This is my basic vision of school.
I think students should drive the learning while teachers use their wisdom, life experience, and talents to guide students. Teachers should not be harsh gatekeepers of knowledge, they should be facilitators of learning. Students should get high levels of autonomy and focus on things that stimulate them. It is not an easy task, but I feel it is worthwhile. Given standards, curriculums, standardized tests, and all that modern education has resolved to become, my vision seems far from reality. I don't necessarily believe we have to cave to this pressure. Teachers have the power to make learning exciting or, on the opposite, extremely boring.
What will you choose?
Over the last few months of school, I gradually released control of my seventh grade science class to the students. Why not? It is their class and they need to learn how to learn. They need to learn what drives them, their passions, and what they need help on. This is what the first set of projects turned out.
The first days we worked on a project planning guide. I tried to give students two days to think about what they would study in the given areas we needed to cover. The general section was anatomy. By the end of the year I opened up content completely, but this first project had some restrictions. This was part of the gradual release. Before they started on the project, I went over a few examples that would get students thinking. I have provided both below.
After the students came up with their basic outline, I gave them freedom to explore, learn, and tinker for about 2.5 weeks. I encouraged most groups to write down what they did and learned each day and I checked these after class. I also had many informal assessments each day with the groups to check progress and help with any snags. We had access to some laptops each day, but a lot of student work was done on my computer, student phones, and some random Ipads (including mine). Some groups spend their days building and constructing models which negated the need for constant technology. Other groups, much to my chagrin, would not stray away from PowerPoint and needed constant technology. It was a mixed bag.
Students were engaged a majority of the time, although to be honest I wish it was more. My biggest disappointment was that many students made such amazing breakthrough and learned amazing things, but would not push themselves to the end. They learned more than in regular class and figured out some truly advanced things, but were on the precipice of mind-blowing strides. Most were happy with the progress they showed and wouldn't take the leap.
Other groups or individuals abused the freedom. It was only a handful, so I will live with that. They spent most of the time off task and doing things not related to their project. Next time, it will be my challenge to find something that really excites them. I know all students learn. For example, football plays are extremely complex and youngsters spend hours memorizing them. You just have to find the switch.
Interestingly enough one of the students who was most distracted was absolutely engaged when other students presented. He loved hearing about all the different projects and was even taking notes. He said he learned more from other students than he did most of the time in school. Overall, it was great and the students said they learned more than "regular school". That is enough for me.
Here are some examples:
To see them all go to https://sites.google.com/a/ourladyschool.com/humanbodyonlinemuseum/
One student used Mincraft to illustrate artificial bones. He researched glass and titanium bones. This all started because he wanted to know if humans could be like Wolverine. By the end, he was looking into materials engineering and I could barely help him. His classmates were transfixed!
One group wanted to figure out how we get sick. They ended up using cake baking skills to show white/red blood cells in the body. They presented and shared complete knowledge of the whole system!
One pair asked an truly awesome question--how does the eye perceive reality. After learning about how the brain and eye work together and how we "flip" images, they created a model complete with a look inside the eye.