Friday, December 26, 2014

Designing Real/Experiential Courses for Students

It's been an amazing first almost half of the year.... I have met and worked with like-minded people, and talked to students who are crying out for a different type of education. After I gave the induction speech at my high school's honor society, several students stopped me in the hall to express their willingness to do something that mattered, but also to say that they just didn't have time. Our teenagers are so stressed and over-programed that they don't have time to seek meaningful experiences on their own time and they aren't being offered in schools.

To meet this need, we (Social Studies teachers Maggie Favretti, Jen Maxwell, Fallon Plunkett and I) designed a course, City 2.0,  which culminates in a semester long challenge which the students choose and solve using  Design Thinking. The course fits into the NY State requirement for Social Studies Public Policy. We knew that the culminating experience would be the self-selected challenge and we worked backwards from there. We asked ourselves what students would need in order to succeed with this challenge. They needed a lot of skills and habits of mind in order to be successful: resilience; the ability to ask questions and to seek help from appropriate sources, to name just a few. They needed to be able to work effectively with a team-in other words they had to able to lead, listen and collaborate-truly collaborate, not just divvy up the work. They also needed to know about the city. They needed to really study it: to break it apart and understand the complexities of its parts.

The Brooklyn Bridge area tile.
We created a series of scaffolded experiences that would allow students to understand by DOING and use Design Thinking. First there was a scavenger hunt that asked them to go places in the city and accomplish some tasks-all without a smart phone! Then they studied a block in depth. Next, they learned about infrastructure in preparation for building a scale model of lower Manhattan. Each group built a separate tile of the area-complete with subway lines and other infrastructure. These tiles will be put together on January 7th and students will participate in a day long challenge: Storm Godzilla. The students are all divided into disaster teams and will react to the situation as it develops. Real world people will be there to oversee the day: FEMA, the Coast Guard and the Office of Emergency Management. The students should be prepared to handle whatever comes there way-IF they have done their homework.
The ground level of one tile.

Students have said thus far that the course is exciting, different and hard. Not hard in that there is too much work or that it is difficult to comprehend, but hard in that you can't "fake it." Our students are so used to doing school, that they complete traditional assignments without truly understanding or embracing them. They go through the motions, knowing that if they do what a teacher wants, they will get a good grade. But they haven't learned anything and they haven't truly owned it. This course has challenged students in a new way. Most love it. A few don't-because they can't fake it.

Battery Park street level.
We need to challenge our students like this before their senior year. These skills and habits of mind need to be part of their schooling from the beginning, not just as a culminating experience. Let's design authentic experiences for them. Let's empower them. Let's help them learn how to use their education to make the world a better place.

Let us know what you come up with and reach out if you need help! And check out ways to design these types of experiences here