Active Learning Requires Innovative Spaces

By Juan Cabrera

A few years ago, there were a lot of traditional classrooms in El Paso with low level test prep activities in a low-tech environment.

When you visit El Paso classrooms today, you are much more likely to see active learning–engaged students doing challenging work, often in two languages and using the latest technology.

With the recent passage of a $668.7 construction bond, El Paso students will have the opportunity to learn in modern facilities that reflect our active learning vision. We are thankful for El Paso voters and for their confidence in our vision and ability to provide all students innovative spaces to learn in. 

Here are a few ways active learning spaces differ from traditional classrooms:

Screen Shot 2017-02-12 at 7.06.56 PM.png

All students deserve modern facilities that are more reflective of what you see on the right-hand side. Active learning requires that students have space to work, build, iterate, communicate and ultimately have learning experiences that are not pre-planned.

Active learning is already alive and well in El Paso classrooms. Teachers like Jill McGee, 2016 El Paso Elementary Teacher of the Year, support that active learning is really helping with student engagement and performance. In the video below, she shares how she has worked to implement these ideas in her classroom.


Watch my interview with Jill McGee, 2nd Grade Dual Language teacher at Mesita Elementary

Teachers are receiving support from coaches and our district partner engage2learn, who is working to help us implement active learning. One of the first examples of new learning spaces in El Paso are the six New Tech Network schools. We took down walls in existing school buildings to create big classrooms for integrated project work. Students and teachers express how much they like teaching & learning in these spaces.

Screen Shot 2017-02-06 at 1.41.32 PM.png

Another example of how EPISD is providing students space for active learning is through Project Lead the Way. Students at Chapin High School were asked to create a winter wonderland village resembling the Victorian age. The students said scratch that, let’s use what we have been learning in our six Principles of Engineering classes and make modern, innovative and sustainable winter wonderland villages.  

Students created the villages entirely out of recyclable materials. Daniels-Sherman, magnet coordinator, said that students had to incorporate engineering principles that they were learning about such as, “circuitry, architecture, creativity and design.”

I’d argue if they weren’t in a classroom space that encouraged them to see endless possibilities and where they felt they had the tools to do so, they might not have felt so compelled to create such innovative projects.

The spaces where we ask students to be active learners is almost (if not equally) as important as the ideas behind active learning itself.

Embracing the Border Economy

By Juan Cabrera

El Paso is 300 miles west of what east Texans call “west Texas.” El Paso and Juarez Mexico straddle the Rio Grande (or Rio Bravo, depending on what side of the river you are on) wrapping around the 7,000 foot peaks of the Franklin Mountains, the southernmost point of the Rockies. With Las Cruces New Mexico, the combined international metropolitan area is home to almost three million people and is the largest bilingual-binational workforce in the Americas, perhaps the world.

The El Paso Independent School District (EPISD) embraces our geographic location as an asset and a benefit to students as future employees in our increasingly global and connected economy. The fact El Paso has a border economy where people and goods move freely back and forth has strengthened the EPISD commitment to help students develop global connections and communication skills.

We want students to understand and be prepared for life and work in a global economy. Like Nogales in southern Arizona (highlighted by the US Chamber of Commerce), we’ve embraced dual language, students supports and improved college and career readiness.

Dual language and career readiness isn’t just a border town issue. We all live in a border economy. Multilingualism should be seen as an asset the way it is seen internationally – and we need that mindset in the U.S. if we are going to stay globally competitive. As Parag Khanna notes in his new book Connectography, “Mega-cities compete over connectivity more than borders.” Communication, trade and connections in most jobs traverse borders and define our personal and professional relationships.

Powering Up to Connect Students

Three years ago, we set four new priorities for the district: active learning, great community schools community partnerships and leading with character and ethics.

We held community conversations to update our graduate profile including five learning goals, most notably including bilingual communicators and socially and emotionally intelligent individuals.  


After visiting Houston ISD and other leading districts, our leadership team shaped Power Up, a multiyear effort to improve student access to technology in support of a vision of Active Learning.

Leveraging the Border Economy

Beginning last year, we provided every high school student with a laptop for use at school and at home, as well as collaborative tools for teaching and learning. Using open content helped pay for our digital conversion. We partnered with CK-12 Foundation to replace high school science textbooks with free, electronic texts. Working with a team of teachers, the district created textbooks for high school science and math classes.

Many of our students speak Spanish at home. Many of our schools offer two-way dual language programs that help English speakers learn Spanish and Spanish speakers learn English. Dual language programs are not just an equity issue, they’re an economic development issue.

We also believe that being able to communicate in another language is far more powerful if students are also able to use language to get along with others and establish positive relationships with each other. Social emotional learning is at the crux of our communication skills development with students. Employers want bilingual employees that also have relationship skills.

We will continue to embrace El Paso as a great place to live and learn, especially due to the fact we have a border economy.