Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Developing an Asychronous, Creativity-centered Approach to Curriculum (part 1)

Over the past six months, I have been working very closely with a science teacher to design and implement a new approach to the science curriculum. While many of the ideas we decided to use are not new, the combination of strategies creates an approach that is truly individualized for each student.

The first step on the path is planning: gone are the standard lesson plans that most of us have used throughout our teaching careers. In their place are learning experience plans that are designed for each learning goal. The plan is composed of four parts based on the Torrence Incubation Model for teaching creativity. For more information on the model, check out this great video from the International Center for Studies in Creativity

Learning Experience Plan:

Stage 1: Heightening Anticipation
This stage prepares learners to make connections between what they are expected to learn and something meaningful in their lives. It draws them into the learning opportunities to follow in stages 2 & 3.

Stage 2: Deepening Expectations
This stage works to sustain the motivation created in stage 1 and encourages deeper exploration of a topic. During this stage, it important that students are allowed to explore and discover. Information should not be disseminated through direct delivery during this participatory stage. Instead, students are given a choice of activities to participate in. Tolerance for ambiguity is paramount for both teacher and learner, as students must discover critical knowledge on their own terms.

Stage 3: Extending the learning
During this stage, students continue with individually chosen participation/anticipation experiences, but the tasks shift from discovery to application. Activities are designed to give students the opportunity to show what they have learned. Demonstration of understanding is individualized, determined by each student. The teacher is encouraged to provide a wide selection of activities for students to choose from, with the additional option of student-designed alternatives.

Stage 4: Self-evaluation and reflection, plan for the future
Self-evaluation and reflection will occur throughout the learning process, and will guide the students towards their learning goals. They will be encouraged to take ownership of their learning as they evaluate their own individual growth, then determine for themselves the steps they must take to move forward towards reaching their goals.

In order to facilitate an asynchronous classroom, learning experience plans for each of the learning goals must be completed prior to the start of a major unit of study. Students are encouraged to select the learning goals in the sequence that works best for them. They are not required to finish one learning experience before starting another.  This is a critical piece of the equation... Students need the freedom to direct their own learning, at a pace that meets their needs.

The next post in this series will look at some of the activities appropriate for stages 2 & 3 based on the Torrence model.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Exploring an Alternative to Expulsion

For the past 8 years, I have worked in an urban public school here in Buffalo, NY.  And in those 8 years, I have seen students expelled for a variety of reasons.  Each time it happens, I ask myself 
"was there something I could have done?  Did we do everything possible to help this student succeed?" 
Unfortunately, my answer is almost always the same... No.

At the end of last year, I decided to do something to make a positive change in the lives of the students who would otherwise find themselves expelled.  I enlisted the help of a martial arts instructor on staff (pictured above) to create a unique program affectionately dubbed "The Breakfast Club".  The program is designed to equip students who have been identified as disruptions to the learning environment with skills to help them deal with feelings of stress, anger, frustration, and fear. 

Starting this fall, students in the Breakfast Club will first learn basic breathing techniques, in order to begin building the bridge between their bodies and their minds.  Through this mindful connection, students will learn to channel otherwise uncontrollable feelings to a place where they can be calmed and rationally processed.  

Once they have successfully mastered the art of breathing, they will learn to focus their minds and participate in extended meditation.  During this mediation, they will learn to visualize their fears, their anger, and their frustration, and then how to work through each of those emotions.

The final stage of the process with be learning tai-chi forms.  Once the forms have been learned, the students will work together to create a set called Sailing Troubled Waters.  This set will represent their journey towards self-control, self-discipline, and self-awareness.  My hope is that they will be given the opportunity to share their set during the commencement ceremony this spring.

I named this program "The Breakfast Club" for a few reasons.  The first, and most obvious, is the fact that the students will be meeting before school begins twice each week.  In order to encourage healthy minds and healthy bodies, breakfast will be provided for all who participate.  Equally obvious is the fact that, like the movie, the participants are all on the wrong side of the law when it comes to following school rules.  And while these two reasons are more than enough to justify the name, there is a third reason that ends up being the most important.  

By the end of the movie, the disparate band of miscreants, knowing little about each other at the beginning of their detention, come together as a small community.  They depend on each other to get through the day, and they leave knowing that their lives have forever changed because of their experience.  We are hoping the same will occur with the students in our Breakfast Club.  We're hoping they will become a tight-knit community, looking out for each other, supporting each other, and ultimately ensuring that they will all survive and grow through the experience.