I  teach in an inquiry, project-based, technology embedded classroom. A mouthful, I know. So what does that mean? To begin with, I don’t lecture. My students don’t take notes, at least not in the traditional sense, and we don’t read a novel and simply answer the questions.

It means my classroom is a place where my students spend time piecing together what they have learned, critically evaluating its larger purpose, and reflecting on their own learning. It also means my students don’t acquire knowledge just for the sake of acquiring it. They need to do something with it — that’s where “project-based” comes into play.

Finally, technology is embedded into the structure of all we do. It’s part of how we research, how we capture information, and how we display our learning. It’s never an accessory tacked on at the end.

In my English classroom, this  looks a lot different than in my biology & chemistry classrooms (which you can read about here). My English curriculum is largely skills-based, which provides a fair amount of flexibility. Many people ask me how I have the opportunities to do what I do in my classroom. My answer? It’s all in how you look at the curriculum.

Meeting curriculum and teaching goals

My curriculum states that I need to develop skills in 5 areas: reading, writing, viewing & representing, listening and speaking. The curriculum also suggests themes. Our grade 11 theme is childhood, but nowhere does it state whose childhood. So this year we read Patricia McCormick’s novel Sold, which chronicles the childhood, or more specifically the loss of childhood, in a young girl who is trafficked. A powerful story. This was the springboard into our unit on modern slavery and creating a social media campaign.

Whenever we begin a new inquiry unit, research is always involved. We start by sitting in a circle to talk through what we want, and need, to know about slavery in the contemporary world. From there the research begins. The first thing my students do is open a Google doc, access their Diigo or Delicious account, and sign into Symbaloo, a site that houses all of their favourite tools. We spend approximately one week on our initial research. Any more than this and students tend to become overwhelmed.

After researching, we come back together to discuss what needs to happen next. What is the best way to present our learning? What will be the most powerful? What do we want others to learn from us? Throughout this process, my students do most of the talking and leading. I tend to sit and listen, and at critical moments, draw out the nuances or similarities of what is being said. And when things aren’t working, sometimes I need to suggest a new direction.

Learning to use social media wisely

This semester, we’ve chosen to create a social media campaign to raise awareness around modern slavery. This is the project-based part. It’s not enough for my students to learn about slavery, they need to do something with it, specifically “real world” projects that matter.

One of the most important things we can do is teach our students how to use social media wisely, and how social media can be used for social good. My students started by creating a Flickr feed, Facebook page, a YouTube account, a Tumblr blog, and a Twitter account.

They decided that visual representations of their knowledge would be the most powerful. So some of my students created photographs depicting images that they felt best represented modern trafficking. These photos were then edited in Picnik, and posted to our blog.

Teaching this way also allows me to teach real writing to my students. Before we started to create videos, my students looked at numerous YouTube videos about slavery. They focused on those they found powerful, and conversely, those that weren’t very effective. We analyzed the differences between the two. My students talked animatedly about how the powerful videos touched your emotions.

I grabbed a piece of paper and drew a triangle. On each tip I wrote one of three words: Logos, Pathos, and Ethos. When you write for an audience, you can appeal to knowledge, emotion, or ethics — the Aristotelian triad. A few years ago I tried to teach this idea to a grade 12 class when we were studying essay writing. They didn’t get it. But in the context we were using, after comparing social media content, it made perfect sense to my grade 11 students. So we designed our videos with the triad in mind.

The hard work of creation

My students decided to create Common Craft-styled videos to educate viewers about slavery. These videos took hours. First, students needed to distill all of their “fact” knowledge into a compelling story. Then they needed to write the script, create paper characters, and finally begin to practice moving their papers on the whiteboard. My students soon discovered there is only a very small area to use on the whiteboard while filming these videos, otherwise you move out of view of the camera. In the end, it took hours to coordinate movement with script, film & then edit our videos. The remarkable thing is that these videos fulfilled many objectives across all 5 strands. Here’s one example:

As part of this project, my students have also Skyped into classrooms to teach what they have learned, so that other students can begin this enormously important discussion in their own communities. This is the connected part. My students believe that what they have learned is valuable, for themselves and for others too.  They also believe they have a role to play in teaching others.

My student are also creating a Museum Box, a project inspired by the work of Thomas Clarkson, who spent most of his adult life trying to abolish the trans-Atlantic slave trade. Clarkson carried a box to support his argument. The Museum Box site allows you to build  an argument or description of an event, person or historical period by placing items in a virtual box. Students can display anything from a text file to a movie. My students will be using this platform to argue their thesis, rather than writing a traditional essay.

For our second novel, we’re reading The Secret Life of Bees. For this unit, my students are engaged in wiki work. In pairs, my students are responsible for identifying the major themes in each chapter, and how they are developed. The first week I model this skill, and throughout the novel I coach my students as necessary. They’re also responsible for posting and responding to the discussion questions for each chapter.

How has this approach impacted my classroom?

My students have started designing our curriculum units. Seriously. While transitioning to our current unit, we discussed the possibilities as a class. Both Dr. Seuss & Christmas literature were mentioned as possible study topics. But one student wasn’t sold on either.

“Could we do something entirely different? Something that you haven’t done before?”

“Sure. What are you thinking?”

She thought and then said, “What about a movie unit? Could we study movies of different genres and then analyze them for themes and other different features? Is that possible?”

I explained that, with the English curriculum, we have more flexibility than with chemistry or biology. In those subjects, I’m specifically told what content I need to teach. In English, the concern is mostly around teaching skills, although the curriculum does stipulate how many novels, short stories, poems, etc. we need to include.

I further explained the five “strands” that we use in English and that there are multiple skill objectives for each strand.

“So yes, it’s possible to do something with movies.” 

I asked them to talk a little bit more about what it might look like. My students brainstormed various possibilities. Maybe dividing into groups to show clips from various genres. Each group would be responsible to facilitate the discussion around the analysis. Maybe creating a digital space to post movie critiques, and other connected classrooms could join us. And, of course, there would be writing involved too.

After hearing a number of ideas, and seeing a plan beginning to formulate, one of my students looked at me and said, “Can you help us create a unit plan for this?”

Wow. Never in a million years did I think my students would ever say those words. Another student remarked, “Yeah, I only know how to teach swimming lessons.”

I looked at him and said, “Well, it’s not that much different.” When he gets in the pool he doesn’t just splash around for 30 minutes. He knows exactly what he’s going in there to accomplish. Not only that, he knows what it looks like when someone has mastered the skill and when someone isn’t even close. He agreed.  Curriculum & teaching is pretty much that. We need to know what our outcomes are, the content we’re using to get there, and what we’re using to show our learning.

So I brought in the curriculum objectives…

My students are always a bit surprised to see what curriculum actually looks like. They pulled out the objectives we are meeting with this unit.  They chose six genres that they will look at with films as diverse as The Princess Bride, A Time to Kill, and Hitchcock’s North by Northwest. In groups they will analyze six elements in each film: themes, writing, character development, film techniques, setting and plot development.

Once students have watched the film, they will meet with their group to discuss their findings. A group summary of their findings will be posted to the wiki.  Students will also write a short analysis rating the film, including their basis for doing so. Ratings will be published to the wiki.

The next day, there will be an in-class discussion of the movie. Each group will contribute their observations. From the list of movies chosen, students will need to write a longer critique, much like an essay.

Students are excited about this unit because they designed it around something of interest to them. I’m excited about this unit because film is the medium of the future, and our students need to be astute at critically evaluating it.

My teaching . . . then and now

Before the technology/constructivist shift in my classsroom, I would have taught all of this quite traditionally. We’d read books, answer questions, and then address those questions in class. I’d lecture a lot, with supplemental grammar lessons here and there, and I’d include some type of artistic project to achieve viewing and representing objectives. The whole design would have been extremely teacher centered. And at the end of it all, I’d hope they learned something about writing and thinking.

Instead, inquiry and technology are a natural part of our English classes. It’s what my students have come to expect and have started to design themselves.  Instead, of saying, “hand in your assignments,” I say, “publish your assignments and send me the link.” They think about connecting and sharing their learning in the larger world.

That’s the 21st century difference.


Images: Marissa Mellor (student), Museum Box, MGM

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