Innovation Lab Video

We’re excited to share this short video about Innovation Lab students and their projects. Thank you to Fjolla, Kathryn, Emily, and Alex for narrating and to all students for their hard work this year.

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Spring Fever…

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Between the return to Daylight Savings Time, the beautiful weather over Spring Break, and this week’s April showers (come on May flowers!!!), it truly feels that we are finally throwing of the mantle of Old Man Winter and emerging anew.  Admittedly our … Continue reading

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The Social Studies Teacher

(The title is an allusion to one of my favorite poems, “The History Teacher”, by Billy Collins.)

Last week, I met with a professor from Sacred Heart University to discuss the role of inquiry in teaching social studies. After a brief tour of InLab, the conversation eventually morphed into a debate over the age-old question–at least among social studies teachers–about what exactly it means to be a social studies teacher.

While it may sound like the beginning of some ridiculous existentialist discussion–What is the meaning of life? Why is grass green? Why is green green?–the answer to the question informs everything about how a social studies teacher approaches curriculum and instruction.

Note to the reader: I am deliberately not saying “History teacher.” It’s kind of a sore spot in the social studies community. Yes, we have a community. One with conventions and meetings and books with names like Historical Detective and Sherlock History.

Anyway. A social studies teacher would say that we’re not only teaching history. We’re also teaching students how to be good citizens, decision-makers, problem solvers, writers, etc.

At least that’s what the professor and I concluded at the end of our discussion. Sometimes, however, this can feel like an added burden. Projects have to be subject-specific, but also focused on the bigger picture. Students not only have to understand the historical implications of the decision to drop the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but the ethical implications as well. There’s a big difference between asking why the US dropped the atomic bombs on Japan and whether or not it was justified.

Tomorrow, almost fifty Innovation Lab students will present projects at the National History Day Fairfield Regional Competition. This year’s theme is Taking a Stand in History. To be successful, a project must look at individuals as decision-makers, people who challenged the status-quo by standing up, sitting down, spying behind enemy lines, speaking up for the voiceless, or simply surviving in the face of seemingly insurmountable obstacles.

For the project, students brainstormed questions, researched their topic, crafted an argument, and then created a documentary, exhibit, performance, or website. Although this may sound like a “history project,” the content, skills, and concepts learned by students reach far beyond the purview of the discipline.

For one, students learned how to think. Not only as historians, but as citizens, and, dare I say it, human beings. I won’t bore you with the details of Bloom’s Taxonomy, but trust me when I tell you that the project follows his levels of thinking all the way to the top.

 

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The taxonomy I won’t bore you with. 

Likewise, I don’t have time to go into all of the great historical research I’ve seen in the past two months–I’m pretty sure there’s something I’m supposed to be grading–actually, there’s always something I’m supposed to be grading–but I assure you that interviews were conducted, primary sources consulted, documentaries watched, and books read.

And I won’t be able to do the projects justice by simply describing them here. I’ll post pictures after the competition on Saturday–as long as I remember to take pictures. Neither social studies teachers nor history teachers are known for their social media prowess.

But the point is, “history teachers” don’t have to give up history and “social studies teachers” don’t have to give up all those, you know, sort of important things like teaching students how to empathize and make decisions and be good people.

Similar to many of the questions posed by students in their NHD projects, the answer to the history/social studies debate is a lot more complicated than a simple yes or no.

 

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Taking a Stand on the Syrian Refugee Crisis

Nicole’s thoughts on how the United States can take a stand to help solve the crisis in Syria, and how her work on her National History Day project addresses similar social and legal issues. Definitely worth a read…

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Since the outbreak of the Civil War in Syria, an estimated 11 million Syrians have left their homes (syrianrefugees.eu).These syring have fled to other countries such as Turkey, Lebanon, Iraq,Germany and Jordan allowing them to escape the danger that is prevalent in Syria.

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So far, Turkey has accepted about 2.7 million refugees, Lebanon has accepted approximately 1 million, Iraq has taken 3.1 million, Germany has about 1.8 million and Jordan has approximately 650,000 refugees (amnesty.org). All of these countries have taken a stand against for the Syrian refugees by allowing to stay in their countries.

However, there are still many countries in the world who are refusing to allow Syrian refugees into their country in fear of terrorists groups potentially entering. One of these terrorists groups that the countries fear is ISIS.

trump-syrian-refugees-tweet-1-1.jpg Trump Tweets revealing his actions are based on fear.

The United States…

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Can You Help Me with This?

In high school I worked, on average, twenty-five hours per week at the Staples Copy & Print Center in town. It was a cushy job in large part because roaming Office Supplies was the worst; I remember how satisfied customers were when you would “check the back” for a missing item. I’d just go for a drink of water and check my phone. If it’s not on the shelf or above the aisle, we don’t have it.

During my senior year, school administrators floated the idea of heterogeneously grouping otherwise tracked middle-school classes. Translation: mixing honors and college-prep students together. I used a slow night at work to write an op-ed for the town newspaper outlining why it was a terrible idea. Honors students like me shouldn’t be slowed down by kids from “lower” classes. It was a pretty angsty piece. The Westerly Sun published it, which is unfortunate, because I was wrong.

In the past two weeks, most of STEM 10 has been double-blocked math. Two hours straight of polynomial division, factoring trinomials, and rules of rational exponents – topics on the SAT that don’t fit into our projects. I made traditional math worksheets with problems of varying difficulty. Students of all math levels worked side-by-side.

Most math teachers agree that having students successfully explain a topic to each other improves both students’ understanding. It’s why we ask them to re-explain instructions to the group, pair-share, or put them in teams near a white board. It’s how I got through college Calculus; I had a D until I went to the university’s help center and a tutor made me explain concepts back to him. (I passed with a B.) Some parents have a hard time believing our mixed groups don’t significantly slow down honors students. Perhaps we should film perfectly capable Algebra 2A students understanding and explaining topics to their confused “honors” peers.

What makes an honors class? Traditionally in math, it’s a combination of pace and difficulty. Cram in two extra units, have students memorize more formulas, and make the tests longer and questions harder. So why can’t honors students and college-prep students share a room? Can they not learn from each other? They can and they do.

My assessments differentiate between math levels. I do periodically pull the honors students for their extra units. At our school, assessments count for more in an honors class and less in a class with more support. The course labels have a role at the moment and colleges don’t want us to ditch them anyway. But separating students into different rooms by level is just another byproduct of minimizing cost and maximizing efficiency. There is peer-reviewed research to suggest homogeneous grouping disadvantages medium/low ability students. The marginal gains by grouping by ability for higher ability students are outweighed by the harm it does overall.

Differentiating for students in a tracked classroom is hard. Differentiating for a class of mixed ability students in our rooms can be even tougher. But spending the time to meet the needs of a wider range of students is worth the time and effort because we can avoid the unintended consequences of tracking. Seventeen-year-old me did not understand this. I had only my experience to draw on. I hope experiencing InLab will provide my students with a better perspective than I had at their age.

Here’s some pictures of the introduction to electricity this week!

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STEAM Project Physical Piece Reflection

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Originally posted on Eva Moore:
For our STEAM project, (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, and Math), we were told to make any form of art through which we expressed our thoughts on a social issue. Our projects were displayed in the…

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A Night at the Museum

On Wednesday, February 8th, GHS Innovation Lab sophomores exhibited their artwork at the Bruce Museum. A one-night event, hundreds of students, parents, and residents visited “Opposition and Change in Self and Society.” Today’s front-page story in the Greenwich Time features Jody, Lucas, Zach, and Jessica.

For the second year in a row, the Bruce closed their gallery the day of the exhibition. Curators met with students to stage and light their work in a space already full of professional artwork. When students arrived, they found name cards on tables; this small touch was just another reminder of how big a deal it is to have their artwork showcased in a museum. Many students were told their work “looks like it belongs here” and more than one person said the art “looks like something from MoMa.” The night was a victory lap of sorts – a culmination of months of work and a stage for students to shine.

Students presenting the artwork:

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Students’ physical pieces:

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Apparently I did not photo the finished Desmos artwork at the museum, but here are a few examples:

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Student Voice [Full Post]

A draft of this post was sent earlier in error. Below is the full post.

We would do well to listen to students more. They are more connected to the “real world” than most adults were at their age. They follow the President on Twitter. They watch live protests in Romania on Snapchat. They are learning to constantly question information. Part of this is being a teenager. But there are 15 million public high school students in the United States, who, as an entertaining collective, would be the fifth most populous state. Their voice matters.

Next week’s exhibition at the Bruce Museum (6:30-8:30, Greenwich, CT) is a testimonial to student voice. Our students are more mature than their snap selfies would initially suggest; they are thoughtful, deep thinkers. Their art is a filter between their thoughts and the public. Last week, Sarah explained why projects and exhibitions are worthwhile. In reading students’ museum cards, I am reminded that beneath the bright colors, there are bold statements being made. I invite you to read two in advance of the exhibition. We are excited to watch them find their voice in person next week.

Students were asked to make a piece of art using only equations in the graphing calculator Desmos. The prompt: create an image that symbolizes opposing aspects of your identity or which comments on a change you would like to see in yourself.

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PS. Some photos from the week! To see the rest of the art, plan to visit the Bruce Museum on Wednesday, February 8, from 6:30 to 8:30 PM.

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Standards, NOT standardization!

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“Accountability” is a hot topic in education today.  From Senate confirmation hearings, to state legislatures, to local districts and schools, everyone wants to know: How are we going to ensure that ALL students have access to a quality education and how will we know that they are learning?

From a philosophical point of view, consensus has largely been reached.  We agree that all students (and teachers) benefit from high “standards.”  That is to say, we all agree that having high, clearly articulated expectations of what students should be able to learn and do promotes student success and high levels of achievement.  Rosenthal & Jacobson’s classic 1968 paper “Pygmalion in the Classroom” represents just one of a multitude of studies demonstrating essentially that students will rise to the level of the expectations placed upon them.  Hence the emphasis on written standards (whether national, state, or local) demanding a high “level of quality or attainment.”

Where consensus breaks down is how to measure and verify student mastery of those standards.  In the quest to do so, we collectively have fallen victim to “standardization,” an over reliance on a specific “idea or thing used as a measure… in comparative evaluations.”  We administer standardized assessments to measure student progress, and hold both students and teachers accountable to performing adequately on those tests.  Sadly, this overreliance on standardized assessments misses the mark in many ways.  Test-taking becomes divorced from the active process of learning, is anxiety provoking, is devoid of student agency, and frankly in many cases is a better measure of the parents’ educational and economic status than it is of student learning.  I can’t tell you how many conversations I’ve had with my son’s elementary school teachers in which they tell me some variation of, “I know he understands the concept, but he made such-and-such mistake and only earned a such-and-such score.”  So he knows it, she knows he knows it, but the test doesn’t know he knows it!  Overall, we have substantial evidence that our tests don’t really measure what we are trying to measure.

So why are we so stuck on them?  I think, in large part, because we have bought into two fallacies, first that standardized assessments save time because they are easier to grade and second that they are more objective.  We are unfortuantely frightened away from the sort of performance tasks and student presentations of learning that we would all agree are a much more comprehensive and accurate demonstration of what students know and can do, because we think we don’t have time for them and that giving a multiple choice test is quicker.  This fear, however, ignores that such performance based assessments inherently combine instruction and assessment, so you are not “losing” any learning time by administering them (whereas any teacher, student, or parent will tell you that testing eats up too much valuable instructional time).  Furthermore, the “scoring” of the assessment also is embedded in the conversations between student and teacher, where instruction, feedback, and reflection all occur.  Again, grading becomes part of the learning experience.

educational-system-comicAs to the purported “objectivity” of such assessments, I refer you to the provided cartoon popular with educators.  We call standardized tests “objective” because they provide defined questions with very specific “right” answers.  But who decides what answer is “right”?  More importantly, who decides what questions are worth asking?  The very act of designing an assessment requires someone to decide what will be assessed, how it will be asked, and which responses will be deemed acceptable.  Thus, the design of these tests is inherent extremely subjective.  Personally, I would much prefer those subjective decisions be tailored to each unique student and, better yet, involve the participation of the student being assessed.   Again, in this aim performance assessments and presentations of learning fit the bill.

We don’t live in a land of unicorns and rainbows where everything works as it should, so I recognize that standardized tests are a reality I can’t run away from.  Just two days ago, our Innovation Lab students completed all of their more traditional subject-area midterm exams.

We refuse to let it stop there however.  Today our sophomores began the exhilarating scramble leading up to their first Exhibition of Student Work, being held Wednesday February 8th from 6:30-8:30 PM at the Bruce Museum.

bruce-museum-flyer-feb-2017-1The exhibit, titled “Opposition and Change in Self and Society,” represents the culmination of three months of work on a joint Humanities and STEM project in which students were asked to create digital and physical pieces of art that symbolize and comment upon their views of themselves and society. In the digital pieces, created using the mathematical interface Desmos, students symbolize opposing aspects of their identity and/or comment on a change they would like to see in themselves.  In second piece of art, students symbolize an important social issue and comment on the change they would like to see in that issue.  The students will then present their work and learning to any and all members of the public that care to join us.

That’s an impressive performance with an excellent assessment of student learning!  And it also happens to be a ton of fun!!

Hope to see you there! 

 

 

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Communication in the Cold

This summer, in conjunction with our friends from Greenwich Leadership Partners, we devised goals and strategies to help move us forward during year two of Innovation Lab. High on our list was implementation and revision of curricula; and the creation of a brand new twelfth grade program.  As teachers though, this is our comfort zone.  It is what we do and what we love.  Some other items on our list–such as creating a marketing strategy that would highlight our true colors, and constructing a concise and effective school profile to send to counselors and colleges– had us more nervous.  As our first class nears the college application process, we see more and more the importance of getting the word out about how we educate our students and about what makes our program unique.

 

In the early fall we collected some preliminary data from our students and parents. We discovered that the most useful and convincing strategy in getting our message across was unbelievably simple.  Our community found candid and live conversations with Innovation Lab teachers to be the most significant source of reliable and persuasive information.  What other strategies did they find useful?  Communicating with our students.  

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Our students learning Environmental Chemistry.

Our work then focused on the best way to make ourselves available to current and prospective parents and students.  One of my favorite venues for conversation is the nightly Innovation Lab information session.  I hosted the last one this past Monday with Dana Schlosser, our Junior year STEM teacher.  It was a frigid night.  People in Greenwich were sick.  There were so many other activities happening.  Dana and I expected a small gathering of about ten or twelve.  We started promptly at seven with about that many and about five minutes into the meeting, a Greenwich high school alumni respectfully interrupted our meeting to announce that about thirty people were waiting to be let into Innovation Lab from the high school’s glass corridor.  As if on cue, people started to pour into our Design Studio classroom, filling the comfortable sitting room chairs, the office chairs by the tables, and all of the standing room in the back.  As we continued to speak about InLab, our energy level now high after the coffee and the conversation, we noticed that people lingered in the hall craning their necks to get a view of the room and doing their best to hear from the outside.  After answering a few questions about how we block our schedule and how we differentiate for different levels of students, Dana and I decided to move our party to the larger STEM room.  As Dana started a video of our students at work, I scanned the room and noticed that we had close to sixty people there!  It was quite a showing for a cold Monday night.

 

When the video played, I could see people finally began to understand our “school within a school.” Especially the prospective applicants in our crowd became more engaged, listening to our InLab students describe passionately our culture, our philosophy, and (of course) their projects. After the video ended the questions really started to roll.  Parents asked about how InLab might affect college admission.  Students worried about being alienated from the rest of the school. It was in our open dialogue that people’s concerns were voiced and a picture of our reality painted.  I could feel the positive energy in the room, and felt comfortable sharing my passion for Innovation Lab.  It was a good night.

 

For those students who were still on the fence I offered shadowing our students.  Although conversation with teachers is good, nothing can beat watching our community in action.  Our students are experts at sharing their school experience with the larger Greenwich community.  They welcome and even nurture those who seek what we have to offer.

 

So, if you believe that you know a youth who might love to join Innovation Lab, urge them to connect with one of our students.  All they need to do is email us at ghsinnovationlab@greenwich.k12.ct.us.  We will schedule a shadowing day so they can really get a feel for what it might be like to be a driver of their own learning.

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Can We Skip Midterms and Get to the Fun Stuff?

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Eva’s expression of forgetfulness and time management

Midterms are approaching faster than I think both the students and the teachers are ready to admit. Last minute assessments and project submissions are happening, and as much as we are all trying to alleviate the stress of this time of year, we are all feeling it. Why should Innovation Lab feel different? But oddly it does, if only a little bit. Some parts of the program ignore the arbitrary boundaries of quarters or semesters and the projects will continue. Some projects are finishing, but there are still aeroponic plants that have survived the holiday break, and although the final sophomore computer math projects were due yesterday, they extend their work into a chemical/physical piece that bridges both Humanities and STEM that will continue until the exhibition of their artwork at the Bruce Museum February 8th. The juniors are looking at representing their storyboard of the inner workings of governmental processes which will, next semester, transition into a mechanical piece of art that will tell the same story in motion.

 

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Fjolla and Siobhan’s representation of the checks and balances system.

Learning cannot be restricted by these arbitrarily decided boundaries. Deadlines should be based on the complexity of the project and be flexible to adjust to the needs on the project. Yes, the summative assessment of the term has its merit, but should everything come to a screeching halt when it comes to the educational process? I know we’ve taken to easing up on the assignments that need to be done before midterms, but everyday we still give time over to working on the current projects as well as working on review of first semester’s content. The projects are the chance for our students to explore what they want to explore and learn what they want to learn. The assessment for these big projects should come at a natural juncture, and thats where our focus should be. Midterms are still happening, and we can’t avoid that for now. But is that a true assessment of their skills? I am more looking forward to seeing the results of their labors that anyone can enjoy and learn from, than I am for breaking out the red pen and passing judgement on one exam.

Here’s to hoping that everyone takes a deep breath and gets through this exam period and then we can get back to real learning in 2017.

 

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