We caught up with LREI (Little Red School House) Middle School Principal, Mark Silberberg to ask him about his thoughts on teaching My Future Self to his 5th graders.
Monica: What class did you present My Future Self in?
Mark: Adolescent Issues
Monica: How much class time did you devote to the lesson?
Mark: We probably met once a week for six weeks, but, at best, half of those sessions were actual ‘work/making’ sessions. So this meant that students were doing the bulk of the research and creating things at home.
This was asking more of them than I would have liked, but I was impressed with how deeply some of the kids went on their own.
It’s really important for us to recognize how much kids can exceed our expectations when they feel connected to the work.
For the kid who needs more scaffolding, the once-a-week structure meant that they really lost work time and often we had to talk about how to get back on track.
Monica: Were there any unexpected insights from the students? Did they surprise you?
Mark: I was pleased with how many of the kids found a way into the project that allowed them to problem solve on their own and produce compelling work. While not surprising, it was inspiring to see how interested they were in the different people they chose to research.
It is a fine line, but I think that if students are not surprising us then we have designed curriculum that is too safe, and they are simply giving us what we want. That work is really our work and not theirs. So I really love seeing a piece of work and thinking, "I would never have thought of approaching it that way."
The larger problem for me was working within a structure that did not really allow me to best support those kids who encountered some struggles. The result here was that there were a few kids who just couldn't get all the pieces done by the time we shared. I felt badly about this.
We are going to share this work publicly so those students who want to will be able to finish their projects. The sharing was also helpful for the kids as those who struggled were able to see examples of work that they could draw from to complete their project in a way that felt purposeful and satisfying.
I'd still like to find some ways to capture this work digitally so that students can add it to their digital portfolios and offer some reflection on the work.
Monica: The reflective quality of the initial work led us to a physical product for My Future Self, one that the student can hold in their hands and keep. We’ve also considered ways to revisit and amend the document as a student grows, and, in that case, a digital template would be a wonderful offering. We’re now experimenting with ways to capture the finished work digitally. So thank you for the input.
Monica: In presenting it again what would you do differently?
Mark: If I do it again with the same time constraints, I think that it would be really helpful for them to see one or two examples from this year’s work. That would help them to better contextualize where they were going in terms of completing the task and understanding some of the constraints imposed by the physical structure of the layout and design.
I think that working within a set of constraints can be really important and from a design perspective can really help kids to focus.
Monica: In design we often say ‘constraints are your friends’ and often lead to innovation!
Mark: At the same time, I always bristle a bit when we set a group of kids to work, and they are all working to make the same version of something. That said, the content of each kids' work was unique and personal, even though, the frame was similar.
Monica: This has been our experience with other classes that have undertaken My Future Self. The lesson truly is a framework and can yield all manner of interpretation by the students. In fact, we’ve been amazed at the variety of solutions they have employed to express themselves.
Teachers can also present the lesson and set up constraints depending on what they as the teacher want to achieve. For instance, if they are teaching civil rights students may be asked pick civil rights leaders to research.
Mark: I thought about letting them do the final portion about themselves in whatever form they wanted with or without the actual timeline sheets. I decided not to because this might diminish the work on the sheets for the people they had researched. Also, given that they were doing this work outside of class, it felt too open-ended to go "off the sheets."
Monica: The real benefit and the long term impact of My Future Self comes into play with the thought exercise of imagining your own future. The exercise of the student researching others they admire, thinking about the challenges they faced, and the key turning points in their lives allows the student to wrestle with and imagine what their own future might look like.
Mark: I also did not do as good a job as I would have liked in talking about attribution of sources.
Monica: When Inquiring Minds designed the lesson we considered that it would be an introduction in how to conduct research and the attribution of sources is one key learning opportunity. Copyright issues and attribution are important to begin to understand as early as possible but there is a lot of ground to cover in the lesson. Your comment would lead us to consider adding a page in the packet on attribution and copyright basics.
Monica: Is there anything about the physical materials/format that you think could improve My Future Self?
Mark: I think that some kids felt it was hard to figure out how to communicate important information in the small space of each square.
Monica: One way to present this challenge is that each student, as they study a person's life, captures the moments that are most striking to them.
Students should document what resonates and to possibly discover “this person I am studying is interested the same things I am,” or think—“Wow! See how this one key incident changed their life? I wonder if I shouldn’t be on the lookout in my life for those situations?”
I remember being at the National Book Festival in Washington, DC with my daughter, when she was 12. We were in the poetry tent and a woman poet got up to read her work. She opened by saying she was a math teacher in a high school, and she had been writing poetry for years on the side. And a major influence in her work was jazz music, which was very present in her life through her husband who was a saxophone player. My daughter turned to me in utter amazement and said, “She loves all the things I love!” For my daughter, it was a powerful discovery and helped her see into her future. It is our intent that My Future Self can do this for the students who commit to the project.
Mark: Students who were able to find images and combine them with some text were able to create compelling narratives.
I think that this is actually a quite difficult task and I would like to find some ways to help them to better understand the mechanics of sequential art and the graphic novel to better explore how to use the constraint of space as effectively as possible. We talked a little about this example, Escrapbooking, but I don't think it was enough (i.e., I don't think the kids had a real design vocabulary for this kind of work).
Monica: Aha! Mark, you’ve just come up with a new project for us—guidelines for creating graphic narratives and storytelling! Weaving a narrative is important but life is not always neat. It’s only upon reflection and looking backwards that we can see the threads and make the connections. We think that’s what makes My Future Self so interesting and varied in the response it elicits from students.
Mark: The packet was helpful in guiding the students into the project. I created an additional sheet to help them collect the research information. I thought that this was needed to help guide them in their mostly independent work.
Another worry that I had was because students were doing a fair amount of the work at home was that I didn't want them to do their initial work on the sheets themselves. I was concerned that if students made a mistake or decided they wanted to go in a different direction that they'd be upset if they couldn't "clean up a square."
I also didn't want the big portfolio sheets to go home. Given their size, they would have gotten all beaten up. So I created a form that allowed the student to write down the main idea for the square, do a draft and them make the final square to go on the sheet. At school they cut our these final squares and added them to the large sheets. This worked pretty well in that it allowed them to more easily bring work to and from school, examine their squares in relationship to each other before they glued them down and make revisions where needed.
Monica: We have ourselves seen students become concerned with making their work neat.
We think it’s a measure of how invested they are in the project and a powerful indicator of their engagement.
We’ve suggested they capture their initial thoughts and ideas on sticky notes and when they’ve completed their study of a person then transfer their ideas to the final book pages.
And we’ve seen students who are attracted to words and those who feel most comfortable expressing themselves with images—either way works.
Mark: The most significant change that I might make would be to redesign the sheets to allow students to document the characteristics that they admire about the individuals they research and indicate the overlaps between the individuals.
There is a sheet for this in the packet, but I think that this information is really the core learning piece of the project.
It is embedded in the future that the student constructs for her/himself, but I think that the final project might be richer if that piece is reflective, if the meta content were there.
It serves as an implicit bridge between the three influential people and each student's future self, but I think it should be an explicit part of the final work.
Monica: We completely agree! And we have redesigned this portion of the packet and timeline pages.
Monica: Was the project was worthwhile? Would you present it again?