Saturday, June 21, 2014

Classroom Benefits of the 20% Project

The summer break gives time to reflect on the past year. One of the best classroom experiences has been our 20% project. Every Friday students had the entire class period to learn what they wanted to learn.

Now, this is not a free-for-all. It is actually very structured with a few non-negotiable rules:
                Learning must be new learning or service learning.
                You must work during class. (You can work outside if you wish.)
                You will present your learning. (We presented at the end of each semester.)
                You will keep a record of your progress and learning.

Baghdad Battery
While some teachers restrict the topics, the only restrictions for my students were that it is safe and school appropriate. After eleven years of being told what to learn and how to do it, they are on their own to choose. 

They choose what they want to learn, how they will do it, and how they will show their learning. This is not for a grade, it is just learning for the joy of learning. Every Friday they are given the chance to choose to do the right thing during class. They set the pace, decide what to accomplish and must decide if they are meeting their own requirements. Howard Gardner calls this using the ethical mind (Gardner, 2008, pp. 127-151). Students call this difficult. I call it real-world learning.

Genius Exposition
Since there is no grade assigned, teachers wonder how they will get the students to do the work. First, it is their choice of learning or service project. This will help them embrace the idea and become engaged. Second, the hesitant will see others dive in and love what they are doing. They will follow along with some coaching. Lastly, students have an audience for their learning. They must present at the end of the semester. In May we hosted our first Genius Exposition. Friends, family, and community members were invited to attend and see the wonderful work our students have done. They can also opt to keep a public blog.

Since these projects are primarily individual learning. The opportunity to learn to work with others has been limited. According to Howard Gardner learning how to use the respectful mind and work together is an important part of learning (Gardner, 2008, pp. 103-125). Next year, to encourage more interaction between students, I am setting up a peer review process where the student of their choice comments and guides the other through the process. By giving students the opportunity to give constructive criticism and comment politely and professionally they practicing skills for coaching and collaboration they will need in the future.

The Gariphone
Being a guide on the side for this experience I have had the joy of watching students learn how to learn. They struggle with the freedom and then embrace the opportunity. Student who never smile or speak are sharing what they are doing with others. I have the chance to see what students really want to learn. I have watched students start a novel, begin an illustrated movie, create a recipe from least favorite foods, build an original musical instrument, write a musical, compose music, and design a car. It is amazing the things I have learned from my students. 

More information on the structure of the 20% project in my classroom can be found at 20% project.

Gardner, H. (2008). 5 Minds for the Future. Boston: Harvard Business Press. p. 103-151.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Respect and Good Work in a Bubble

I teach Scientific Research and Design (SRD), an elective science course for seniors, in the largest high school in Texas. Allen High School has over 6000 students. A week ago our community filled the American Airlines Center, where the Dallas Mavericks an Dallas Stars play, to celebrate the graduation of over 1500 students. There is only one school in our town, so eventually every kid in Allen is together; all income levels, all ethnicities and races. In a school the size of a small town it is important to provide opportunities within a classroom that not only teach the content but build community and foster good work.

With such a large school it is often the case that in a class of twenty five students any given student may only know one other person. I have had cases where a student who has lived in our community their whole life is in a class with no one they already know. We also enroll one hundred to two hundred new students each semester. SRD is problem based learning and it is essential to build a collaborative environment. Students must learn to work together with others outside their usual groups. To give this opportunity (or force the issue) at the start of the year, the first project begins with small groups selected by the students and becomes a whole class project. Students are tasked with designing a bubble out of a piece of plastic 50 feet by 10 feet that can be inflated with a standard box fan, has an entry, and can contain twenty students comfortably. The bubble will be used during the year by our class and then given to an elementary science teacher to use for lessons in the future.

In small groups they create proposals and model of their bubble. As a class we chose solely from the written proposal and model. After an opportunity to collaborate with the whole class to improve the plan, the chosen bubble is built for the whole class. The designers of the bubble are now the project managers and other jobs are assigned based on conversations about abilities and interests. Everyone must have a job every class period.

While students begin with a group they are comfortable working with, eventually they have to learn to work with everyone in the class. Personalities clash, skills are discovered and students learn to interact with one another with a goal in mind. Students range in academic ability from the struggling student to those taking Advanced Placement courses. Some students have never built anything before; others are welding barbecue smokers in other classes. They all must figure out how to relate, communicate and cooperate with one another. The expectation is that all discussions will be polite and constructive. This takes practice. Students have to learn to replace “that’s dumb” with “the problem with that is _____, and _____ might work better”.

One of the key steps in the project is between the selection and the build. This is the time where the class has the opportunity to be sure they are building the best bubble possible. The short time allotted for improvements to the bubble design is often painful for the winning designers. The class chose them so they must be the best. The other class members can go to the designers and suggest elements that they used that would improve our final product. It is difficult for the designers to hear some of the criticism, but they must listen and figure out a way to include the improvement or explain why the improvement will not be incorporated. This process helps student reflect on their work and learn to collaborate to improve their final product.

During the build more ideas pop up and opportunities for trouble shooting always present themselves. As they work through the process they must keep the goal of building the best bubble in mind. Every idea and solution must be measured against the knowledge that this is going to last for years and be used by other, younger students, and perhaps even their favorite elementary teacher.  This project breaks down walls between groups in the class. It also gives students a taste of what is to come throughout the year. Plan, try, make mistakes, learn, fix mistakes, learn and do your best work every day.

Sunday, June 8, 2014

Digital Twist on the Word Wall

A word wall is a common sight in a classroom. It is useful for introducing and reinforcing vocabulary. Its usefulness is obvious in an elementary, language arts, or foreign language class where vocabulary lessons are part of the curriculum. In my physics class where there is not enough time to really teach the core of the curriculum, the word wall has become an educational decoration. The main problem is how to use a word wall in a flipped classroom where there is very little whole class instruction.  There needs to be a way to adapt the word wall for individual or small group work time.

Personal Word Wall
For vocabulary, I introduce, define and explain new vocabulary in the video lessons and provide a list of new and commonly misunderstood words. Based on some of the questions and responses from students along with physics word barf, I can tell this is not quite enough work with the academic vocabulary used for physics. For a student paced classroom, I created the Personal Word Wall activity. In this activity students use the vocabulary to describe and analyze the physics found in a photograph. Then create a digital poster, single presentation slide or sharable document. This allows the student to think about the physics, process how their thoughts can be expressed using academic vocabulary and create a product that communicates their learning. The work is compiled to create a whole word wall for the class, giving everyone access to vocabulary with pictures and descriptions.  With the ability to narrate as a choice, students who find writing difficult can still express what they understand about the topic. Pictures give an interesting visual reference to engage students. By using real examples, students are forced to move beyond the diagrams used in lecture and see how physics really applies in the real world.

I am looking forward to trying this next year. This version of a word wall activity, happening at the start of a lesson, has more instructional value than waiting for review day. 

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Students + Creativity = Learning

Today I gave my last final exam for the year and am cleaning up after 180 days of problem based learning. Yesterday, during the last senior finals at my high school, I asked some of them how important creativity is in the classroom. To be fair, this is my Scientific Research and Design (SRD) class which is a problem based course allowing for a range from just meeting requirements to being amazing. If you have seen previous posts, you have seen some of the great things these students do in class. This class has worked with physics is comics, art, engineering, flight and just plain physics (because projectiles are fun). Throughout the entire course they have been encouraged to be creative. Now I find what they really think.

I was impressed and encouraged by our conversation. I wish I had recorded the conversation, but I will have to use the notes that I furiously wrote after being amazed.  Here are the main ideas. I tried to record them as accurately as possible:

                Students learn more and learn better when they can put their own spin on the work.

                In classes that encourage creativity you have more interactions with the teacher and students.

                It is the most important thing.

                Creativity gives students an outlet to express themselves in any subject.

                Kids should be encouraged to try new things and make mistakes.

My first impression was that these students really do understand what learning is about and how blessed I am to have them in my class. My next thought is how sad it is for teachers to have missed experiencing amazing learning by inadvertently squashing these students by simply not allowing for creativity in the learning products. I was absolutely thrilled to hear that mistakes should be encouraged.  While many students enjoy the freedom to create, some student struggle with the freedom and are uncomfortable with making mistakes, but once they understand they are in a safe environment, they love it. 

When asked about the use of technology to improve or assist creativity, the answers were instructive. Students are mostly comfortable with technology and trying new things, but the teacher needs to be careful and not overload the student. Just because they are kids,and assumed to be digital natives, does not mean they can do anything with computers without proper instruction and time to practice. Please do not expect the students to teach you how to use technology unless they have suggested the tool. New technology can be as frustrating for the students as it is for the teachers if not introduced properly. However, they do like trying new things, and like teachers, if it is easy to use and it does what they want, they like it and will use it again.

So now, I go back for one more day and finish getting my room summer ready, throw out master works that were not taken home, and decide what to save as an example for next year. Each one of the projects reminds me of the student's struggle followed by the joyful sense of accomplishment. And with each one, I am reminded of how much learning was done by the student because they were given the freedom to create their own path to the solution. In the courses that are more content heavy than SRD, it is important to get those moments of creativity whenever possible. The students will recognize the gift and rise to the occasion. I will warn you, once you are in a classroom where creativity flourishes, you will not want to leave.