Today ends another successful week in Innovation Lab. Students spent time buzzing about their STEM classroom researching organic compounds. In Humanities, the focus was persuasive communication, as students explored the ancient art of rhetoric and brainstormed positions they might take on “hot button” contemporary issues. In Design Studio we continued chipping away at Daniel Kahneman’s theories on “thinking fast and slow” and how they relate to our learning. Our central theme of “intellect” and essential questions (How do we think? How do we choose? And who decides?) permeated every lesson in every classroom.
As more content and purpose is laid in front of our students both their enthusiasm and their frustrations increase. For some, it was a bit of a shock to be faced with less structure, less teacher directed lessons, and more choice of content. During my Design Studio class, I watched students labor through individualized algebra assignments to show their competency in skills learned last year. When they had questions and confusions, instead of being given the answer right away, teachers would offer students suggestions on where they might find the solutions on their own. Students pondered whether they thought it was necessary to watch videos about Googledocs highlighting and comments functions before plunging into electronically annotating an excerpt from Kahneman’s famous book. They also had to decide which of three levels of reading they should choose, and which three minute video clip about brain function they wanted to watch. (It might be interesting to point out that when given the choice, over three quarters of our students chose the most difficult version of the reading first. ) Needless to say, our students’ brains were hurting. Yet, as my daughter’s second grade teacher pointed out, the brain is like any other muscle in the body. If it works hard, it might hurt a little.
Teachers feel this pressure too. Although we spend less time in front of the classroom, we spend more time instructing students individually, and changing lessons constantly to suit our students’ needs. We also feel the pain of collaboration. Decisions are made by the team and not the individual. It took us one hour to finalize a rubric that will be used to assess student blog posts. If a student is struggling we discuss it together and brainstorm ways to help him. We share one Google document where we publish our major assignments. This new way of teaching is exciting since we get the best ideas from six brains and not just one or two. It can also be incredibly painful and require all stakeholders to check egos at the door. No more, “when the door closes, it’s my classroom.” Everything is shared; everything is transparent.
Yet the joys of teaching have come quickly and exponentially in our program. Our students’ faces literally light up when they find the right answer. (One student today was frustrated over a Chemistry problem. She beseeched me for help. I sadly know little Chemistry. I asked if she had checked a textbook. Off she went. She scampered back, textbook in hand, happily declaring to the class that she had found the solution.) They have already grown comfortable with each other, and often choose to eat lunch together in the common room or sit on our bean bag chairs and listen to music during their open blocks. When one struggles to find the answer to a problem, I secretly smile to myself as another student cuts off the teacher and offers guidance and moral support to the confused peer. They write more blogs than they are assigned, because the blogs are their own and have deeper meaning than the average writing assignment. They share personal stories about how they plan to change the world on slides created for Humanities. Our students smile a lot; they NEVER say they are bored. Both teachers and students can feel the power in what we have created. This is not just the start of another school year. This is a new start.