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The City Journals

Elementary students who earned ‘degrees’ may not walk at their commencement exercises this year

May 21, 2020 10:52AM ● By Julie Slama

A bulletin board at Brookwood Elementary showcases students’ projects in the University of Learning program. (Julie Slama/City Journals)

By Julie Slama | [email protected]

If in-session school is out for the year because of the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s just not high school and college seniors who won’t be walking at their graduations. A bunch of elementary students in four different schools also will be disappointed that they won’t be wearing caps and gowns to receive their certificates.

The elementary students are part of the University of Learning, a program where students can investigate topics to earn university credit toward degrees – technical, associate’s, bachelor’s, master’s and doctorate – just like the real world.

Topics are student-generated, but students need to meet a set criteria. While each of the four schools – Brookwood, Butler, Oakdale and Quail Hollow — may have varying syllabus, most have students learning about a topic for three hours and reading two books from the Utah Beehive list to earn a technical degree to completing 30 hours and have to read 10 books to achieve the doctorate degree.

“The University of Learning program makes learning fun and gives students an extra challenge,” Quail Hollow fourth-grade teacher Katie Clifford said. “The kids are becoming self-motivated to learn. They’re getting to share what they love if it’s their ancestry or skateboarding.”

Plus, Clifford said she’s learning more about her fourth-grade students, which allows her to connect to them in other ways.

“I’m learning how amazingly talented my students are in so many ways, whether it’s dance, ice skating, cooking or if they’re learning something new such as how to crochet, how to make a stop-motion video or who was Philo T. Farnsworth,” she said. “One student is making and selling doll clothes and donating the money she makes to charity.”

Brookwood fourth-grade teacher Kathy Smith said a service project is part of the doctorate program; at her school, a student held a car wash in the bus lane at her school to raise money for the American Red Cross. The doctorate, and the master’s degree, are more difficult as they are in real life.

With the master’s degree, students have a 15-hour thesis, which usually is a two-page paper or a PowerPoint presentation — although Smith remembers a student writing, illustrating and publishing a book about animals that was shared with other students at the school.

Both degrees require applications, outlining what the student proposes to do and how it will be completed, which the teachers then meet to discuss.

“Learning is a process. The students are finding what they’re interested in and pursuing it. The first few degrees tend to be about sports and animals and their interests, then, they learn how they can incorporate more of what they want to learn and do into the advanced degrees,” she said.

For example, fourth-grader Amelia Black said she worked on her associate degree which featured sharing about Mathnasium.

“I was already going there twice each week, so I explained what I learn, how I earn stars and showed my binder,” she said before schools went into soft closure. “I like learning what others are sharing so I’m getting more ideas on what I can do.”

Smith said some students look forward to this and are empowered to want to learn and achieve the top degrees.

“They’re making a real-world connection and understanding that they’re facilitating their own learning. Parents love it as it’s an extension of what we’re doing in school and it’s something they can do together,” she said.

Fourth-grader Bridget Smit and her family traveled to England where she researched swimming pools and translated that into learning about the longest, deepest and fanciest pools in the world.

“In England, the Jesus Green swimming pool in Cambridge is the longest at 100 yards, but it’s only 15 yards wide,” she said. “This is a good opportunity to learn about things I usually wouldn’t do, and it gives us more of a challenge.”

She added that she spent time reading and playing games with seniors as part of the program.  

Bridget said it also has inspired her to visit local parks and playgrounds to rate them and create a booklet so kids can go to the best ones after school.

“I like that we’re doing something extra and going beyond what is expected of us,” she said.

That is something that Oakdale fourth-grade teacher Shannon Prado applauds.

“I’ve seen kids who love this – whether if it’s the student who struggles, but he or she excels outside the classroom or if it’s some who are pursuing a new interest – it boosts their confidence,” she said. “Sometimes, their peers learn about their talents and see them in a different light.”

Prado has had students share about roofing and show how they’ve helped roof their home to telling others about Bosnia, where the student’s family originated.

“Learning happens everywhere and from anyone; this is a positive experience for them,” she said of the 72 students who are slated to graduate at the school this year.

At the schools, students weekly share their presentations to earn their degrees and then, the culminating commencement may include comments from teachers, speeches from students earning doctorates, a PowerPoint presentation, awarding of degrees and shaking hands of teachers and principals to the applause from classmates and family members.

“It’s really helping to push and stretch our kids and it motivates others to try new things,” Prado said, adding that it has gotten her to try some new activities as well. “It’s something that they remember.”

Retired teacher Trish Boswell learned about the program from a peer who was earning her actual master’s degree. Boswell introduced it to Quail Hollow. From there, her student teacher, Shannon Cabrera, brought it to Oakdale. Smith learned about it from Boswell and introduced it at Brookwood.

Teacher Annelise Slater taught alongside of Cabrera so Slater introduced it recently to second-graders at Butler Elementary. She said the program engages students and prepares them to be career- and college-ready.

“When I did it in fourth-grade, I had a student go to a cadaver lab with her grandpa and she explained to us all about the human heart, from its four chambers to an incredible diagram and activities,” Slater said. “We’ve simplified it for second-graders, yet they are still doing amazing things. I’ve had kids share how to make grape juice from grapes, show how they’ve sewed a teddy bear from a pattern and painted rocks to brighten the day of others. The students are discovering that learning doesn’t just happen in the four walls of a classroom. It’s pushing them to grow and become passionate outside of school, to make connections and become better and more thoughtful people.”