In my last post, I said goodbye to Walden School of Liberal Arts after teaching there for six eventful years. My original plan was to spend a year in Washington, D.C. as an Einstein Fellow, but despite making it to the final round, I was not chosen. My Plan B was to go back to school for a PhD, but even though I was accepted to the STEM Education program at the University of Kentucky, I deferred for at least a year so that I could earn up more money for the move. I interviewed at four schools and received two offers, and accepted the offer at American Academy of Innovation.
It is a brand new charter school with a mission for project-based learning, stem education, and international partnerships. They started building it in January and the contractors were still putting in finishing touches as we met for the first time as a faculty on August 15, 2016. Our Director is Scott Jones, who has a great deal of experience directing and working in charter school environments. The teachers have been hired from all around, some from Texas, the East and West Coasts, and several from Utah, Idaho, and Alaska. It appears to be a highly creative group of teachers.
We took a tour of the building and saw what it will look like in the next two weeks – except for my science room. It hasn’t been finished, partly because of last minute changes to the water and gas lines, partly so that they can get my input. I have since designed the lab, with four student stations, a fume hood and teacher demo desk, and lots of cupboards for storage. As I am writing this (November 14, 2016), the contractors are building in the lab stations – hooray! – and I am teaching out of the library.
For our first two weeks we met as faculty to prepare and plan. We revised the school’s vision and mission statements. Here are the new ones:
The Vision of American Academy of Innovation is to empower the individual mind to improve the world.
Our mission statement:
The American Academy of Innovation combines academic fundamentals; career, technology, and 21st Century skills with international and community partnerships through project-based learning to ignite an innovative mindset within the individual and society.
I most like that our overall goals are to ignite an innovative mindset and to empower the individual to improve the world. I have attended many educator conference sessions on Problem-Based Learning (PBL), so I volunteered to share what I’ve learned with the rest of the faculty and to go through the eight characteristics of PBL, working through a potential large-scale problem as an example. I chose an expedition to Mars (which I’ve used as an example all summer at meetings for potential parents and students). Other teachers volunteered to share their expertise, so we trained each other. Scott also brought in some experts from other charter schools to talk about how we will implement special education and organizational culture. We took time to plan out what our first few days would be like as we started training our new students toward project/problem-based learning.
In addition to holding daily meetings, we helped to put together chairs, desks, filing cabinets, and other furniture. Parents and students came in to help, and by the time the first two weeks were over, the school was shaping up and ready for occupancy.
On August 29, we held our first day with students at the school. These first two days were to be an orientation to get the students excited about being here and help them get to know us and each other. Some had come from neighborhood schools and knew each other before, but some had come from charter schools or homeschooling. We met in our new gymnasium, and discovered immediately that the acoustics in there are terrible. It is basically a hollow concrete shell, so sound bounces all over the place and the small portable PA system wasn’t up to the job. After introducing the staff, we divided the students into groups and had them rotate through four sessions each day for the first two days.
My groups were about problem solving. Our first day I did the activity of using swimming noodles cut in half to roll marbles from a starting point into a bucket. As the noodles were short, they had to develop teamwork to move the marble along without dropping it. It was interesting to see leadership beginning to emerge from some of the students. Most of the small groups were eventually successful. It was a lot of fun.
Our second day, I ran an activity to make a simple paper helicopter based on Da Vinci’s helix machine. Students were asked to use inquiry to vary the shape of the basic helicopter and try different things. After experimenting and testing in a classroom, I had them drop the helicopters off our balcony in the main lobby and tried to photograph and videotape the results.
Other groups toured the school, took polls for what our new mascot and school colors would be, and many other things. Overall I think we managed to convey a sense of excitement, innovation, and inquiry to the students.
On Wednesday, August 31 we held our first regular classes. We have four periods per day on an A-B schedule; each class is 90 minutes long. I’m used to 70 minutes, so I have to pace myself. Our school day starts at 8:30 and ends at 3:30 with 50-minute lunches, so it is a longer day than I’m used to. My schedule for A days is to teach 3D Modeling during first period to about 25 students (good numbers – I’ve been talking this up all summer). We didn’t have computers to work with at first, so I had to do preparatory things such as going through Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain activities and teaching orthographic and perspective drawing skills. Second period I have STEAM it Up, with only eight students (students didn’t quite understand what this class would be about, but that’s OK – a smaller group will be more mobile and experimental). My third period class is chemistry, again a challenge to begin with since I had an empty room and no sinks or lab stations. I started with six demonstrations using household chemicals and had them make observations. I had 12 students but this has grown to 16. My 4th period class is 8th Grade Science to about 20 students. I decided since the new SEEd standards are being implemented fully next year, we might as well implement them now at AAI. We created marbled paper on the first day.
On B days (Tuesdays, Thursdays, and alternating Fridays) I have the following schedule: First period (B1) is astronomy to 7-8 grades. I began with my scale of the universe activity to arrange strips of paper in the right order from largest to smallest scale. This helps me see what they already know visually while providing a setting for the class. Second period is Innovation Design, basically my MYP Design class again for 7-8 grade students. We began with the bridge building activity that I modified from Wendi Lawrence’s spaghetti tower design challenge. Even with 90-minute classes, the student groups didn’t get as far as I would have liked, with only one truly successful group. I can see we have some work here, partly because the students don’t know each other and aren’t used to working together. My B3 class is 8th grade science again, and then I had a prep period B4.
Part way into September, one of our teachers, who is from China, found out he had a conflict with his Visa (he had not renewed it), and so was unable to work for the rest of the semester. We found substitute math teachers for his math classes, but no one to fill in for his two computer science classes. I volunteered to give up my prep on B4 to teach the computer science class. It has been a challenge teaching straight through every day without a prep period, especially trying to stay up on grades. Because of our lack of computers, we had to have the students pair up. He started with Scratch, so I was able to transition the students over to my own way of doing things without totally replacing his structure. I also want to implement using AppLab after Scratch, then move on to Python.
When you add to this that I now have a 45-minute one way commute it can be exhausting. Much of my after school time has been spent in weekly faculty meetings or designing my science lab or putting together the order for initial equipment, lab supplies, and chemicals. We purchased 27 Dell laptop computers, so I’ve also needed to spend time getting software installed including Daz3D Bryce, Stellarium, Gimp, Sculptris, Blender, and others as well as getting the 3D printer up and running. I come home and crash each evening. But slowly, day-by-day, we are making progress and the students are beginning to develop 21st Century skills for collaboration, communication, and creativity. It was a rocky start, but we are almost ready to implement the Big Project.
We identified four possible Big Projects as a faculty and had the students vote on which one they preferred. My descriptions were as neutral as possible because I didn’t want to be accused of influencing the vote. Except, of course, I may have sweetened the well by using an example of a Mars expedition during our summer meetings. The vote was to do a Mars expedition or Mars exploration theme for our project. I will report on this more in my http://Spacedoutclassroom.com blog.
I’ve never worked so hard, and my health is probably suffering as a result. I’m not as young as I once was, and some days I truly feel it, but it has been an incredible ride so far. Over Winter Break I will be reporting on all that we have done in my classes on my two blog sites, so stay tuned.