As part of my thesis work in the Design for Social Innovation program at the School of Visual Arts in New York I have continued to examine the development of agency and self determination in students. This is part of a larger quest to create a democratic, collaborative classroom space where students "own" their education.
The following is a report on our first in-class test of the lesson entitled: My Future Self—Looking Back to See Ahead.
Doing Step 1 at PS 20, Brooklyn, NY
Ms. Dixon introduced me and reminded the students about the last time I was in class when we did the Imagine the Future MindLib. She then handed her 5th graders over to me.
I handed each student a packet. I explained that this was an experiment, that I was in school and this was part of my learning. They were surprised that someone my age would be in school. One boy looked at me, trying to be polite—hesitating to find the right word—but asked why someone as “elder” as me would be in school. I told him that my kids were in college and I was jealous. And I liked learning, so I went back to school.
I presented the big picture—explaining each step of the experiment.
- Step 1: Identify three people you admire.
- Step 2: Research and document their lives.
- Step 3: Document your own life so far.
- Step 4: Analysis and Findings for the future.
We discussed together what was important about each step.
We then started Step 1 and they chose 3 people they admired. We discussed what 'admired' meant. In our conversation it was decided that they would pick 1 person from history, 1 person from their family, and someone well-known today.
There was some confusion about how to research a family member. This turned into a lively discussion about interviewing the family member and maybe recording it to listen back. One student suggested searching Ancestors.com. Another suggested talking with other people who knew the family member when they were younger.
We discussed why it would be important to look at 3 people instead of just 1. They tied it back to research principles—getting different perspectives and more information to see patterns.
We then turned to the What I Know About... page. We discussed why it would be important to write down everything we knew about the people we were going to research. They easily tied it back to guiding their research and coming up with good questions for the people they will interview.
1 student asked if he could write on the page what he admired about each person as a way to remind himself and help him in forming questions.
Another student asked if he could read aloud his page to the class. I had not thought to do this but it was a great idea so several kids read from their pages.
I circulated, they worked quietly for the most part. 1 fellow got up and went to a set of books, flipping through to find his person. Some students easily name 3 people, a few struggled. Many students named their teacher, Ms. Dixon, as a person they admired.
We took 15 minutes. There were 22 students in the room. Most stayed on task and were engaged. Ms. Dixon graded papers (multitasking) and participated in the conversations. She pointed out how this process connected to research and what they were doing in science. How the steps were the same for a traditional science experiment.
I wrapped up by demonstrating how the timeline pages (Step 2) will fit together when completed. We talked about finding key moments or important events to document on the timeline. I encouraged them to use pictures, collage, and draw—it did not have to be all words but it had to communicate and document clearly. I encouraged them get their hands dirty.
There was one other woman in the room who turned out to be a retired teacher (26 years teaching 2-6th grades). She was assisting in the class and just observed. After the lesson she asked if she could share the lesson packet. She told me it was very powerful and she could see many ways teachers could use it. Her comments were very confirming and validated the approach.
Ms. Dixon and I told the students that we would do the project ourselves and share our own timelines in the next portion of the lesson.
One unintended outcome I expect is the opening up of conversations between students and their families. In designing the project I had not seen how powerful it could be to get students to examine people in their families, to go back and ask an older sister, mom or dad or a grandmother or grandfather about their lives.
One child wrote that she admired her Mom and Dad. I asked her if she knew how they met. She said no. I asked if she knew how they came to the work they do. She said no. We agreed that this would be really interesting to find out.
I can’t wait until next week when we put it all together, see the timelines and do the analysis.
Where will the students findings take them? Will the future be more concrete, more visible? And what kind of impact might that have?
I want to thank Ms. Dixon for opening her classroom to me, as well as, Principal Lena Barbara and the students of PS 20.