#HollistonInnovates Isn’t Just About Students…

I’ve been emailing with a Middle School teacher here in Holliston who is redesigning one of her ELA units. Her premise is, in some ways, simple, yet her results are much more complex.

In essence, the “content” of the unit is unchanged. The class is reading the same book they’ve read for the past several years: Night by Elie Wiesel. The unit objectives are unchanged: to gain insight of the Holocaust from a first-person account, and focus on applying this knowledge of human history to change our human future. This teacher recently spent a portion of a recent Professional Development Day putting together new additions for their reading of Night. Now, students will be using the tools from iWitness where they will first create a GeoMap for another survivor. IWitness is an educational website developed by USC Shoah Foundation – The Institute for Visual History and Education that provides access to more than 1,500 full life histories, testimonies of survivors and witnesses to the Holocaust and other genocides for guided exploration. This will allow the students to listen to another's experience with some of the same locations that Elie Wiesel was forced to travel. At the end of the unit, students will complete another iWitness activity called "My Story Matters."

Sounds like a great example of #HollistonInnovates, right?

But this teacher wasn’t done! She set about to create opportunities for authentic learning and experiences in the classroom by setting up small group discussions both before and after the reading of Night. In the spirit of authenticity, she reached out to other adults in the school as well as high school students to connect 2-3 middle school students with 1-2 “outsiders” to have several small group discussions take place over the course of the unit. The first small group discussion would focus on things the small-group members wonder about the book itself as well as the time period. The second small group discussion would take place at the end of the unit when the book is read and the other creative and innovative activities described above were complete. These discussions will focus on how the small-group (middle school students as well as the “outsiders”) will take this new knowledge of human history and take an action designed to change a small piece of our collective future. Her objective of these new, small group discussions are two-fold: (1) to have her students end the unit with an action plan to improve their own future and (2) in the words of the teacher, “to restructure the learning environment for a couple days to show our students that dialogue is one of our human superpowers.”

This change to the unit could have been accomplished by just having these two discussions take place inside the classroom. In fact, it certainly would have been easier. Can you imagine the logistics of having to schedule “outsiders” to participate in these discussions, given the complexities of a rotating schedule, and unscheduled changes to the school day/school year for things like snow days, etc? Why endure these complexities and take on the logistics? Because this teacher wants to take her students out of their “comfort zones” and enable her students to build connections through this common experience. The folks at the University of Southern California’s Shoah Foundation are so excited about this approach, that several of them have asked to be some of the “outsiders” and participate in these new small-group discussions this teacher has added to the unit this year, using Skype (or FaceTIme or Google Hangouts) to make the virtual connection.

Awesome, don’t you think?

Looking at this unit through a student lens, it’s easy to see how this unit will be both memorable and impactful on these students’ understanding of this horrible part of our human history and connect that understanding with action. Again in the teacher’s words, “as we navigate our world that fluctuates in its levels of empathy, I was thinking this type of activity could help my students interact with the text in a whole new way.”

While this unit is a remarkable example of the type of student engagement, empathy and creativity that is happening through our #HollistonInnovates work, there is a subtler impact of this work that is equally as exciting -- an impact that is best described in the subject of an email I just received from this teacher: “I just want to share my excitement!” #HollistonInnovates isn’t just about re-engaging students in more thoughtful ways, it’s also about re-invigorating our teachers -- teachers who have felt stymied and held-back by the over-emphasis placed on compliance and state-wide assessment results. This is just one example of many, where teachers, released from the handcuffs placed on them by MCAS and state-dictated efforts to link results from these assessments to a their performance evaluation, are celebrating their release by using the freedom they’ve yearned for to create these extraordinary, memorable and impactful opportunities for our students.

This example and the others I’ve blogged about this year have convinced me that we are moving in the right direction. We have much work to do, but, in my mind, #HollistonInnovates is having the type of impact that I had hoped -- thanks to the hard-work and risk-taking of our remarkable faculty.


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