PROVIDENCE, Rhode IslandSecond-grade teacher Marcella Weinberg starts each school year with walks around the Elmwood neighborhood, where Charles N. Fortes Magnet Academy inspires young learners to be curious. This unusual public school opened in 1997 in a former factory site. It capitalizes on its rich neighborhood history and up-to-date educational technology to promote learning through inquiry.
During a neighborhood stroll, Weinberg's students voiced an interest in the local fire stations. Providence also happens to house a firefighting training center. From the children's questions, a theme emerged: How has firefighting changed over time?
From that starting point, the year-long class investigation was off and running. By the end of the school year, the children were so knowledgeable about everything from fire helmets to fire trucks to famous fires in history, that they built a museum exhibit to showcase what they had learned.
"And by the end of the year, my students had even more questions," Weinberg says, reinforcing a key message that children take away from her classroom. "When you're learning, you ask questions. And you're never done."
Weinberg teaches a bilingual class of about 20 students, all native Spanish speakers. Families come from the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, Guatemala, and elsewhere. Her students use Spanish for reading and writing while building English vocabulary through oral language.
Fortes was launched as a technology magnet school, and technology continues to support learning in all kinds of ways. Weinberg's students get comfortable using laptops and an electronic whiteboard for classroom activities. She has developed programs that develop students' literacy skills through visual learning and multimedia effects. Weinberg has been an enthusiastic user of educational technology ever since she took part in professional development offered through the Rhode Island Teachers and Technology Initiative. She later became a trainer for the statewide program.
There is also lots of hands-on learning in this active classroom. During the firefighting project, for instance, students learned about the "bucket brigade" method of firefighting. "We brought a tank of water and conducted our own experiment," Weinberg says. "That was a lot of fun."
She also takes photographs to document student activities. The visual aids serve as prompts for writing activities. The class Web site is filled with a written and visual record of student learning.