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September 2014


Project CRISS training offered to Mukwonago Area School District parents

In Bonnie Honn's seventh-grade social studies class at Park View Middle School, groups of students created their own countries as they learned landform terms. There are 25 terms middle school students must know before entering high school. The students must correctly use the terms in their country, including appropriate longitudinal and latitudinal placement of land forms. Later, students will add cultural elements - religion, government, language and food - to their countries.

Students in Jodie Pease's seventh-grade science class work in pairs to match 28 cards labeled with 14 organelles and 14 functions. Once the correct pairs are made, students record the definitions in two-column notes. Students say the hands-on exercise makes it easier to learn the terms.

"You get a visual aid. You're not just reading it in a book," said Kylie Schumacher. "You get to explore it for yourself."

Both methods are part of CRISS (Creating Independence through Student-owned Strategies), a philosophy of teaching and learning adopted by the Mukwonago Area School District in 1993, which is designed to help all students read, write and learn more effectively. At that time, teachers voluntarily adopted the teaching philosophy, but since about 2008 the initiative has been implemented districtwide with all district stafftrained in CRISS strategies, according to Mukwonago High School teachers Jim Ferwerda and Casey Blochowiak who are two of six certified CRISS trainers in MASD.

Now for the first time, district parents will be able to learn CRISS principles and strategies in a parent workshop from 7 to 8:30 p.m. Nov. 12 in the MHS library. Parents will receive a flipbook for quick reference to the many CRISS strategies and will become familiar with principles to help support their child's learning at home.

In the classroom

Teachers say CRISS has changed the way they teach. Lessons are more student-driven, providing students with learning strategies they can do on their own and allowing them to find answers and apply what they learn through hands-on projects. Instead of lecturing, or giving lecture notes, students can complete notes on their own using different techniques learned through CRISS. Teachers become the "guide at the side, not the sage on the stage," as MHS science teacher Alison Wierzbicki explained.

In Wierzbicki's chemistry class, lecturing on electron configuration is replaced by a POGIL (Process Oriented Inquiry Learning) activity in which students learn electron configuration through the analogy of filling beds in a boarding house following the strict rules of the owner. POGIL is a learning model adopted by the college level to deliver more-difficult content at the students' pace. Wierzbicki balances POGIL modules with lecture, lab, reading assignments and assigned practice.

Since students must be active participants, they are more engaged. Wierzbicki has seen test scores rise as a result of CRISS. Students become more independent learners, taking many of the CRISS strategies they learned and eventually using them on their own.

"For many students, these strategies are just becoming part of their lives as students," said Pease.

As teachers implement Common Core Standards, which are part of the state's higher academic expectations, the big theme is independence, explained MHS Spanish teacher Nicole Marble.

"CRISS does just that, helps students develop their autonomy," Marble said. "Additionally, when CRISS is used in the classroom, students are being asked to problem solve, analyze and think critically. These skills are necessary to meet the standards, but more importantly to help students be college and career ready."

Arming students with CRISS strategies also helps students become more successful readers of science textbooks, which is another element of the state standards, Pease said.

"The students have learned about how the authors have set up the science textbook to make it user friendly," explained Pease. "This a great skill because for some students the science textbook is difficult to master."

At home

Honn said parents often comment at conferences that they are looking for ways to help their students prepare for assignments, become more comprehensive readers and help with test preparation.

"CRISS strategies could provide ways for them to do this," Honn suggested.

While parents typically help their children when difficulties arise, understanding how active learning and the CRISS strategies differ from passive study techniques better equips parents to help their children be successful learners, Wierzbicki said.

"Active studying techniques are a much sounder approach for better retention," Wierzbicki added.

As Pease explains, CRISS training will enable parents to have the same study strategies as their students.

"The parents and students will be able to speak the same language when it comes to completing homework and studying for tests," said Pease. "In addition, for adults, as life-long learners, the CRISS strategies are great tools."

When Marble talks with parents about their child's progress, one of the most common things she hears from parents is, "I can't help them. I don't know (for example) Spanish." While parents might not be able to help directly with class content, Marble explained, having an understanding of CRISS will provide parents with tools to "begin a dialogue with their child so that they are able to support their learning at home." When studying hours for a test doesn't earn the grade students expect, Marble tells parents and students "it is not the quantity that matters, but rather the quality of the studying."

"Parents that attend the Nov. 12 training session will walk away with quality study/learning techniques to foster in the home," Marble added.

Project CRISS for Parents

When: 7 to 8:30 p.m. Monday, Nov. 12 .

Where: Mukwonago High School library

Why: Learn strategies to help strengthen the home to classroom connection vital to student success

RSVP to Ann Murphy at

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