As I take some time to look back at the past month or so, I have a lot to celebrate as a teacher in his first year of the New Tech model. Now that I’m co-teaching (an “integrated” Political Studies class = a double-block class combining English and Government/Law), there is a lot of credit due to my partner who has helped me keep on track, adapt to a new school culture, etc. What I’m seeing in my teaching is a renewed purpose, thanks (I think) to New Tech’s expectation that every project should have real-world relevance.
PHASE I: THE CONSTITUTION PROJECT
Our first project this year was designed as an introduction to United States government. Sophomores are required to take the US Constitution test in their first semester of sophomore year, so we need to get going early on that. We used the governing documents of the US, however, not only to analyze the choices our founding fathers made but to also have a house-wide discussion as to how governing documents work in schools and other organizations. And eventually, our students crafted their own constitutions for their house governing body.
This idea came to us after my co-teacher during the week-long New Tech Network Annual Conference. When I came to my school, the student advisory board was mostly run by the teachers/staff/”adults” of our house. We approached the rest of the staff with the idea of empowering the students to write a constitution to better guide and structure the student advisory board, and the rest of our staff bought into the idea.
In crafting the project, on my co-teacher’s side, we knew we had to examine the governing documents, so where does that leave my side/English? Well, this is where a sophomore curriculum of mostly writing really is very adaptable. Most of the governing documents of the US are well-crafted outlines with beautiful, flowing handwriting. So, what better opportunity to introduce the idea of organizing our writing. In our rubric, we balanced the government requirements with the outlining and were happy with the products that we got. We had a lot of great scaffolding activities to prop up the purpose of this project.
Last year, I used a lot of scaffolding activities that helped to build students’ organizational skills, but it seemed out of place. As I was teaching outlines to a new group of sophomores and with a much better context, I never had to answer the question, “Why do we have to write an outline before I write something?” There was already an established link between the needs for organization and why our governing documents have lasted been “living” so long. I was working with built-in relevance not only because of good planning but because there was lasting purpose. Each New Tech class from what I can tell has left a lasting impression on the house; the first class established the school logo, etc. So, with our new incoming class of sophomores, they already had been welcomed with a challenge that helped to shape our house image. (Talk about empowerment…that lasts.)
From fifteen group’s drafts, we boiled each block down to one through a “constitutional convention”. This is where empowerment could have become a mess. Needless to say, we held it on one of the hotter days of the school year and involved ourselves at the absolute minimum level. The students would have to organize themselves, figure out how to reconcile differences, etc; the teachers were not “citizens” of this constitution, so we kept ourselves out of it. And of course, there were messes and fires to put out. One block handled things much more professionally than the other; we structured the next day much more clearly for them so they could at least get a full product put together. Overall, however, the block that organized the quickest and handled the conversations the best did not win.
We put the two blocks against each other in a house-wide vote. The block with the ‘messier’ convention actually got way more into the preparations and promotions discussion than did our more immediately organized group. There were more talks about dressing professional and having a common theme there than their initially more organized counterparts; I was stunned for a moment when I sat down and watched the discussion play out. It just goes to show you, though, that the power of learning through experience and reflection deepens the relationship between knowledge and learner.
I am really impressed by what I am able to do in the New Tech model but more importantly what the model is pushing me towards as an educator. While I may be letting go of the traditional ideas of lesson planning, I am certainly making room for more considerations of how students will accept the knowledge or skills the world will expect them to have.