Teacher Spotlight: Catherine Dempsey

Quest Forward High Schools (QFHS) use Opportunity Education’s Quest Forward Learning to empower teachers with tools and resources that encourage students to engage deeply in their learning and take ownership of their growth and success. Catherine Dempsey, one of the exceptional teachers at QFHS in Omaha, shared some of the ways she engages students in active, skills-forward learning. As a science teacher and coach since 2021, Catherine brings her passion and experience to the classroom every day.  Here are 4 strategies Catherine shared and an example of one of the projects she uses in her sophomore science class.

1. Talk about the skills students are practicing

I always start with the basics – defining each skill we’ve identified as priorities at my school and how they are similar and different from other skills.  Throughout the school year, students and I discuss how the work they’re  doing helps them to practice these skills, and why these skills matter beyond school. We do this as a whole class, in small groups, and through individual discussions. Emphasizing the importance of skills and assessing their skills is one way I can show them how successful they are at learning, how much they have grown, and how they can improve in order to achieve their goals. 

Check out these resources that support teachers with talking about the skills students are practicing: Learning Skills Bookmark, Learning Skills in Conversation

2. Help students identify personally relevant skill goals

Each student I work with has a different starting point in their skill development. What is essential is that they take steps forward and improve consistently throughout their journey. My job is to help them identify and take those next steps. My science classes are about more than learning science. They help students practice skills that they’ll need in the future whether they decide to be a scientist or not.

One of my favorite aspects of Quest Forward Learning is how I can use it to make skills the focus and provide feedback to my students on their skill development. I’m able to indicate focus skills on activities for students, provide guidance inside the quests, and use the app to provide written and verbal feedback to my students.

3. Increase student agency

I start by getting to know each student and then finding ways to support each of their needs, goals, and interests.  For example, I focus on providing a variety of resources and learning materials for students to choose to use and interact with. Allowing students the flexibility to demonstrate their knowledge in different ways keeps them engaged and makes them feel comfortable asking for what they need in the future.

You can use this Active Learning Menu, Student Choice Menu, or Student Choice Board  to help you provide more agency to students.

4. Embrace project-based learning

In science, project-based learning is an important component, because it is engaging, active, and, often, fun.  We did a “Habitats” project where students learned about different aspects of biomes and how to create a viable habitat. Students chose different animals and plants to work with, and over the course of a month, they learned what was necessary for a habitat to thrive. For example, two students chose to raise Painted Lady caterpillars into butterflies. 

Students practiced so many skills during this project. They had to use planning skills to develop and complete their project. Students investigated by doing their own research, learning where these organisms live, what they need to survive, and how they could develop a suitable habitat. With each stage of their project, they were faced with more questions as they continued to make observations. For example, at one point, students were surprised to find  little furry debris left behind in a habitat. They had tons of questions as they wanted to find out if something was wrong, if this was natural, or if something else had happened altogether. As the students asked more questions, they needed to do even more research; the opportunities to develop skills kept coming.

Students also learned to identify patterns in habitats; as a result, they were able to draw conclusions about their own habitat, how to improve it, and the significance of what they were learning from their habitat projects. After a project like this, I ask students to summarize and document what they accomplished. This helps them to reflect on what they learned and what skills they developed.

Check out these resources that support project-based learning: Dear Carbon I Love You, Reinterpretation of Text.

If project-based learning is too much of a lift, which it understandably is for many teachers, consider adopting 1-2 elements of it as you design your next unit (PBLWorks refers to this as the “dimmer-switch approach to PBL”).

For access to the curriculum or additional resources, contact our team at teachers@opportunityeducation.org.

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