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An Unorthodox Plan to Pay Students to Write Curriculum Is Raising Achievement

Kate Maxlow admits to being the “first person in the room to get bored.”

As a teacher, she worked overtime to keep her elementary students engaged but privately wondered if some content is just destined to be dry.

She changed her mind the day her daughter—sick with a 100-degree fever—pleaded to be allowed to go to the last day of summer math camp. The 10-year-old had spent a week learning about patterns and writing code, and the work was set to culminate in a big escape-room challenge.

Maxlow, the director of curriculum, instruction, and assessment for the Hampton City schools on Virginia’s eastern shore, wished all students would be so excited by their classwork that a sick day would come as a bitter disappointment.

“I’ve always thought that schools need to do a better job of being innovative and engaging students, but I figured there were just some subjects you can’t make fun,” Maxlow said. “I realized then that it’s possible to do, even if it’s not easy or obvious.”

Maxlow, 43, began to overhaul the district’s curricula in 2016 to address lagging student achievement in the district, where about half of the roughly 20,000 students are economically disadvantaged.

After her daughter’s display, Maxlow realized that student engagement—and student voice—needed to be a central part of the work.

About seven years and hundreds of man hours later, Hampton City has curricula designed with significant student input and classrooms full of activities students hate to miss out on, in part because they created them themselves.

As part of the curriculum redesign—which district leaders credit with more than doubling the number of schools that receive recognition from the state for high achievement—Maxlow in 2021 helped create a student-internship program. High school students can apply for a job to help conduct annual reviews of the district’s curriculum and classroom activities.

The approximately 15 students chosen each year for the three-week internship provide feedback, insight, and sometimes lend a hand in crafting classroom materials. Some continue the work even after the school year has begun. In return, they are paid at least $19 per hour and have a unique experience to add to their resume and college applications.

Their contributions have helped shift how students learn in Hampton City and contributed to rising achievement in the district.

Interns have filmed videos for elementary schoolers, explaining and demonstrating math games, including one that asks students to put numbered cards in pairs that add up to 10. They have written passages explaining tricky concepts to younger children in terms they can easily understand, such as illustrating the differences between goods and services in the context of a Build-A-Bear Workshop. They’ve suggested books they’ve enjoyed that relate to a topic in the curriculum.

“These students, they’re doing really great and innovative things we probably wouldn’t have thought about or done without them,” Maxlow said.

As a child, Maxlow—the daughter of a military family that moved every few years—struggled to stay focused and engaged with schoolwork. She was the kind of student who would sit in the back drawing or writing poems because she was bored.

Maxlow, who began her career as an elementary school teacher in nearby Newport News, Va., said she was drawn to education as a profession in part because she wanted to give other students a different kind of experience than the one she’d had.

“I always wanted my classrooms to be the kind of place that was fully engaging for students,” Maxlow said. “Even when I was teaching, I really wanted to push the bounds of what school could be. I wanted it to be more like a home than a factory.”

After completing her doctorate degree, Maxlow took her skills districtwide as an instructional coach and director of professional learning in Hampton City schools in 2014 before taking over as the district’s director of curriculum last year.

Prioritizing struggling students’ feedback

Including students in the process of creating curriculum isn’t typical, but Hampton’s work could serve as a model for other districts looking to improve school culture and student outcomes, said Terri Martinez-McGraw, the director of the National Center for School Engagement, a nonprofit that partners with districts and community organizations to promote student engagement.

“We want to make sure that we’re teaching in accordance to students’ strengths and to their interests, otherwise we’re going to lose them,” Martinez-McGraw said. “Student ownership and student choice, even if it’s just knowing they’re impacting future generations, it really encourages a positive learning atmosphere where all of your kids can be involved and engaged.”

It’s important to include students of various backgrounds, rather than just high performers, Martinez-McGraw said. Straight-A students are successful under the current conditions, she noted. Even though they have an important perspective, it may be harder for them to relate to their struggling peers and identify what they need to succeed.

Hampton school district leaders don’t consider students’ grades in selecting interns. Instead, they ask students to submit two reference letters from teachers testifying about their work ethic and the perspective they can contribute.

Staff members make sure to reach out to a wide variety of students about the program during career fairs and through district newsletters, emphasizing that everyone can bring a valuable perspective to the table.

“We don’t just want the kids who are going to tell us what they think we want to hear,” Maxlow said. “We have some kids who are going to go on to be the cybersecurity engineers, but we also have some who struggle with school. That’s exactly why they want to give us their input—to help the kids who come after them.”

The opportunity to create more relevant and engaging lessons for children like her 9-year-old brother is what led Riley Brooker to sign up for the internship program.

Brooker, a senior, has written a dozen passages to complement grades 3-5 science and social studies curricula, focusing on replacing out-of-date and overused examples with more interesting stories on topics ranging from the scientific method to economics.

For instance, when Brooker was tasked with writing about ecosystems, she opted to swap out a passage focusing on the rainforest.

“That’s always the go-to, and it gets boring,” she said. Instead, she chose to highlight Antarctica and the seals, whales, and penguins that call it home.

“A lot of things that happen these days are run by older people because they have more experience, while younger people aren’t given opportunities to participate because they’re overshadowed by that,” Brooker said. “But we have insight and experiences to bring to the table, too, so it means a lot to me to have an opportunity like this.”

Putting ego aside

Despite its popularity throughout the district now, Maxlow said she met some resistance at first from staff members who thought focusing on student engagement as part of the curriculum redesign would come at the cost of complex and challenging content.

But once a handful of staff members committed to the process, other teachers saw that “this really is possible” and didn’t want to be left behind, Maxlow said.

“People seem to think that there’s this dichotomy—you can either have good test scores or you can have student engagement, but actually, the more your students are engaged, the better your scores are going to be, assuming that what you’re teaching is aligned with content standards,” Maxlow said.

It also took some practice for staff—Maxlow included—to see students’ feedback as a worthwhile critique, not an attack on work they spent months developing.

It’s hard to hear a lesson called bland, Maxlow said. But it is undeniably helpful when students offer more artistic visuals to jazz it up or make suggestions to clarify a grading scale they find confusing, she added.

Maxlow’s commitment to collaboration with students sets her apart from other educators seeking to amp up engagement, said Karen Sanzo, a professor and graduate program director of educational leadership services at Old Dominion University who has co-authored manuscripts and books with Maxlow.

Maxlow can be humble and really hear other people’s perspectives, Sanzo said. That encourages others to come forward with ideas that can improve learning experiences.

Maxlow has “mastered the ability to work with other people and create an environment in which people are free to be their best selves, without judgment or fear of saying the wrong thing,” said Sanzo, a 25-year veteran educator. “That is no small thing, and it makes both adults and kids want to be a part of what she’s doing.”

Student engagement and achievement go hand in hand

The biggest challenge to the district’s approach has come in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic, when students—in Hampton City and across the country—faced historic lags in achievement. The knee-jerk reaction was to revert back to a more “old school” approach to lessons, with an emphasis on test prep, Maxlow said.

To Maxlow, that was exactly the wrong response.

“After the pandemic, where kids were at home and could do things however they wanted, you can’t have them come back in to a factory model because they’ll rebel against that, and you’ll get this endless cycle of the kids not wanting to learn because it’s not interesting to them, and then they’re not learning so test scores are going down, so people keep doubling down on testing strategies,” Maxlow said. “Let them learn naturally as a part of engaging instruction, and your test scores naturally go up.”

Hampton City can point to evidence these efforts are working. In 2019, all the district’s schools were accredited without conditions in Virginia for the first time in district history, meaning they met state standards on a variety of measures, including academic achievement and college readiness. Four years earlier, prior to the curriculum overhaul and student-engagement work, just under half of Hampton schools received such recognition.

After the COVID-19 pandemic, some schools temporarily lost that top accreditation status, but as of the 2022-23 school year, all had regained it.

What’s more, the district has an on-time graduation rate of nearly 98 percent, about 6 percentage points higher than the state average, and a dropout rate of less than 0.5 percent, compared with the state average of 4.3 percent.

While those achievements aren’t solely attributable to adjustments to the curriculum, experts on student engagement are confident prioritizing students’ enjoyment is an often-overlooked factor in students’ success.

District leaders in Hampton City agree.

The work has deepened students’ trust of the district because leaders are taking the time not just to listen but to act on their feedback, said John Caggiano, the district’s deputy superintendent.

“Students see us as true to our word, that their voice does matter, and they’re learning they have an opportunity to sit around the table and have some real skin in the game, which is making them—whether in the program or observing it—more engaged with their learning,” Caggiano said.

Retooling the curriculum with student input will be a never-ending process, Maxlow said.

“So long as the world keeps changing and the young people who are coming to us are reacting to that changing world, we’re going to have to always be changing,” she said. “That doesn’t mean we should throw everything out every year. We just need to be really intentional about asking ourselves if what we did last year is still working. And if it’s not, what do we need to be doing differently?”

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