This article was written by guest blogger Ben Mountz, a physics teacher at Downingtown High School East.
This school year I am teaching a class built entirely from scratch: the content, curriculum, and even the class structure were not even in existence four months ago.
It’s called Natural Disasters, and it is the brainchild of one of my esteemed Earth Science colleagues, Chaz Nelson, here at Downingtown East. But since it is an elective class for upperclassmen, I knew I had to create a course that was unlike anything that I’d ever done before; a class where students would actually want to come to class, instead of politely (or not) tolerating me.
I love when students are creative. I love creativity in general. But I especially love when people make creative things out of things that aren’t generally thought to be creative (did you follow that?).
Science is a great example of that. Many people view science as calculating and technical, and it is especially exciting when something creative and inspiring originates from a source you didn’t expect. So I created the concept of “Project Blocks”. This is where students take 3, 4, or 5 class days to propose, create, and share their learning about some concept from the chapter, in whatever way they wish. Our new course management program, Schoology, has features that allow me to assign projects individually to students, and no two students’ experiences are exactly alike in my classroom.
After all, everyone learns differently. Recognizing and accommodating this reality in the classroom is what we refer to in education jargon as “differentiation”. But regardless of what it is called, my students are more engaged on a day-to-day basis than any classes I’ve ever had.
I’ve developed a “project proposal” form where students frame out all critical aspects of their project of choice: what topic they want to cover, what the final product should look like, what the objective is, and how they will spend the following several days working on it in class. I broke down Bloom’s Revised Taxonomy into 3 sections, and listed action verbs that would be appropriate for 3-day projects (define, describe, explain), 4-day projects (collect, analyze, organize) and 5-day projects (evaluate, create, construct), so that the students would have a ballpark idea of how long their project should take.
Then I simply said, “Okay, go.“
The following photo is a submission I just received from one of my students for the current chapter. After getting my her permission to post this on a popular social networking site, it drew rave reviews and elicited the following quote from my friend and fellow educator, Jim Harmon (now currently with Apple):
“My head just exploded.”
Yes, that is cake. And for anyone who has never learned about tectonics, these are the main layers of the earth, roughly to scale. True to theory, the core is even solid [white chocolate]. I didn’t even know hemispherical concentric cake molds existed, much less that one of my students would be so motivated as to use one for a project. I was floored. And then we all ate it.
And not to lessen the true uniqueness of this project, but this is the kind of thing that many of my students have been doing lately. All I had to do was create an environment which elicited their inner creativity, and in which they felt safe to experiment in innovative ways with sharing their own learning. The only reason I don’t have more photos up here is because I am behind on obtaining permission to use them.
I know project-based classes are nothing new, but they are for me. When I was developing this, I asked for a lot of feedback from trusted friends and colleagues, because I was frankly scared stiff of doing something that was, for me, so revolutionary. And now, I couldn’t imagine my class without it. More student-generated awesomeness to come.