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Empowering Students to Learn

Part Two (Part One)

District 49’s Falcon Zone continues to celebrate its successful implementation of Empower FZ with numerous honors from the Modern Teacher National Conference on Digital Convergence (NCDC). Falcon Zone had three national winners and five other finalists at the conference. Read about the winners in Part One, here

Zone Presentation Sheehan Freeman-Todd
Sheehan Freeman-Todd, principal at Meridian Ranch Elementary School, presented at the national conference in February.


As we take a moment to recognize that achievement, let us also take some time to understand what that means for our students and teachers in the Falcon Zone schools.

Many parents would not recognize a Falon Zone classroom today, based on their school experience. The traditional four rows of desks with the teacher in the front is no longer the norm. 

“When they went to school, an active and engaged student was sitting in their chair right behind the kid in front of them quietly working,” Falcon Zone Leader Sue Holmes said. “That’s not necessarily what our classrooms look like now. Lined up in rows, everyone gets the same lesson, and you teach to the middle. The kids that already get it are bored. For the kids that the lesson is above their heads they are off task, or maybe being a behavior issue.”

Modern Teacher strategies will look different in every class and with every teacher, but the basics are similar. Students complete a pre-assessment screening at the beginning of a unit or learning plan. Teachers use the results to assign a student to a level (1-3) based on their understanding of the topic and standard. From there, the teacher can design lessons and options for a group of students, or an individual to achieve proficiency (Level 3). Students can show mastery of a standard in a teacher-approved method of their choice. Some will advance to level four, or move on to the next learning plan.  

“We are designing a classroom where a teacher is no longer at the front and the owner and master of all the knowledge in the classroom,” Holmes said. “We are helping facilitate the kids through the journey that they are on. The kids are taking ownership of what they are doing in the class. They are more engaged in this type of learning. Instead of simply telling them what to do, they are now involved in navigating what they are doing and what they are going to do next. We all know if we give kids a choice, instead of telling them what to do, they are more responsive and more engaged.”

Sue Holmes NCDC Chair Address
Falcon Zone Leader Sue Holmes addresses the attendees at the national conference. 


“People think Modern Teacher is this whole new process. It’s not a new way of doing things. It’s perfecting all the best practices,” Firebird Nation Executive Principal Brian Smith said. “The approaches are new, but the philosophy, pedagogy, and strategy behind it have been in place for a long time. Our approach is new and innovative, because the way kids learn today is different.”

“We teach to the Colorado standards, which means nothing to most students and probably not much more to a parent,” Holmes said. “What we have done with Empower FZ, is put the standards into simple, ‘I can…’ statements. This helps kids know what they have mastered and what their next targets are.”

"I can add and subtract fractions with like denominators."
"I can describe the interactions of matter and energy and the changes that occur."
"I can describe how characters in a story respond to major events."
"I can explain how the sun’s energy impacts the processes of the water cycle."

It took nearly a year and a half to fine-tune the strategy for Empower FZ before deploying it across the zone. Principals and teachers worked together, asked questions, and discussed how lessons would look in the classroom.

“We talked about how education has changed. How society has changed. How are our kids different than they were 10 years ago?” Holmes said. “Our society no longer needs just compliant kids doing tasks. Our current society needs students that can be self-starters, assess where they are and what their needs are, and have good collaboration skills in order to be good team members. They need to be creative, problem solvers.”

Teachers are seeing more engaged students, while also having fewer behavior issues in class.

“We call it Empower FZ because we want to create empowered learners,” Holmes said. “At whatever level (1-3) they are at, they are empowered. They are engaged. They are challenged at the level where they are at.”

Falcon Zone staff at NCDC
Falcon Zone staff attended the modern teacher conference in February. Next year, the conference will be hosted by D49 in Colorado Springs. 


The Falcon Zone’s success is obvious at the national level with the numerous award finalists and winners. To examine success in the classroom, Holmes suggests talking to students. 

“When I walk into a class and ask a student what they are doing, they no longer say, ‘I’m doing all the even problems on page 32,’” Holmes said. “They give me a concrete description of what they are doing. They can point to the standard and the proficiency scale and tell me ‘I can do this and this, but I’m still working on this and this is how I’m doing that.’ They know what they are doing and why they are doing it, instead of ‘that’s what the teacher told us to do today.’ That’s the kind of answer I’d get four years ago.”

Smith has the same experience. “This year, when I go into the classrooms, the kids go into all this depth. These kids are able to communicate why they are learning things. What they need to do to show proficiency. It is a game-changing conversation. It’s helping kids be owners of what they are learning.”

“That’s the age-old question, ‘why am I learning this,’” Holmes said. “There are a lot of students that need to know the why. They need to see a reason or a purpose for what they are doing. And when they know, they are better engaged. They are better advocates for what they need in the classroom, with their counselors. Because they know themselves as learners. They understand where they are as learners.”

Joel Quevillon