February 28, 2012

Double OMG, I have a plan!

Recently I proposed an idea to my staff - I called it "What's the Big idea!"

I started to wonder if there was an idea, a project that we could collaborate around together? I was inspired by an article I kept reading over and over (to my wife's dismay) by Galina Zuckerman called, "The Learning Activity in the First Years of Schooling: The Developmental Path Toward Reflection" which can be found in Vygotsky's Educational Theory in Cultural Context (2003). Not exactly your typical water cooler conversation stuff, but very enlightening. Zuckerman asks an important question, "How can educators benefit from introducing students to a new field of knowledge through the most general concepts?" I take this to encompass educators and those we teach. And later she says that, "Instruction about any object should revolve around considering general methods for producing it rather than simply listing its essential properties." I like this because then we don't get lost in the details, rather we keep the goal in mind, or what we often call "the big idea".

Later in the article Zuckerman details what big ideas are,

"Big ideas are the core organizing principles...they integrate the themes and interdisciplinary units of learning. A single big idea may often carry through several different grade levels to be explored from multiple viewpoints at varying depths. When big ideas are rephrased as open-ended, guiding questions, they become the fundamental query that navigates the search for understanding. Rountinely articulated, they sustain the underlying purpose of the students' work. Big ideas put the focus on learning, activate the curriculum, and make all students investigators. In this way big ideas facilitate long-lasting meaning after less significant concepts are forgotten."

When I started teaching over a decade ago, I was just happy to see a few lessons go over well and make it through the day. As I gained more experience I started to work on developing units of study one at a time, and slowly building up my repertoire of lessons and units. This has led me to a point where, for a while now, I have been thinking about how I can make the school year more memorable for my students and myself. I have tried to accomplish this by looking for a common thread of an idea that ties many concepts together over the course of the year. Often this takes the form of a year long theme where we decorate the classroom and do some investigation of a topic "off" our prescribed curriculum path but very connected to the core concepts (that's where the most fun happens by the way). I am finding that in the last few years I have had more and more students coming back to visit me asking, "What are you doing this year?" referring to a theme or project that the new crop of students and I might be doing together, and remebering fondly one that we shared together in the past.

This year I chose a theme/project for my students that I knew would enable us to make meaningful connections across the curriculum and look at a topic more in depth. A main reason that I am continuing to think and plan around a central idea, is that I am beginning to see this approach as an important part of the forming of our classroom identity and culture. The students start to care about their project and they start to form an attachment to the space we occupy together and more importantly they start to relate more with each other. As you can tell it is difficult for me to separate these words: idea, topic, project, and theme. Yes, I know they are different, but I don't care so much which one you use since they are many layers to this.

Because of the concepts that are scheduled for me to teach this year, I chose to create an Island theme/project that continues all year long because I knew that I could draw many connections through it. Our classroom is decorated as an island, and the students have their own individual island projects that they work on each month. See my previous post on this at: http://imaginefunlearning.blogspot.com/2011/11/aloha-and-welcome-to-my-blog-since-i-am.html.

My pastel of the River
So from one lesson, to one unit, to a full year...well what about bigger than that! I started to think about the possiblity of doing this on a larger scale. What if we could get the whole school involved in a project study together over many years? With my school staff we have been "floating" the idea of having the River by our school as a focus (pun intended and capitalization intended). I have written before about what I see as the importance of this natural place at: http://imaginefunlearning.blogspot.com/2011/11/river-alternative-context-for-learning.html.

I have been talking with a few people about their experiences with Project Based Learning, and I have been reading about something called a Whole School Project or WSP (see http://www.ierg.net/ for more details). According to the WSP philosophy,

"WSPs deliberately celebrate diversity among students, and recognize the value of many kinds of contribution by seeing how each can bring to a common project abilities and skills that no student would have been able to bring alone."

Focusing on the River is not intended to be a limited study with facts to be memorized and then quickly forgotten. Instead, the River will be a springboard to much larger possbilities. The intent of a WSP is to focus on a topic/project for 3 years. This will allow for the development of understanding that cannot be achieved in only one year. The river is not dry and dead, but vibrant and alive (well okay it is a non-living, renewable resource, but you get the idea).

There will be some obvious connections to parts of the curriculum (habitats, animals, water, resources, etc...). And there are ways to help generate the "flow" of ideas beyond our local community. What are rivers like in other places? What is there to learn about the oldest and longest rivers like the River Nile? The River Ganges for example can hold a very spiritual and cultural importance to many families. What do communities do that have a lack of such necessities like clean running water? There are innumeral local and global possibilities for making this a meaningful topic/project to study about because it will lead to something greater than any individual effort, and it will move us beyond the walls of our own school to reach out. There can be many cultural and personal connections that students will be able to bring in and learn about.

So I have come up with an acronym to help establish a structure for a project of this size. I call it the double OMG plan... like OMG I can't believe we are about to do this!

Orient yourself towards the topic/project. What do we know and not know about it?
Organize the facts and information you find. Delegate tasks amongst your team members.

Make it exciting for all involved. Consider the method of how you teach this content (this will be one of the most important considerations). 
Manage the information in a way that makes sense for you and your group. You can't tackle it all at once.

Gather the people who will help you to achieve your goals. A project of this size will require consultation with many experts. (These are your most important resources.)
Give you what learn about, to the community of learners around you and beyond. How can we reach out beyond our walls? Constant reflection about why you are doing this is critical to its success.

So why would anyone want to take on more work like this? I think we need to evaluate constantly what we are doing. Yes this will stretch us out of our comfort zones...isn't that what we are always wanting to see in our students, that they are willing to take some risks and try something new? We do this because we know that is where the most learning can happen. I am exciting and a little nervous about this adventure with my colleagues, but I know it will be much greater than anything I have ever accomplished in my teaching on my own!

If you have been a part of such a project before, I would love to hear what your successes and failures were. Or if you just want to add your thoughts that's great too! Thanks for reading.

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