a little bit more about the design of the lessons in your school. Is there a certain praxis or pedagogy that the school follows? I see that your school believes in teacher communication and professional learning communities, which is important for student and teacher success. What protocols does your school use for successful teacher collaboration and communication?

I teach 7th and 8th grade ESOL Reading in Georgia, and also incorporate research, literacy, and collaboration skills through small group projects, but enjoy dialogue and debate from my students on the issues in the book that relate to them which are often cultural. It is evident that the work your students are doing is relevant to them, but with demographic data of 83% White and only 5% free-reduced lunch, how does your school incorporate the need for multiculturalism and real-world poverty discussions when the students may not have the background knowledge?

Also, while your statistic of being ranked at or above the 95th percentile in overall performance for all Michigan elementary and middle schools sounds respectable, demographic data and being a school where students must be accepted, makes it a little bit easier to be in the 95th percentile. 47% of my school is Latino/a, 42% are Black, and 85% are considered low income. Your model focuses on the community, which is something my school desperately needs, but we also need to focus on multiculturalism. With multiculturalism, community advocacy, and lessons that allow students independence, an educational paradigm shift could occur.

I want to end this response with two questions, a response to BalancEdTech, and a request. My first question is how does your school get funding for such great activities? My second question is what do you do for students who have a solitary, rather than social learning style? My response for BalancEdTech is that you discuss Birmingham Covington is a lottery school, not a school where students need to pass tests to enter. Sometimes, schools make the lottery system very difficult to the point where only a certain type of person ends up being chosen for the school. I surely hope your school is not that way. My request is that you show my administration the work that your school does so that perhaps they have something in which to model the school vision.

Linda's picture

This seems just like a fantastic thought. I'd personally love to determine learners turning into their particular teachers and discovering from every single other. Even so, I wonder how this might perform inside a community elementary faculty when instructing into the take a look at is this kind of distinguished component. Are there any ideas you have on trying to employ this in a public college that may be so sure by these necessities of screening?

nora's picture

There is a push for personalized and individualized learning today. This is very difficult with large classes and without additional adults in the room. Technology can help students with researching questions that they are investigating, that they have chosen to study about a topic because they are interested in it. Here is the "but" - all of this requires earlier work on the part of the school and teachers in fostering the motivation in students toward self-directed learning and emphasizing learning how to learn. No teacher who has not experienced this type of context and how to foster the two skills that I mentioned above can jump into this kind of teaching and learning environment.

Eric's picture

This is a wonderful post! Very heartening to see real learning taking place in a school that is finding ways to work within the State mandated curriculum. It is also clear to see that the teachers/facilitators are fully engaged with the whole process making for a very rich learning experience. Well done!

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