As students file into a freshman algebra class at Bowie High School they begin to notice that something is different. The round tables in the center of the room have folded tent cards with job titles such as “Resource manager”and “Task manager.” The outer tables in the room each have a tower of wood blocks.
“Miss, we’re playing Jenga?” asks Amber Macias, a student in teacher Celeste Cano’s algebra class. The room is buzzing with chatter and questions. The ninth graders begin to quiet down, but only after Cano loudly requests for them to “Be present.”
For Cano, the game Jenga is just one of the tools she uses to help convey algebra concepts with NewTech strategies. NewTech is a project-based learning program that is has been used by four El Paso Independent School District high schools for a few years. EPISD is re considering expanding the program to some middle schools and other high schools like Austin, Franklin and Irvin high schools.
“It’s more efficient because the kids don’t realize that they’re learning,” she said.
One by one students take turns picking Jenga blocks for their team. The blocks are numbered between 1 and 52 and pertain to a specific problem the students have been working on. Once the team collectively solves the problem, the appointed group leader raises a hand and the class stops to review the problem together. The group receives points only if they answer correctly.
Cano’s freshman algebra class is not the only class at Bowie using Newtech methods. Instructors at Bowie who teach other subjects such as biology, art, world history and English have also implemented the non-traditional approach.
New Tech was developed more than 20 years ago and is currently is being used in 32 high schools in the United States.
This is Bowie’s first year using the New Tech program. The school chose the teachers that would be participating in the program during the 2015-16 school year and sent them to Orlando, Florida, to a training course last summer. Cano says implementing the training has been exciting and demanding.
“We had a week crash course. Here’s New Tech! Go do it! It was literally one day to the next,” she said.
Bowie now has 126 students participating in the program by taking at least one class using NewTech methods. Students have the option to leave the program if they feel it doesn’t suit them.
“It’s pretty much a school within a school” Cano says.
NewTech incorporates many new elements that haven’t been seen in traditional classrooms. One of them is that each student takes responsibility for a specific role in group work. In Cano’s classroom, each table has four student managers, each of them taking responsibility for resources, communications, tasks or norms. Each manager has their own duties. For example, the resource manager is the only person allowed to get up and get any resources needed for any projects they may be working on.
“We show them the knowledge, but also show why it’s important to us. Where can it be shown?” Cano says.
Macias, a freshman in the NewTech program, said, “I really like how they give us more freedom. One highlight for her was when her geometry class was given scanners that students used to go all around the building to scan room numbers. The room numbers they scanned were answers to the problems they were given to solve.
NewTech uses a web-based environment, called Echo, where students and teachers can communicate outside of the classroom. It keeps track of how students are graded on participation, collaboration, critical thinking and more. It allows students to log in and check any of their missed assignments or the assignments they are currently working on.
With Echo, students can also video chat with teachers if they do not understand a certain problem. They can also message other students from the class.
“It’s quick responses to them and that way there is no excuse for anything… We’re trying to teach them to be adults,” Cano says. Echo also helps students become better prepared for college because they are able to quickly see any missed assignments online, according to Cano.
The school also remodeleded the entire second floor of Building A, one of the buildings where the NewTech curriculum is taught in. They added a whiteboard wall to each classroom giving the teachers a larger amount of space to work with. They also added windows to the walls along the hallways so that anyone walking by can see what is going on inside.
“In normal classrooms there are walls so people can’t see in, as if they are hiding something,” Cano said, adding that she is proud of what she teaches and likes viewing the methods other NewTech teachers are using. “At first we thought we were zoo animals but we all adjusted so fast,” she said.
While the new system may seem confusing at first and very different from traditional teaching styles, instructors remain hopeful that, as a result of the new approach, their students will be better prepared for college.
“Trust us there’s a reason to our madness” Cano said.
This year’s freshman class at Bowie will be the first NewTech graduating class in 2020.