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 my first in-class test of a prototype entitled: My Future Self—Looking Back to See Ahead.
Taking it to the next level on Steps 2 and 3 at PS 20, Brooklyn, NY
I returned on Wednesday to continue working with the students as they put their timelines together. This was the second day of state testing for them which occurred in the morning. I arrived after lunch. At this point in the project the students knew what they needed to do. Of course some had left their timelines at home, some had lost parts of their documentation. We did the best we could to get everyone up to speed and moving ahead. Ms. Dixon observed. I circulated, kept students on task, and answered questions. DK Holland helped individual students with questions.
We took an hour to continue researching people online, reading books and transferring facts to the timelines. There was much tape applied in putting the timelines together! Some students began to draw portraits of the people they admired, others searched for images to print out and paste on the timeline. The students worked individually and some in groups throughout the classroom. Three boys who where studying Ghandi spread out in the hallway.
Three girls finished their timelines and went on to Step 3 charting out their futures. They where also able to move on to Step 4—Analysis. They sat together with their timeline and examined each one. They compared the people whom they had each researched. They talked about things their people had in common and things that were different. They looked for big events and turning points. One student researched Ben Carson. Carson struggled in school and had hard issues with his family life. But he went on to be a surgeon and was famous for separating conjoined twins. They realized that their people took risks: After he escaped slavery Fredrick Douglass protested in churches to gain support for his cause of abolition. Barack Obama’s turning point was when he decided to run for president.
The students then talked about how they imagined their own futures and what they had in common among themselves. It seems the girls all want to go to Brooklyn Technical High School and then college. One wants to be a doctor, another thought she wanted to be an artist but is now thinking about doing environmental work with the EPA. The other is undecided but is adamant that she will go to college and get a full education. These are the type of self discoveries that I hoped the Timeline project would draw out in the students.
As we closed out the day’s activity, several students presented a person they admired from their timelines.
One girl discovered that Martin Luther King graduated from high school at age 15. That impressed the crowd. She also learned that her own grandmother had a Bachelor of Arts degree with a major in psychology and she was impressed with Ms. Dixon’s two graduate degrees. She told the class, “What I got when I researched and interviewed these people was that none of them dropped out of school. That inspired me that when I grow up I can go to college too.” From my research on intrinsic motivation (see Michael and D’Neil Duffy's Love of Learning: Supporting Intrinsic Motivation in Montessori Students and Dan Pink's Drive ) this observation is likely to impact this student more profoundly because it's a conclusion that she came to on her own. She was not told this, she discovered it.
One student found out one of his hero’s had dropped out of college. He now wants to know why and find out more about that decision. This is a great example of thinking critically and opening up one's own perspective.
From the in-class interview with Ms. Dixon, several other students found her struggles with biology to be really surprising. When young people see that adults have struggled too, can it make them realize that they are not so alone in their own struggles? When an impressive figure in your life says, “You know I had some issues and yet I am standing here in front of you as a vulnerable human being, successful, and comfortable in my own skin.”
To quote Ms. Dixon, “Now that’s powerful.”
I want to thank Ms. Dixon for opening her classroom to me, as well as, Principal Lena Barbara and the students of PS 20. A big shout out to DK Holland of Inquiring Minds who assisted with the students.