Connolly middle schoolers ‘ASPIRE’ to succeed

Students in advanced learning program at Connolly Middle School say it has broadened their view of the world around them. (Photo courtesy Tempe Elementary School District)
Students in advanced learning program at Connolly Middle School say it has broadened their view of the world around them. (Photo courtesy Tempe Elementary School District)

A first-person report by Amanda McAlphin and Ali Giunta on their ‘ultimate learning experience’ and how it helped make their studies both productive and fun.

 Project Based Learning electives aren’t your typical elective. At ASPIRE Academy on the Connolly Middle School campus, where ASPIRE stands for Actualizing Student Potential Increases Resilience and Excellence, students have the opportunity to participate in daily PBL electives.

Most ASPIRE sixth-graders have come from an elementary school that passed out worksheets for every single assignment.

As a former drudge to worksheets, we can tell you it wasn’t fun. For five years, it was handout after handout, but things have changed for new ASPIRE students.

PBL stands for Project Based Learning, which is exactly how things are done around here. Teachers don’t just assign packets about cells; they have you make 3D models.

Students don’t do fill-in-the-blanks about the Civil War, they reenact it. We have never had “fun” doing an assignment until PBLs. PBL helps gifted students express themselves in a way that helps them learn.

It may take a little more work than “ye olde handout,” but projects definitely help the students learn.

Though core classes at ASPIRE also incorporate PBL methods into the curriculum, students in the gifted program are also eligible to take a PBL elective. There are many to choose from, such as Journalism (it’s great), Math Explorations, Forensics, Sustainability, Theater and Electronics.

We have taken all of these classes and they were so worthwhile. Some classes we enjoyed more than others but that’s the beauty of these specialized electives—the students are able to explore what areas interest them.

Early last month, every kid in the ASPIRE program rushed to get ready for the great annual PBL night. For more than four months, every student participating in the unique electives worked to show off what they’ve learned.

The night gave students the chance to present their final projects to their friends, family, teachers and community members.

Our journalism elective elaborates on the gift of writing by presenting a museum of monthly student created newspapers called the ASPIRE Times. Videos on different poems and stories that make the classroom come to life.

Journalism helps students apply what they have learned in English Language Arts to real-world journalism and, like other ASPIRE electives, brings out the creative sides in their students.

Math Explorations is a fabulous class to be in, especially if you’re having trouble in math or just plain don’t like it. This class helps you look at math in a totally different way.

Math Explorations, 6th grade Honors Math and 7th grade Advanced Math students have been working on scale model projects that scale real world objects bringing math to life.

They have also worked on “lighted origami” in which plastic polyhedra were lit with battery-operated lights and sold as a fundraiser.

Once you’re done with this class, we promise you’ll love math.

Electronics has teamed up with a new program in our school called “Second Step” that is a Positive Behavior Intervention and Supports Program.

PBIS students have been working to create new videos to help eliminate bullying, littering, fighting, swearing and just learning how to use tools in our classroom.

The videos have been a fantastic, positive influence for our school. But we can’t forget the actual electronics class, where they have been engineering Arduinos, and creating circuits.

There were walking potatoes, mechanical hands, drawing robots, leaping cats, an MP3 amplifier made from scratch, electronic drum system, stop motion animations, lighted Superman symbol, R2D2, and LED light systems.

Electronics students have managed to think miles outside the box with their projects creating the most unique and innovative designs. These students have used their critical thinking and creativity to expand the limits of the mind.

Students are able to be transformed into crime scene investigators in the Forensics class. They did exciting labs to help them learn about things that can be seen on an actual crime scene. For example, there was a lab in which students dropped fake blood everywhere to determine what blood spatter looks like from different heights and angles.

Students also looked at each other’s hair follicles and observed car tires to find clues. This PBL is exciting and a little bit creepy—but middle schoolers like that stuff.

Theater is for anyone that wants a creative outlet. Students walk-in students and walk-out actors. It is always a delight to see yourself and your peers get into the drama zone. If you ever peek through the classroom window you will see kids pantomiming, dancing, stage fighting, role playing, improvising and putting on beautiful stage makeup. The end of semester performance is always worth the trip.

Sustainability covers one of the most daunting human challenges: preserving the world. The Earth’s health is quickly declining and our students are coming up with solutions to the issue.

It may be alarming to hear about how much trouble society is in, but these gifted students are the ones that have the logic and creativity to make a difference.

Students make alternative energy sources, models of how pollution works, pollution cleanup machines, and so much more. This is another class offering real world application.

PBL engages learners by meeting unique individual learning styles and supporting critical thinking and problem solving on a daily basis.

The PBL Showcase of Learning Night was an excellent opportunity for students to present projects to their community, answer questions and receive feedback.

PBL is the ultimate learning experience and students can’t wait for the next showcase at the end of second semester.


Amanda McAlphin and Ali Giunta are students at Connolly Middle School’s ASPIRE Academy.



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