Thursday, May 11, 2017

Civil Rights Arts Project: A Collaboration Between

By Brian Hussey: American Studies Facilitator
An education professor of mine stressed one basic rule above all others: nothing else matters until you get to know your students. Through four years of teaching, I have returned to this maxim when planning both whole class objectives or devising an individual plan for a student. Moreover, this tenet has held true in the three different contexts I taught. From a charter and magnet school in Philadelphia to a suburban high school outside of Dallas, the need get to know students’ interests, prior knowledge, and personalities remains paramount. In fact, meaningful learning did not happen until I knew more about my students than just their names and faces, and they understood more about me beyond my classroom number and location.

Developing a familiarity between the teacher and learners creates an atmosphere where students are more willing to take risks and accept criticism. Additionally, it places the teacher in a position of constant learning. This is essential in assessing how the student personalities mesh with with the objectives of the course, the personalities of their peers, and the style of instruction. However, there is catch in pursuing for these results. The teacher is the one who sets the tone for what is acceptable in developing the relationship with students. If the teacher is too reticent, then opportunities for genuine inquiry and learning will be missed. If a teacher is too open, learning becomes merely relational and the pursuit of higher academic objectives becomes secondary to the relationship. The teacher must foster an atmosphere that splits the difference. Both teacher and students are participants in the learning community with voice and needs, but the goal of learning and mastering the subjects is still the driving reason of why the relationship exists.

I began this school year in a new district, state, and school--New Tech High @ Coppell. In fact, by the time I drove across the country and set foot in the school, the incoming freshman class was already more familiar with the building than the school’s 11th grade US history teacher. As I managed the nuts and bolts that come with every new teaching job, I did not let this sense of newness impair my priorities in the classroom. On the contrary, it provided an opportunity for growth with my learners. Because I taught juniors, I recognized that in many ways I was entering their school. After two years at NTH@C, these students had a much clearer understanding of life in the school. Knowing this, I had the opportunity to select moments to share my ignorance and allow students to provide their views of the norms at NTH@C. What did students expect of their teachers when project deadlines approached? What did it mean to actually collaborate on a project with other students? What tools, if any, were students expected to use to keep track of deadlines? Which parts of the school culture was readily experienced, and which parts were just slogans?

I knew what I wanted to teach students, and how I wanted them to think more critically about history. However, it was invaluable for me to understand how my priorities fit into the students’ understandings of the school’s culture. By inviting students into this process, it created a sense of shared investment in the classroom. Additionally, I made transparent my own thinking on the school culture and how my experiences shaped this perspective. In doing so, students knew the rationale behind how I managed the classroom rather than merely noting the rules, assignments, and deadlines.

Screen Shot 2017-05-08 at 4.16.31 PM.png
Screen Shot 2017-05-08 at 4.14.47 PM.pngOpportunities to develop a healthy and productive relationship with students occurred not only when discussing open-ended questions such as the purpose of school, but also in dozens of small moments and gestures that occur throughout the school day. Unsurprisingly, the students made the first gesture on this front. During a first week project, two students noticed a puzzle box on my desk. The box and puzzle it contained was a gift from a former student. Inside the box was a wooden puzzle of the United States composed of the 48 contiguous states. This puzzle provided an opportunity to start building a new relationship with these curious students. We discussed what my former school and students were like, if I enjoyed NTH@C, what I thought of Texas (yes, it was hot!), and  a host of other general topics. In return, I probed what they most valued in their school and its teachers, and what they expected of themselves for their junior year.

While we pieced the puzzle together, I was overcome by the realization that these new students were making connections not just with me, but with my former student and school. Through using this small toy and asking questions of me, they were in a way transcending the borders and boundaries that keep them apart. Of course, this was only an entry point for my new students to learn about their peers on the other side of the country. As the year progressed, students asked more questions about my time in Philadelphia and at my former school, Science Leadership Academy @ Beeber. I answered open and honestly, but I felt a nagging problem that I was talking too much about my former students rather than amplifying their voices. Both groups of students deserved to hear from each other, learn about new experiences, and engage in a conversation with someone outside of their daily life. The solution became clear. Although these students were separated by hundreds of miles and a world of socio-economic differences, inquiry and open-mindedness facilitated by technology could bridge the gap. If it was true that learning does not happen until a teacher knows their students, then these groups of young people would not learn about each other’s perspectives until they took the time to know one another.

I worked with my co-teacher in Coppell and my former colleagues from SLA@B in Philadelphia to put together a project that involved students from both schools learning a similar curriculum and engaging with each other. We structured the project around the history of the Long Civil Rights Movement. Using seminal documents from the movement, students analyzed both its progression as well as its effects in both the North and the South. Students also analyzed and discussed Martin Luther King’s “Letter From a Birmingham Jail” and James Baldwin’s My Dungeon Shook — Letter to my Nephew on the One Hundredth Anniversary of Emancipation." Additionally, students read excerpts from Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me to introduce the question of the contemporary relevance of civil rights activism. While we valued the individual experiences of all of the students, we pushed them to ground their critiques and understanding in a close analysis of the history of the Civil Rights Movement and a reading of the texts.

In addition to the shared content, we structured three contact points during the project where students could share insights about themselves and their views on the Civil Rights Movement. In the first contact, groups of students made introductory videos about a “day in the life” as a student at their school. In the second meeting point, students participated in a discussion board to share their perspectives on the three seminal documents they read. Finally, students from NTH@C collaborated to create artistic representations of legacy of the Civil Rights Movements in contemporary American society.  

The videos were not tied to any particular content but were meant to introduced the students from one school to their peers from the other school. Most videos discussed student life as well as shared insights into their communities. Interestingly a video from NTH@C and one from SLA@B used a similar conceit of following a student from the time they woke up in the morning and through their school day. For my students in suburban Dallas, many were struck by the idea of taking multiple forms of public transportation in a daily hour-long commute in order to attend the best possible public school.

In the online discussion, students from both schools shared what interested and challenged them in the readings. They did not always share common ground, especially when discussing Between the World and Me. For instance, an exchange on whether Coates bore any responsibility in providing solutions showed divergent perspectives:
A different thread pushed a discussion around Coates’ description of how bodies of black citizens were at risk throughout American history:

The student artwork reflected a sincere appreciation of the gravity of the Civil Rights Movement and an understanding of what it inspired. However, it also conveyed an uncertainty of how to situate it into current cultural debates. All students demonstrated an admiration of the philosophy of non-violent direct action, particularly the “self-purification” essential to the movement. Some students drew a direct comparison to modern protests, such as Black Lives Matter and the LGBTQ rights movement. Others chose not focus on the modern comparisons, but rather focused on the history and development of the Civil Rights Movement. In these analyses, the individual stories and sacrifices of civil rights activists became paramount. In sum, the artwork demonstrated a deep respect of this part of American history, but an uncertainty of how this understanding should apply to modern day.

Screen Shot 2017-05-08 at 4.23.30 PM.pngThis project asked students to critically engage in an analysis of both the history of the Civil Rights Movement and contemporary society. Additionally, we asked students to reach across boundaries of geography, economics, race, and society and engage in conversations that confound and challenge many adults. This required students to be firm in their beliefs and confident in their ability to communicate their perspective. The students who gained the most from this topic immersed themselves in the history and were open to hearing new perspectives. However, even in providing this opportunity to students, it was still too impersonal in many ways. For instance, many students were unwilling to show their faces in the introductory videos. Additionally, in using the discussion board for sharing ideas, students with stronger literacy skills were more able to express their thoughts. Had students been provided the opportunity for face-to-face communication, different results would have occurred.

Regardless of the limitations, this project was an essential first step for students to think more broadly about a seminal movement in American history and their relation to it. It opened up meaningful and courageous conversations between the students in my room and those on the other side of the country. They practiced thinking historically and saw how essential context is to understanding a historical moment. Most of all, they saw the power of making a personal connection with a topic, hearing another’s perspective, and to use that as a starting point to go deeper into a conversation about our shared history.

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Building Worlds to Change the World

Written By: Daniel Bess, AP Biology and Earth, Space, Science Facilitator

As a facilitator here at New Tech, we have many opportunities to work with learners in after school clubs - Community Service club, Red Cross club, America for Africa club, Astronomy club, Outdoor Adventure club, just to name a few. I happen to sponsor a group called “Table Top Games Club”. We are currently in the midst of a Dungeons and Dragons (D&D) campaign, and this has offered me a glimpse of the work our Dungeon Master (DM) has put into the fun we have every week after school.

A DM is the storyteller - they build the world, and the various quests, as well as paint vivid pictures of the actions that take place as a result of players’ choices and their luck in rolling dice to complete those actions. If you have ever played D&D, you know how exciting it can be to find yourself in another world, role playing, exploring, and tackling a crazy story line with your friends. The success or the failure of the experience lies heavily in your DM’s hands.

It may be an odd comparison, but I see so much of what I do as a Project Based facilitator emulated in the work that our DM puts into the experience. Did I mention that our DM is not me? One of our seniors has taken on this task.

The Goal
A DM first and foremost builds a world of characters and quests to challenge the party. The quest drives the adventurers forward with a goal. Just as a quest and all of its moving pieces are developed by our DM, we as facilitators develop real world problems and situations that will challenge our learners and drive the learning in our classrooms.

Example: To teach learners about bacterial, viral, and genetic diseases and their effect on cellular biology → Learners become med school students preparing to see patients during clinicals; they learn about these diseases through case studies with their med school supervisor (facilitator) - and finally they see a “patient/actor” expressing symptoms of a disease that they must: diagnose, come up with a treatment plan, and then teach the patient about the disease and what it is doing to their body.

Within our projects the learners can play the role of countless professionals: doctors, engineers, financial analysts, poets, a film cast and crew, or even game coders. We spend time crafting a story line and detailing requirements that the learners will have to meet in order to proficiently make it through our challenge.

Benchmarks and Collaboration
Most D&D campaigns have multiple bosses to be fought before meeting a final end game “mega-boss”. The goal of fighting these smaller bosses is so that the party can become accustomed to their skills, strengths, and weaknesses as well as understand how to work together to defeat something bigger and more powerful than themselves. When we as facilitators set up a project, we have a large end-game product in mind - a mega-boss if you will, but we try to break this down into smaller pieces before they take on the whole in a final presentation or performance assessment. At New Tech we call this benchmarking.

Example: In the doctor project, learners create a cell model as a cell biology benchmark that they would then use to model how the disease changes the working of cells to the patients in their clinical role play. The learners also have to pass their med school exams before they are allowed to see patients.

This allows facilitators to check understandings along the way, but just as in D&D, this allows learners to figure out how to work together and manage the group’s time effectively for a large assignment that may have been difficult to complete alone. No matter how many times learners have gone through group projects at our school, they realize that no group will be the same and that each group requires a different touch depending on the personalities, strengths and weaknesses of all involved.

Guided Freedom of Choice and Improvisation
D&D players can make any decision and perform almost any action. The DM must be prepared to improvise and must be willing to take the story wherever the characters lead it. That is not to say that they have no control over the situation - they tend to drop fairly obvious clues as to what the party should do next in their quest and they can easily create characters or situations that prevent the party from advancing down certain rabbit trails. This to me is one of the greatest strengths of learning and teaching through PBL. The learners lead the process of learning by asking questions and seeking knowledge in the directions they believe will help them accomplish the task. These questions absolutely go beyond the scope of what I need to teach them!

Example: In the doctor project learners inevitably ask questions about diseases outside of the case studies the facilitator prepared. They see connections between all genetic diseases - how they are similar and how they are not - the same goes for bacterial and viral diseases.

If their questions are not deep enough, it is easy to facilitate a discussion that helps them see that the current level of understanding is insufficient. Learners can take their explorations to a much deeper level when we don’t pre-ordain the extent of knowledge they should experience.

To clear up the next question I know many might be thinking: “How do you teach it once they ask for it?” In the end, the ways in which I teach content after learners have requested it is not entirely different from what I did in a traditional school: Inquiry Labs, lectures, videos, hands-on-activities; and YES I still assess my learners with quizzes and tests. As a PBL facilitator, it is the way that we frame and build purpose into our content that allows me to see myself as a Dungeon Master of sorts; taking learners down a path that challenges them, requires them to problem solve, and ultimately leads to a passion for their work.

Project Based Learning vs. Traditional Education
A personal note for those of you wondering if this is a good fit for your child: I came from a traditional school with 6 years of experience before moving to New Tech where I have been for the last 2 years. Does PBL fit your child? - Possibly, but not certainly! PBL may NOT be the perfect fit for every learner; there are those that struggle with the increased freedom and expectations that are afforded by this school just as there are those that thrive - I strongly encourage you and your child to reach out, ask questions, and take a closer look at what New Tech has to offer!  I will leave you with these 3 key things which I have found are benefits to the PBL Process:

  1. Recall of information: If the learner sees no reason to learn content other than a grade, memorization tends to become the default and information is lost more easily. Being able to connect information to a project and an overarching “why am I learning this” has been pivotal to making it stick.
  2. Motivation - A different effect but the same cause as above: Some learners who might have struggled to stay excited about their learning come here and excel because there is a purposeful project driving it all.
  3. Life Skills - So much more is learned here than just content because we expect it and we grade it - we facilitate how to work collaboratively; how to grow and self advocate; how to orally present to a group of professionals or peers; how to write. These things are assessed in EVERY class at New Tech.

Friday, January 13, 2017

Project Spotlight: Quinceañera Expo

Written by Norrie Brassfield, Spanish Facilitator

“I liked that I had the ability to actually have a conversation with a native Spanish speaker at the mall and the Expo.”  

“ I really liked creating the dress, and seeing how the entire theme came together. Seeing that all our hard work paid off, made everything worth it. Especially winning the dress competition.”

“I liked how it was very real world learning. That we applied the Spanish we learned to the real world.”

These are just a few of the reflections after the Quinceañera Expo recently held by the Spanish 2 classes.  Groups were organized into event planning companies to create booths for the Expo that would present ideas and options for venues, catering, flowers, transportation, music, entertainment, dresses, accessories and gifts for a Quinceañera.

While researching this coming of age tradition learners began to understand the religious and cultural significance of this event in the lives of their peers and also discovered that Quinceañeras have become a multi-billion dollar industry in the United States. To create authenticity, each group presented their information to Spanish-speaking parents and community members who acted as evaluators during the Expo.  

Learners used their various talents to express their creativity at the Expo.  Some designed and created recyclable dresses for the Quinceañera fashion show. Others choreographed and taught their classmates a traditional waltz, crafted invitations or created menus and sample foods for the special event.


One of the highlights of the project was the day spent at La Gran Plaza Mall in Fort Worth where they practiced speaking Spanish in a real world setting interacting with shopkeepers to gather information about prices and options for their Expo.  


Trying to speak Spanish outside the walls of the classroom gave the learners new perspectives and built their confidence and willingness to take risks in the target language.  When asked about her experience at the mall, one learner said,  “I learned that it's okay to branch out and try to speak in a different language because if you never try you'll never improve. I also learned that the Mexican culture is very different from American.”  

Another learner observed, “During this field trip I learned how to better understand what people are saying. For example, if you miss a word, figure it out with context clues. Don’t get stuck on it, otherwise you will miss everything else they say. I also learned how to order food in Spanish.  I was worried at first but it was really easy.  My favorite thing is that when I spoke I spoke pretty well and I realized that it was not so hard.”  

The field trip immersed learners in an environment where they challenged themselves to speak while giving them an authentic opportunity for research and learning about culture.