So if you have been reading my blog you will know that Don Wettrick has been a huge inspiration for me and my students. After listening to his podcast for almost a year, I decided it would be a good idea to read his book Pure Genius over the summer. Not surprising, it was exactly what I needed. Rewind to last year and you will understand why.
Over the past five years I have truly transitioned from a traditional classroom to a more student led inquiry based classroom. We have followed an inquiry process where students used the Social Scientific Research Method to research a current issue, become an advocate for it – make their classmates, their parents and the world aware of the issue, research it according to the course that they were in, create media pieces and showcase everything that they were doing via Twitter. I am super fortunate to teach a lot of the same students in grade 10 history then in grade 11 Intro to Anthro, Psych and Soc and then get them for grade 12 Human Growth and development and grade 12 World Issues. For the past few years, I have used the Inquiry Model in all of my classes. The grade 10s take a bit to get to used to it and the grade 11s usually love it. However, what I was finding was that the grade 12s were bored of that process and needed more. Last fall, I spent time volunteering at Blue Sky School in Kanata (Experimental Prototype School) where they allow the students passions to lead their learning. I was very fortunate to watch this process and wanted to try out a similar model in my classroom. So, at the end of semester one I gave my grade 12s some more freedom in their learning and I asked them to create their own projects that were prompted by three questions:
- What do you want to learn?
- How do you want to learn it?
- Once you have learned it what will you do with the information?
Since most of these students had already spent at least two courses with me they didn’t struggle like most students when they were asked what they wanted to learn. They really embraced the idea and jumped into their projects without hesitation. When they were done we had a little show and tell at the end. They showcased what they learned in a variety of ways. We had a lesson on Artificial Intelligence a workshop on finance, a TED talk style presentation on humour and some small discussions. In my opinion it was a success.
Riding out that high I decided, as I do, to jump right in and I attempted to go completely project based with my grade 12s the following semester. I went in a blazin’ with a trial and error mentality and we had some really amazing things happen, but we also had a whole lot of nothing happening. To be completely honest it was a bit of a gong show.
After a semester of trying this out and a lot of reflection I realized that I just couldn’t figure out the right kind of structure to support the students. I was looking for answers to the following questions:
- How do I keep track of 25 students doing all kinds of different projects.
- How do I get students to stay on task?
- How do I get them to follow through on what they want to do?
- How much freedom do I give them in creating their projects?
- How do I support 25 students as they work on different projects?
We tried so many different things / ways to answer the above questions. Originally we tried out some of the methods they were using at Blue Sky School such as their metaphor of driving their own bus and creating road maps each day but unfortunately they did not work for us. We tried journal writing, goals on twitter, google forms, step by step instructions on the wall, calendars, reflections and binders with their projects listed. By the end of the semester I was exhausted and felt defeated as I never really felt that I was able to get a handle on a student led project based classroom. For the entire semester I was searching for a play book to help me out but I couldn’t seem to find anything…..UNTIL I came across exactly what I was looking for in Don’s book.
I have met some amazing teachers via Twitter and this summer was talking to Eryka Desroisers from Quebec (host of the podcast In a Teacher’s Shoes) and she asked if I had read Don’s book. We were discussing the upcoming school year and I was telling her my dilemma from the previous school year. I told her that I had been racking my brain and resources for ways to get a handle on this type of classroom and she pulled out Don’s book and read a part to me that she thought would be helpful. After we finished out Google Hangout session I immediately downloaded Pure Genius onto my Kindle and read it in about two days. I had almost given up on the idea of running my class like I did last semester and was going to revert back to the inquiry model until I found Don’s blueprint for an innovation class.
So, this semester I am teaching grade 11 Intro to Anthro, Psych and Soc and grade 12 Human Growth and Development and World Issues and we are 100% project based. What I learned from last year was that the students required more help than I could provide them, they needed deadlines, they needed to be working on one project at a time, they needed a value placed on their projects and they needed to show progress on a regular basis. It was like I hit the jackpot when I found Don’s blueprint. I immediately started to wrap my head around how I would use it in my classroom and adapted it accordingly. I created guidelines for the projects that my students would create. You can see them here if you are interested.
In the last month we have been busy learning how to be a 100% student led project based classroom. For the first couple of weeks we learned about the course content and curriculum so that they had an understanding of what they needed to connect their projects to. We then went over the guidelines. As recommended by Don, my students were encouraged to start out with a small project around the school. The students assembled their teams and started the proposal process. I realized that this planning stage was one of the biggest downfalls to last year’s success. One of the issues last year was that there was only one of me and 25 of them so it was really tough to give each student the attention that they needed. As a result the emphasis on a good plan was not there. So this year I made it my mission to make sure that no one started their projects before they had laid out step by step what they were going to do. As well I reached out to some friends and former students and asked if they would come in and help me with the brainstorming and planning process, this was as a huge help. Getting through this process was intense, stressful and a learning curve for both myself and my students but totally worth it.
Now some of my students have been through their first projects, reflected and negotiated their points and are now moving on to their next project. Below are videos that showcase what has been happening in our classroom. You can also see what they have been doing via their vlogs / blogs and podcasts at our class hashtags #jmsshpa11 #jmsshpahhg #jmsshpacgw
This is a video that I took of my grade 12 World Issue class describing the projects that they are working on.
These are two girls from the World Issues class who are combating garbage in our hallways. Check out their journey.
This is a group of grade 11 girls who wanted to brighten up some classrooms and engage some friends from a General Learning program. This is their final vlog.
So far things have been going well, not perfect, but pretty good. However, there are days where I wonder if I made the right decision to go 100% project based. I do know that I love watching my students taking risks, making things happen and feeling like they have a voice. I will therefore put my insecurities aside and soldier on.
I am always looking for others who are interested in chatting about this type of stuff – so if that is you please reach out and let’s connect!!
Thanks for unlearning with us 🙂
Stay tuned for more examples and thoughts as we move throughout the semester.