By Emilie Perna
Normally, on the day before winter break, I wrangle teenagers to stay in their classes, trying my best to maintain some semblance of order and hoping that the clock will magically start ticking just a little faster. Not this year. This year, the students in Changemaker were hard at work building and perfecting their games until the very last bell. They were painting, taping, wiring, playing, and reconfiguring as they went. The rooms had a happy buzz to them-- that sound all teachers strive for when kids are working productively and having fun. To be honest, that is the sound we’ve been hearing a lot lately as our students work on their combined English and Physics toy project.
Two weeks ago weeks ago, we shifted classes around for a mini unit. Mr. Emery and I combined our physics and English class for the first few days, as we both explored the ways circuits work and analyzed marketing strategies and appeals. In Physics class, I was learning right along with the students. Mr. Emery would put out materials and together we would try to light the bulb or make a buzzer sound. I don’t think the students were ready for my excited squeals everytime we found a new conductor or added an extra battery to make the light shine just a bit brighter. When it was my turn to teach, Mr. Emery sat with the kids trying to find the hidden messages in famous logos and helped them piece together magazine demographics based on the advertisements they were given. In both classes, students were excited to show off their knowledge to a teacher who wasn’t familiar with the content.
And then the real fun began. Using their knowledge of circuits and electricity, they started building prototypes and working to put together real games that others will play. It is a messy process; there are strips of wire and pieces of cardboard everywhere. The sound of the world’s most annoying buzzer can be heard throughout most periods and they are finding very interesting ways to use Christmas lights. They are taking risks in their game designs. From Fortnight dance moves to mini basketball games, from a new-and-improved shoots and ladders to a hot potato game, they are taking ideas from their everyday lives and making them into something others can also enjoy.
In English class, we have been reminiscing about their favorite toys growing up and are working to turn these memories into a short memoir piece. They are also watching and and reading ads with a critical eye. They are analyzing the manipulative strategies that toy companies use to sell their products and working to understand the different argumentative appeals (ethos, pathos and logos) used in advertising and all persuasive writing. They have read articles on the gender divide in toy marketing and are currently working to understand their own role as a consumer. In the next week, they will take these lessons and apply them to their own marketing campaign for their toy.
We have been impressed with the skills they are showing outside of their game design as well. We are starting to see students branch out to new friends and work with people whose talents complement their own. We are also pleased with how they are complimenting and helping each other. When someone gets a circuit to work, they aren’t afraid to show others how to do it. Today, a student dropped off a newly constructed basketball game and others crowded around it during lunch, complimenting it and taking turns playing. They are proud of their work and proud of their classmates’ efforts as well.
In a few weeks the students will hold an “arcade” for 8th graders. They will show off their toy to real customers in hopes of having the best toy. They know the stakes are high-- they want to be the ones with the line of 14-year-olds dying to play their perfectly-constructed, perfectly-pitched game. And who knows, maybe we’ll have Hasbro knocking on our door, trying to sign the next big game designer.
At the end of our first unit, students exhibited their student-led projects to about 150 teachers, students, parents, and community members!
At the beginning of the unit, students were presented with a series of overarching themes, such as global responsibility, the future of food, the effects of boredom, and the importance of hope, Students pick their topics of choice, and throughout the unit, researched elements of their topic, so that they could then create informed, actionable plans. Some groups of students designed social experiments, others focused their attention on social movements, and some groups designed health and wellness plans.
Not only does all of their work connect back to their content work and deepen their understanding of traditional academic work, it also offered an opportunity to develop and expand collaborate skills, comfort with public speaking, and pride in and ownership over their academic work.
An Update from the English Classroom
Two weeks ago, we began The Martian with a QFT. I showed the students a picture of the Habitat, a 33 square foot dome built on a volcano in Hawaii, and a statement:
Immediately the questions started to flow: Why would anyone volunteer to do this? How much money did they make? Can they leave? Did they make it the whole year? Why did NASA want to do this? All told, the Changemakers asked over 150 questions! We then prioritized our top 33 questions (3 from each group). What shocked me most was that the questions these freshmen asked were the same questions that the Lynn Levy, science reporter and host of The Habitat, was seeking to answer in her year-long reporting adventure tracking the daily lives of the six “would be” astronauts living in simulated Mars.
The next day, we began episode one. I asked students to complete one-pagers while we listened, to help work past the “it’s awkward to just sit and listen” phase. For me, I can only listen to a podcast when I am doing some other task, like driving, cleaning or walking the dog. I wanted to simulate that purposeful multi-tasking, while also giving them the opportunity to create something that would help with information recall, especially as we dive further into this series. So I handed out pieces of paper and art supplies and told them to draw, scribble, doodle, quote, question and ponder as they listened. They were a bit resistant at first, but after a few minutes I savored the quiet that had come over the room. At one point, our Changemaker Director, Ms. McHugh, had come into the room and was taking pictures, no one had even noticed her walk into the room. They were so engrossed in their listening and drawing. What struck me most, was how different the end results were. Some focused on 1 image, others created comic book-like drawings, others wrote down quotes they heard, while still others filled their pages with questions.
After the episode, we discussed what would make a person sign up for this, we looked at how “the astronauts” dealt with a disagreement while ground truthing, and made connections between these six would-be astronauts and us, the Changemakers, who are also trying to all work together.
Going forward, students will continue to listen to The Habitat on their own. Each Monday, I assign the next episode; on Tuesdays, I host a Habitat listening party after school, and their one pagers are due on Thursday, when we discuss the episode and make connections to The Martian. This week, episode 3 is an especially poignant one: the group must deal with the 20 minute communication delay, as they try to find out information the 2015 Paris terror attacks and process this tragedy, while being completely separated from society.
I’m absolutely loving having these discussions and watching as the students find the answers to the questions they asked on the first day. I love watching them figure out all the things they take for granted, the things that seem so much more challenging on Mars--like going to the bathroom or taking a shower. I love how they are grappling with challenges Mark faces being alone on Mars and the challenges the six face being “trapped” together in the Hab.
We’d love for you to join us in our listening. I keep telling the kids to put it in the car on their way hockey practice or while doing the dishes so you can listen. This podcast makes for some great conversations with your children.
Starting to think about summer reading? Check out the latest updates on our One School, One Story website: walthamhighreads.weebly.com. The Reading Resources page links to information about the allusions in the book (Scythe names, etc), discussion questions, and much more. We also just added some other book suggestions, for those have finished Scythe and are ready for the next book. I definitely recommend Thunderhead, the second book in the Scythe Trilogy. I liked it even more than the first book!
At the moment, I’m reading:
Deep Learning: Engage the World, Change the World
Yup, I’m geeking out over educational practice.
Leonardo da Vinci by Walter Isaacson.
This one is a commitment. Dense, but great.
Educated: A Memoir by Tara Westover.
This is my beach read/ listen. I love listening to books!
Have a great holiday! Happy reading!
We are one full week into summer vacation-- what a wonderful feeling! But that doesn’t mean we are taking a break from education. In the last week, members of our team have been doing some informal research.
I went to see an exhibit at The Charles River Museum called “The History of Disabilities in America.” It was researched, written, and curated by juniors at Gann Academy and was a major component of their US History class. With a special focus on The Fernald, these students curated a fascinating museum exhibit that brings into the light elements of our hidden history. Find some time this summer to check it out!
Ms. Long and Mr. Emery spent an afternoon at MIT to see the projects at EurekaFest to see the working prototypes developed by high school and college students who are solving real-world problems through invention. Some of their favorite inventions included:
While we are certainly trying to figure as much as beforehand as we can, it is safe to say that we also expect messy sections and will embrace those moments too.
As you walk into the English office, you can’t help but notice the bright glow of artificial lights and the overwhelming scent of fresh basil and cilantro. Visitors are invited in by kale plants growing tall and the sound of trickling water, as it circulates through the system and pumps nutrients into these thriving hydroponic plants.
One of my favorite PBL experiences from this year happened in Emilie Perna’s sophomore comp class. As our ChangeMaker English teacher, Emilie has been thinking about the power of PBL in her current classes. She worked with Mike Barnett, the Director of the Urban Science Education Lab at Boston College, to build and maintain two hydroponic systems. In their two period a week class, the 17 students studied maps of Waltham in order to research food inequities in our community, made decisions about what greens to grow, and problem-solved throughout the process: everything from what to do for yellowing plants and the best way to fill the systems with water. In the end, these students donated over 200 plants to local nonprofits.
While the class worked together in the beginning to build and maintain the systems, they did split into smaller groups to research and create their own projects. What came from this class is a beautiful melding of projects that complemented each other, but also showcased the group member’s individual strengths and interest. One group cooked dinner at Bristol Lodge, using their crops and the money from an in-school plant sale to purchase the other ingredients for Thai Basil Chicken. One student asked Mrs. Perna, “why don’t we do more of this stuff more often?” This is such an important question. And there are many different answers. In The ChangeMaker Academy, we aim to make time and space for this kind of learning-- hands-on, problem-based, purposeful-- to inspire students and drive learning forward.
Below are the student’s descriptions of their projects:
Isabella Meconiates, Lauren Waddick, Abigail Wills and Danielle Pouliot
This year, our class researched hydroponics and how to best grow plants using this method. We found out what nutrients the plants needed, how the systems worked, built multiple systems ourselves, and cared for over 200 plants from seed to harvest. Our group created recipes, that people can make using hydroponic plants. Each recipe was primarily centered around the different plants we grew, kale, cilantro, basil and different types of salad. Other groups within our class, distributed the recipe cards when they were selling and donating the plants and meals made from the plants.
Teaching Teachers About Hydroponics!
Cassandra Escoto, Kenia Guillen, Lidia Martinez, and Kim Garcia
This year, our group sold healthy, hydroponics-grown plants to staff members at Waltham High School. Many teachers did not know about hydroponics, but we as a group, sold the plants and taught our customers about the benefits of growing plants in this method. The money we raised in the plants sales went to creating a meal for the Bristol Lodge in Waltham and buying the supplies to donate our food at the Watch City market.
Fast Food Could Be Your Last Food; Healthy Food For Everyone
Vanessa Greaves, Hanna Touadjine, and Julia Sloan
We believe that everybody deserves a healthy yet enjoyable meal, unfortunately not everyone in our community has access to healthy food. Our group has decided to tackle the problem of unhealthy eating habits in the homeless and low income community by making and serving a meal for the patrons of the Bristol Lodge in Waltham. In order to make these meals we used recipes prepared by our classmates and plants that we grew and cared for in our class hydroponic system.
From Soil to Sales
Kevin Palomino, Tim Galvin, Cullen Millerick, and Mac Surrett
There has been a huge problem not only in Waltham, but all over the world where people don’t have the money to buy fresh and healthy food from the supermarket, so they rely on the cheap and unhealthy foods which can lead to a plethora of different diseases. Our Sophomore Composition class began growing healthy and delicious greens through the wonderful world of hydroponics in order to help combat this epidemic. We are going to be donating them to the community through the Watch City Market, that way a family with a low food budget can have access to fresh and healthy vegetables.
I’ve talked a lot about the tenets of The ChangeMaker Academy, including:
But what will it actually look like in practice? Our first unit, Life on Mars, illustrates the key features of the program.
One might think that “Life on Mars” is a science unit, but for us, it is the theme and premise of our first unit in physics, math, English, and history. Our primary text is The Martian, a fictional story of an astronaut stranded on Mars. The story may be fictional, but the math and science of the story is accurate. We will learn the physics and math standards by putting them into practice. We are going to recreate a Martian exploration and, in the process, we will:
At the same time, we will develop our reading, writing, speaking, and listening skills by exploring personal narratives and the art of storytelling. In addition to The Martian, we will listen to “The Habitat” podcast and watch scenes from Apollo 13, Hidden Figures and Gravity. We will write our own narratives and create our own podcasts.
Voice and Choice
By “going to Mars,” students are essentially creating a new society, so they will need to establish a government and a constitution. This work requires that students know the answer to this question: What do we value as a society vs what is valuable to society?
We will give them the history of world-wide society, what caused them to rise, fall, and evolve, and students will use their knowledge to establish their own utopia.
Throughout the unit, there will be many opportunities for hands-on learning. Some include:
Opportunities for Authentic Audience
This unit has a subtheme: the importance of communication and community/ the effects of isolation. We will explore this theme by reaching out. We would like to write letters to soldiers and create care packages for refugees. Ultimately, we hope to also share our work with the greater community.
Last night, a group of thirty ChangeMaker Academy parents met to discuss education, PBL, and what to expect from this program for their children. We started broad, by discussing philosophical questions about the purpose of education, such as "What skills do students need to be successful in the 21st century?" and "What does it mean to learn?"
Then we transitioned to how The ChangeMaker Academy will fulfill our ideals. There are four main learning objectives. Students will be able to:
We are excited about how each content area, not only fits into each broad theme, but also really complements the others. My next post will give an overview of the the first unit.