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Posts Tagged ‘pbl’

Education as Pollock painting

I found this quote on a TeachThought website. It captures the spontaneity, engagement, and creativity of extraordinary education.

Several years ago I attended the closing banquet of our state science teacher conference and overheard two teachers comparing notes in a friendly competition. They had apparently gone through the same teacher development program together. One bragged that 86% of his students had passed the state science standards test at the end of the year. The other claimed that his students had a 93% pass rate, with the implication that having more students pass the test meant that he was the better teacher.

They were both new teachers and I can forgive them their misunderstanding. I felt like jumping into the conversation to remind them that having most of their students pass the standards aligned test only proved that they were standard teachers, when what our children deserve is extraordinary teachers. Unfortunately, there is no state test for extraordinary education.

school nurse

Is our public education system ailing and in need of reform? Yes, in that it insists on treating each child like a cookie-cutter clone using a one-size-fits-all set of standards.

Would any of us recognize extraordinary education if we saw it? Can we even agree on the characteristics of extraordinary education? For my own definition, I say that students must be deeply engaged in the learning process, with memorable learning opportunities that invite active participation and critical thinking, creative problem solving, collaboration, and communication. In the end, education should have a lasting impact on their lives. And it should be fun, meaningful, and inherently interesting for them!

I learned during my third year of teaching that Project-Based Learning (PBL) can be a powerful route to extraordinary education. I’m not trying to say that I am an extraordinary educator, but I have tried with some success to bring meaningful opportunities to my students. To do this, I have had to look at my course standards in a different way.

Ed guidelines

There is a great need to change how we do education, but the forces that resist changes are the teachers and administrators and communities that need them the most. The bureaucracy of our school system is the very thing that holds us back. As one individual teacher, I have to accept that I may not be able to change everything, but I can at least change the way I do things.

The push for standards in education is simple to understand. We don’t want students with gaps in their understanding of the world, nor do we want teachers who are incapable of bridging those gaps. Society needs well-educated people in order for them to make informed decisions. Educational standards were developed to achieve a minimum level of essential literacy and knowledge across all students.

This brings up a deeper question: what constitutes essential knowledge? As one of my college professors put it, is there any knowledge (or skills) that a person must have? Every subject expert has a list of what he or she considers to be the essential concepts of the subject, and the list tends to multiply in any committee put together to consider new educational standards. Heaven forbid that even one math student would not understand the quadratic equation. The world might very well collapse if that happened! So we have to create a standard to address that concern, even if only a minority of teachers hold this opinion.

As a result of this drive toward comprehensiveness, all states have far too many educational standards than are truly necessary for each discipline. In chemistry, is it critically important for students to understand Le Chatelier’s Principle of Reaction Equilibrium? You’ll find it in all the state standards. But is this really necessary for what the student and society need? If taught well, it might help them understand some aspects of everyday chemistry, such as why the Haber process works to produce ammonia or why shaking a warm soda bottle causes the carbon dioxide to spray out. But can they become productive citizens without knowing this? Probably. Why force them to learn what they can easily live without? This has bothered me for years.

do what I say

All the shareholders in the education system (parents, children, teachers, administrators, state officials, communities) point the fingers of blame at the others and expect them to be innovative, but are unwilling to change their own viewpoint of what education should be.

What I finally recognized is that standards are meant as a guide to the lowest acceptable level of understanding in a class, not as the final target. Anyone who teaches to the standards alone (especially to the end of year test) will succeed in creating a standard class, an average class, but not an extraordinary one. If we want all of our students to graduate as identical cookie-cutter clones of some “standard” citizen, then standards-based education and the factory model of education will suffice. But if I want students who are strong individuals, creative problem solvers, and innovators, I must go beyond the standards and teach for excellence and quality, not mediocrity. The standards are supposed to be a means to that end, not an end in themselves.

Deeper into Theory

Many of our vaunted education theories support this reductionist view of a subject. For example, Bloom’s Taxonomy is widely used and quoted in educational circles. It poses that there is a hierarchy of understanding and learning; that remembering facts and content details comes first as the foundation of all learning and then leads to understanding, then to application, then analysis, then evaluation, and finally to creativity. The implication is that we need to move our educational activities toward creativity and higher-order thinking skills. The problem with this pedagogical model is that too many teachers never get to the higher-order levels; they get stuck on remembering and regurgitating facts with little real understanding and even less application, analysis, evaluation, or creativity.

Flipping Bloom

Bloom’s Taxonomy, often quoted but poorly understood. Instead of starting at the lowest level (remembering facts) and working our way up, we should start with creativity and work down to facts. Think of this pyramid as flipped upside down, or of creativity being the ground level but the other levels being roots underneath, reaching down to the facts. Students will learn the facts they need if they start with the requirement to create.

So many educational theorists are beginning to propose that Bloom’s Taxonomy should be stood on its head. Creativity should come first, not last. As students create, they can be taught to evaluate the effectiveness and even the aesthetics of their work (more on this in my next post). To do this, they will need to learn to analyze their work in the same way that engineers analyze the effectiveness of their prototypes and models. To analyze the prototype, they have to build it first, which involves the application and understanding of scientific theory. To gain that understanding, students will have to look up and remember the scientific facts and theories involved. In other words, teaching creativity first and insisting on quality work provides the impetus and motivation for students to find the information they need, understand and apply that information well enough to build prototypes, then analyze and evaluate the effectiveness of that prototype against specifications. Students will look up what they need to know because it is necessary for them to solve the problems that occur as they create, build, test, and analyze prototypes. We call this the engineering or design process.

This is where Project-Based Learning (PBL) comes in. Only through extended projects can students have the time, independence, and creativity to deeply explore and understand a subject by following their own curiosity. Projects are the only way to ensure that the intent for having standards is met and that we reach extraordinary education. This happens through what I call “standards overreach.”

Shorten the pole vault

It doesn’t make sense to raise standards while lowering the resources available to schools to reach those standards. There’s nothing quite like an unfunded mandate.

Standards Overreach:

Let me start with an example. During the first week in my first year biology classes, I introduced the concept of the characteristics of life and the abiotic factors necessary to sustain it. This is a common biology standard in most states. Now if I were a standards-obsessed teacher, I would teach to this point as my target for student understanding. I might put up a list of terms and have students write down definitions in the hope that they will understand them. This is a low-level activity without much student mental engagement. They’ll forget these definitions as soon as the test is over, if they retain them even that long. I might write the terms on a worksheet and have them look up definitions. Slightly better but still boring for everyone concerned, although it does meet the standard. I could show them a video about it and have them take notes. A bit better but still teacher-centered and passive for students. I could have students brainstorm the characteristics of life, then ask them to provide examples, or do a lab activity, etc. Getting better but still not entirely effective.

What all of these activities have in common is that they are targeted specifically to this one standard alone, and on the end of unit test, only some of the students will show understanding (or at least regurgitation). I have only partially succeeded.

Exoplanets

What kind of life forms could exist on an exoplanet or exomoon, such as shown here? As students ask and answer such questions, they come to understand the characteristics of life and the abiotic factors that support it.

Or I could do this in a completely different way through a student-centered, engaging project. I could have them go beyond the standard (overreach it) knowing that at minimum they will understand the standard and possibly much more. So I use my passion for astrobiology and experience conducting field research studies of extremophiles in the Mojave Desert to create a project for my students. We’ll collect halophilic bacteria from the Great Salt Lake and let them grow in a Winogradsky column then analyze the pink floaters under a microscope. We’ll extend this to research on other extremophiles and use real examples of how they are adapted to their environments, with students developing posters or presentations or other summary products of their choice. Do all forms of life on Earth need oxygen, or even air? No – there are lithoautotrophs that live in rocks and get carbon dioxide from minerals, not air. Does all life require light and plants at the bottom of the food chain? No. Look at the chemosynthetic bacteria that are at the bottom of the food chain near deep ocean hydrothermal vents.

Square test in round head

How can one test measure the quality or extent of knowledge for every student, even if the tests are adaptive? How can a single measure determine the effectiveness of every teacher?

Then they’ll look at potentially habitable exoplanets (and learn a bit of astronomy and physics on the way) and choose an actual planet, then develop a drawing or clay model of an alien life form they envision, complete with descriptions of how it is able to survive in that environment, the abiotic factors that exist there, and the ecosystem it is part of. How does it eat or get energy? How does it move around, reproduce, adapt to changes, grow and develop, etc.? How would we detect it and know that it is alive?

As a capstone event or product, they produce posters or other products on their research into and present them at a science showcase night, just as if they were professional scientists at a conference. At the end of the evening we can watch and analyze the realism of the movie “The Andromeda Strain.” In the process of thinking all of this through, the students will deeply understand the characteristics and factors necessary for life. They will all easily meet the standard because we shot way beyond the standard.

Relax and take the test

With high stakes testing supposedly measuring the effectiveness of teachers and schools based on how students take the test, its no wonder teachers are teaching to the test. Their jobs are on the line. Yeah. No pressure . . .

You will argue that this type of project will take days to complete, when you can cover that standard in just one day. Maybe so, but we haven’t just covered that one standard. Without my having to lecture them, my students have learned about evolution and classification, microbiology and using a microscope, physics and astronomy, and even developed artistic skills. They have learned about scientific communication, which is part of one dimension of the Next Generation Science Standards. We have therefore touched on about ten other standards from multiple disciplines in the five days of this project. If I tried to teach each one of those standards one at a time, it would take far longer than our project did. My students’ understanding will be deeper and more permanent than any lower-level unengaging assignments can achieve.

The test to test us for the test

No Child Left Untested . . . How can teachers possibly meet education standards when they have to spend all of their teaching time administrating tests to measure how well they are meeting education standards?

Meeting Standards through PBL:

Here is another example that we completed just two weeks ago. We had moved into our units on human anatomy in my biology classes. I wanted students to learn the function of muscles and bones and how they provide support and movement. Now the “standard” way of doing this would be to provide diagrams of the skeleton and muscles and have students label all the names of all the part. Tibia. Fibula. Patella. Femur. Pelvis. Clavicle. Sternum. Latisimus Dorsi, Deltoid, etc, etc, ad nauseum. And many teachers leave it at that, with no understanding of how it all works together. Some will go on to teach (or more likely have the students read in the textbook) how flexor and extensor muscles must be paired, how they are anchored to the fixed bone with tendons reaching across the joint to the mobile bone. But only a few teachers will have students apply this knowledge, or design experiments to collect data that can be analyzed, or have students think critically to evaluate the quality of their knowledge, or do something creative with it.

So I turned the process on its head. I did draw a diagram of the elbow joint on my whiteboard as an example, showing and labeling the parts of everything. I explained how the bicep and tricep work in tandem to flex and extend the joint, and how ligaments, cartilage, and all the other parts hold it all together and allow it to move. That was all I did, and I didn’t really need to do that. It was just a quick 15-minute introduction. Then I gave them a challenge: using the materials I provided, they had to build a mechanical arm that would duplicate the movement of the elbow joint. As teams, they would need to use my diagram as a guide, look up whatever other information they needed, then design and build their own arm. It had to meet certain specifications: It had to have the same range of motion as a regular arm, not bending too far or extending too far (it could not be double-jointed). It had to have a way of both flexing and extending the forearm. And that was it.

I provided lots of cardboard, wooden skewers, beads, string, hot glue guns and glue sticks, etc. I divided the students into three-person teams, and required them to show me a sketch of their plan before they were allowed to collect materials. Then they set to work. In every case, their first attempts didn’t work very well. Some of the students wanted to quit at that point, saying that this task was “impossible,” but I provided encouragement and hinted that they should look more closely at how the actual human arm does this; obviously, it isn’t impossible if our arms can do this. They tore parts off their models, reglued, tried again, and eventually all the teams succeeded. They were all different, but all mimicked the construction of the human arm in important ways.

Round head in square hole

Standards imply that every student is the same, and that one size fits all in education.

With that project done, the same teams went on to create working models of the human hand. These models had to be able to create several gestures of my choice to show control of individual fingers, be able to pick up and move small objects to show dexterity, and be able to grasp and lift a cup full of water (added slowly) to demonstrate strength. This was a much harder task, and the same students again tried to give up. They wanted me to provide step-by-step instructions, but I refused. I repeated that there were no right answers, no one right way to do this. Some had to redesign from scratch, which was frustrating, but they overcame this frustration and eventually all succeeded.

It took seven class periods to accomplish these two projects. I could have easily taught the basic concepts about the arm and hand in a day using traditional activities, and they might have remembered the details long enough to pass the unit test (with some repetition and review). This would have sufficed for the requirements of the state standards. But it doesn’t meet my own standards, which are much higher. And it meets those other two pesky dimensions of the Next Generation Science Standards: Scientific and Engineering Practices (engineering design process) and Cross-Cutting Concepts (modeling). We’ll look at teaching through building models in a future post.

So how did they do upon assessment? On the unit test, the students who completed these models showed a thorough understanding of how the arm and the hand work; not just the parts, but how they are shaped, how they operate and fit together, and even the importance of having opposable thumbs. Those teams that didn’t have effective thumbs had great difficulty lifting their cup of water.

All students received 100% on the essay questions related to these projects and all passed the test. They could repeat the facts, and they thoroughly understood the concepts. They will remember their learning far longer than traditional methods because they have applied their knowledge. They have analyzed problems that occurred with their models and evaluated their effectiveness against the specifications. They have revised, fixed, redesigned, and in short, they have created. They fulfilled all of the requirements for the state and the three dimensions of the NGSS, as well as all of Bloom’s levels. In addition, they learned resilience, teamwork, collaboration, and communication skills. Not all of the teams got along perfectly, and I had to work with them on how to communicate effectively to listen to all ideas and make a solid group decision instead of one person trying to run the show. Was it worth the extra time? Absolutely!

Tower of Education Babel

There are a lot of education buzzwords out there, a veritable Tower of Educational Babel that obscures instead of clarifying the problems of education and the need for reform.

Conclusions:

When administrators and parents and everyone else gets bent out of shape about standards and you feel a pressure to “teach to the test,” just remember that state education standards are the minimum expectation, and we should hope that you are a better teacher than that. Yes, you must meet the standards. You can get fired if you don’t. But state standards are not the end we are after, only one means to the better end of extraordinary education. So overreach the expectations forced upon you by your state, principle, or community and dare to teach to a higher standard. Mentor your students to deeper understanding, higher engagement, and further creativity. Dare to be extraordinary!

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New Haven signs

New Haven Residential Treatment Center, where I now teach. It is located in a rural area near the mouth of Spanish Fork Canyon. It is surrounded by alfalfa fields and deer frequently walk through the school in the evenings.

With my performances in the musical over (see my previous post) and Christmas past, I redoubled my efforts to find another teaching job. By the end of 2017 I had about seven different interviews, some over the phone, a few in person. I thought they all went well, but not all of the jobs were equally attractive. Some would require my moving away from Utah, which I am reluctant to do. I like living here, with the great combination of desert and mountains, incredible geology and scenery (there are five national parks in Utah and two others just outside), and a wonderful mix of biomes, ecosystems, and weather. A science teacher’s dream-come-true! So I am loath to leave.

One interview was with Pearson Publishing to promote their new science curriculum, which would require frequent travel but allow me to continue living here. But I’m not much of a book salesman, having had a negative experience while in college selling books door to door in Phoenix during the summer. I wouldn’t want to do that again unless at the uttermost need. I had some teaching interviews with KIPP schools and elsewhere, but again there are none in Utah and it would require moving. Another job was for a new tutorial program, but it was only part time (I need full time) and I’m also reluctant to start a new job with a new school knowing how much is promised that never comes to fruition.

New Haven schoolhouse

The school building at New Haven RTC. I teach in the science room, which is the new addition right behind the pine tree next to the pond.

I looked for a variety of categories on every job aggregating website I could find, from Teachers to Teachers to Indeed and beyond. I looked for teaching jobs, curriculum development jobs, education consulting jobs, media design jobs, tutoring jobs, even substitute teaching jobs. These last two I didn’t pursue yet since I wasn’t quite that desperate, but I decided if I didn’t get an offer by the end of January I would start applying for these jobs, too.

One position I found was for a science teacher at a residential treatment center in Spanish Fork, about 20 miles south of where I live. I have taught at an RTC before and am familiar with how they work. Students with emotional and behavioral problems are sent to these centers (by parents, the courts, and school districts) as a last resort to provide them with in-house therapy while helping them catch up on school credits (which they are often behind on). Utah has a cottage industry of RTCs because the structure of our laws allows for lock-down school facilities as long as they have fire-safe zones separated by firewalls. I was called in for an interview and was impressed by what they are doing and felt the interview went very well. It happened on Dec. 16, so I wasn’t expecting to hear back immediately because of Christmas break. But once January began I hoped to hear back one way or another.

I followed all the requirements of Unemployment to apply to at least four employers per week (I actually did far more than that). I put myself on a daily time card to track the hours I spent, hoping that I could be productive in everything I did. I worked harder than on a normal job, averaging over 55 hours per week. But not much was happening. I was about to start subbing and finding whatever jobs I could, but knew if I did so it would take time away from looking for better jobs. It’s a kind of Catch-22.

BBIG Project Diagram-s

A schematic diagram of how a project would be organized and managed using the BBIG Idea structure. The entire organization from students on up will decide on the major projects for each year, and the Project Directors and Advanced Innovators will divide the project into separate pieces, such as videos, 3D models, games, etc. Innovator teams work with Master Educators to divide the project further into pieces that individual students organized into Apprentice Teams complete, based on continual formative assessments.

A BBIG Idea:

I continued to develop a business plan for creating an organization that would take Media Design and STEM professionals into schools as independent contractors, similar to some school to work programs. My idea is called the Black Box Innovation Group, or BBIG. It will create a non-profit that sends professionals into schools to work with their media design students to create non-profit educational products, starting with practical projects such as promoting Utah tourism through creating county videos. Each year I would add more schools, then build an organized training program, with graduated students (masters) working for BBIG to go back into schools to train apprentices (middle school students) and journeymen (high school students).

Competency based school challenges

My BBIG Idea will be a competency-based school program directed by outside professionals and Master Teachers (classroom teachers trained by BBIG). This diagram from the 2014 meeting of the Digital Promise League of Innovative Schools describes the challenges to adopting a competency-based curriculum, although it is a much needed school reform.

Students advance by mastering skills and participating in central journeyman level projects that show high competency. The central themes will be decided on each spring at a BBIG Idea Convention. Anyone in the organization could propose ideas at the annual conventions, and these would be focused on media design but with STEM themes. At first, BBIG would be supported by grants but would eventually fund itself through sales of its products. I worked out all the details, and even set up an appointment with the Small Business Development Center to look it over. The SBDC was very favorable on all but my funding model, as trying to continue an organization on grants alone isn’t very sustainable. I took a Saturday class at the SBDC to learn how to test the feasibility of my idea, and I took a continuing class on Thursday nights for how to create my own business. Although I haven’t moved further on this idea, I intend to pursue it through grants once I build more cache for myself through adding those three magic letters to my name and gaining the backing of a university.

If you want to learn more about the BBIG program, here is a PDF file you can download and view at your leisure:

BBIG presentation-s

Finally: Success

If my job hunting efforts had continued into February, I would have taken the plunge into starting BBIG while beginning to do tutoring and substitute teaching. But my job search efforts finally paid off. In mid January I interviewed with Heritage School, another RTC that is less than two miles from where I live. When I taught at Provo Canyon School 20 years ago, we did some joint training activities and classes with Heritage, so I was familiar with their campus and some of their people. The day after the interview they called me and offered a job. I told them I needed 24 hours to decide. With an offer in hand, I called up New Haven RTC and asked what their decision was. They had a couple of final questions for me based on my references from my former school, which I was able to answer satisfactorily. They offered me a job as well. After three months of no results, I was in the good position of having two offers to choose from.

I also weighed continuing my job search. It was near the start of a new semester and there would be some science jobs available at local school districts. Did I want to go back to crowded classes with over 30 students per class? Working in a district is a stronger position than being at a private school when it comes to applying for awards and grants. Finally, however, after much thought, I decided to accept the offer at New Haven. My feeling for their program was more positive and I felt I could work in their system more effectively.

I would be replacing a teacher who was leaving to become a stay-at-home dad. Over the years, he and his wife had sponsored 14 foster children and she had accepted a great job offer, so he was needed at home. I went in to the school starting a week before the end of the semester to observe and get prepared for the transition at the end of January 2018.

Making gak at NH

Making gak in my classroom at New Haven RTC. Because of the nature of our school and the students’ need for privacy, I cannot show faces or give names. It is nice to be back doing fun projects again, which I’ll describe in later posts.

I have been at New Haven since then, and I am used to the students and system. I feel that I am finally getting back on track creating new materials, blogs, lesson plans, and applications. I am writing blog posts again, creating new lesson plans, and planning ahead for what seems like the first time in a long time. I am innovating and creating again, and beginning to apply for awards and professional development opportunities. One thing I can’t apply for, however, is grants. This is a private for-profit school and almost all grants require the grantee to be a non-profit entity. I am moving forward and have been accepted into an online doctoral program in Educational Studies at the University of Northern Colorado, specializing in Innovation and Education Reform. I will talk about this more in later posts. This may provide further opportunities for grants.

As of today, May 21, 2019, it has been a year and a half since I was laid off at American Academy of Innovation and I don’t miss it. I do miss many of the students there, who were amazing, but I don’t miss the commute or the long hours or the stress that seemed endemic to that school. I have half the commuting time, and I get home now long before I would even leave school there.

I can focus on individual students and their needs. We have weekly treatment team meetings where we go over the therapeutic, educational, and social needs of each student. Think of it as a very detailed IEP that takes place every week. Our structure at school allows teachers to attend those meetings and be a full part of the team. I wish normal schools could do the same, but the intensity of how we do things couldn’t be replicated without quadrupling the amount we now spend on education.

Although I’ve now been here for 16 months, which is longer than I was at AAI, I’m not sure if I’ve yet recovered from the trauma of losing that job, even if it was a lay off due to financial issues. I still feel a need to cover my backside. I applied for over 60 jobs, interviewed for nine, and received two offers. That’s a lot of rejection, and it was hard to take day after day for three months. One thing that helped me was to see the movie The Greatest Showman (my wife insisted –she’s a big fan) and hear the song “This is Me.” It inspired me to write my own personal anthem as a way of thumbing my nose at all the detractors and naysayers I’ve had during my teaching career (and there have been more than a few) and to rise above the continued daily rejections. Here it is, for what it’s worth:

I Will Rise

Personal Anthem of David V. Black

They tell me my efforts are worthless,
I’m too old, obsolete, uninformed.
They say that my skills are now useless,
And ignore all the castles I’ve stormed.

But they’re wrong about me.
I’m afraid they won’t see
All the value I’ll bring to their schools.
Yet I won’t believe them,
As a teacher of STEM
I’ve learned to obey my own rules.

Though I may not be much in their eyes,
You can still count on this: I will rise!

I’m not falling down, I am leaping
Ahead of the pack, not behind.
Their negative thoughts won’t start seeping
To poison my thoughts or my mind.

Oh they won’t get me down,
And I won’t play the clown,
I deserve some respect for my strife.
Through the rest of my years,
I won’t give in to fears,
I’ll have joy throughout all of my life.

No matter how hopeless the prize,
There will be no mistake: I will rise!

I’ve taught classes from Boston to Bali,
Written blogs from the ends of the Earth,
Lead workshops for NASA in Cali,
And now you dare say I’ve no worth?

I’ve worked far too long to accept it
When you say that my best years are gone.
There is still much to see, still more to do
And I won’t quit until I have won!

Oh they’re wrong about me,
And some day they will see,
That I have so much further to go.
They will bow with respect,
Accusations retract,
And upon me their honors bestow.

Through the darkness I’ll reach for the skies,
And no matter the cost: I will rise!

I’m the teacher they thought to despise.
I will never give up: I will rise!

 

OK – so – I’m not exactly a great poet. But it encapsulated my feelings, and helped to keep me going. Despite daily setbacks and let downs, I had to keep going and believe that my efforts would pay off eventually. As an ancient king once said regarding his people’s attempts to escape from slavery:

I trust there remaineth an effectual struggle to be made.
– King Limhi

Or as Shakespeare put it:

Our doubts are traitors, and make us lose the good we oft might win, by fearing to attempt.
– Shakespeare, Measure for Measure

I had to believe that my attempts weren’t futile and set my fears and self-doubts aside. I kept trying, and it finally did pay off.

Now I can continue this blog and look forward to the rest of my teaching career. With my doctorate program I can finally join empirical research to the theories I’ve developed over the years based on my observations as a teacher. I can finish the books I’m working on and edit them until they are published. I can create a plethora of educational materials and follow up on all the ideas I’ve had. I’m no longer in job limbo. I am in recovery.

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Walden School

Walden School of Liberal Arts in Provo, Utah

The past month has been crazy busy as I’ve prepared for my new teaching job at Walden School of Liberal Arts in Provo, Utah. I had intended on writing at least six blog posts in August and interviewing at least one person, but didn’t do any of it; instead, I’ve been writing curricula, lesson plans, preparing my classroom, and going on a four-day backpacking trip with my students to the high Uintah Mountains, up past Mirror Lake to Naturalist Basin. My legs are still recovering. Now this week has begun our first week of classes: I am teaching two sections of Honors Chemistry and one section of Astronomy on Mondays, Wednesday, and Fridays and one section of Computer Technology and one of Multimedia on Tuesdays and Thursdays. I’ll probably also pick up a Video Production class afterschool as well on those days. So far we are three days into the school year and things are going well.

My chemistry and multimedia students will be helping with the Elements Unearthed project in much the same way as my Media Design students did at MATC, except I am now at a school that actually believes in expeditionary learning (field trips) and project-based learning (PBL). Plus having dedicated chemistry students will help improve the accuracy and relevance of the student videos. Here’s what they are going to do:

David Black classroom

My classroom at Walden School

During the first term, each student will select a topic from one of four categories: elements, materials, energy processes, or the history of chemistry. They will conduct background research and develop an extensive set of notes with references, which they will condense into some form of print media, such as a poster, newsletter, brochure, etc. which they will convert to .pdf format. They will act as guest hosts of this blog, each one taking a turn to write a post entry about their topic and attaching their .pdf file to it for all to see.

During second term, they will come up with some sort of demonstration that relates in some way to their chosen topic, and practice it in class, then on a Friday in November we’ll take the whole class downstairs to the elementary classrooms (Walden School is a K-12 Montessori school) and present their demonstrations to the students, as well as handing out a simple worksheet or activity the students can take home. The chemistry students will also present their demonstrations to each other just before winter break and receive feedback.

David Black's Classroom

My classroom again

During third term, the chemistry students will add a Powerpoint or Keynote presentation or a video to their topic, which will be presented to their peers and added to this blog site. They will also present again to a different elementary class.

During fourth term, they will present their demonstration, Powerpoint, video, etc. to the public and their parents at a Back-to-School Science Night at the end of April or start of May. We’ll videotape the proceedings and add the videos to this blog as well.

This may seem like a huge project (and it is) but I’ve done all of this before when I’ve taught chemistry at Juab High School in Nephi (except for the media elements – that comes from MATC). Those students who wish can utilize the footage and photos I’ve already gotten for the Elements Unearthed project to do their element or material reports. They can also compete in the Chemical Heritage Foundation’s “It’s Elemental” video competition. My multimedia students will help on the longer videos I’m creating for this blog, YouTube, and iTunes (we’ll set up the iTunes account in our Computer Tech. course).

So you see, I have landed in an ideal situation for classes that I love to teach coupled with a great group of students and an environment that works perfectly for this project. I’m very excited to see what will come out of it. At the very least, this blog should be quite a lively place.

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This morning I accepted a job offer to teach full-time at Walden School in Provo, Utah. (here is their website: Walden School Website). I will be teaching a combination of chemistry, earth science, and multimedia courses at the high school level. Walden is a small charter school that follows the Montessori philosophy of providing a rich learning environment and letting students have a large say in the direction and content of their education. This happens to coincide very well with my own philosophy, which I have stated here before, that science classrooms need to go beyond hands-on learning and teach students how to be creative contributors to their own education, through building their own science content or conducting their own experiments.

Materials for Mars 3D activity

Materials for the Mars 3D activity

In fact, the fit for me is so good that if I had sat down and designed the perfect situation for what and how I like to teach, it would be very similar to what Walden School has to offer. And it will be ideal for The Elements Unearthed Project. It will provide a base of operations, so to speak, from which to apply for grants and gain support as well as a group of dedicated, creative students to work with. Teaching chemistry and earth science in addition to the multimedia I’ve taught for the last ten years will also allow me to cross-pollinate the classes so that students can do diagrams, animations, and videos for their multimedia class but also get credit in chemistry or earth science. This is the way project-based-learning (CBL) can be more efficient as well as more effective.

I’ve struggled this last year since returning from my fellowship at the Chemical Heritage Foundation to make financial ends meet by creating Business Profile Videos for clients. The economy being the way it is, all the businesses we’ve contacted love the idea of a YouTube video advertising their products or ideas, but hardly anyone can afford to pay what the videos are actually worth. So for the last two months I’ve been searching for full-time and part-time jobs; it takes a great load off my mind to know I will have a regular income. Although my days will now be spent teaching, I think the overall pacing of the project can increase; I no longer will have to spend all my evenings working on business videos and can devote almost as much time as now to the video episodes I’ve already filmed.

It will also be great to get back to science teaching. I’ve missed it, and I’m looking forward to dusting off and updating some of the great lesson ideas and activities I’ve learned from NASA and elsewhere. I can bring back the Elementary Science Tutorial Program I began at Juab High School so many years ago. Now my students can build the 3D model of the nearby stars I developed for my astronomy classes at Provo Canyon School. Now the Mars 3D project I developed at MATC can be shared between multimedia and earth science classes. Now The Elements Unearthed Project will be able to draw on students from multiple disciplines in a school that believes in student creativity, project-based teaching, and expeditionary learning.

Table top star model

Table-top 3D model of the nearby stars.

Instead of the factory model, one-size-fits-all style that is killing our public high schools, where subjects are fragmented and divorced from each other, I believe in teaching holistically and individually and expecting students to achieve highly creative work. Now I’m going to put this philosophy to the test.

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