Do you remember your elementary and middle school “projects”? Mine were things like dioramas illustrating some scene from literature or perhaps a scrapbook filled with cut out and glued in pieces of information. High grades for these projects went to the students who made the neatest, most decorative products. These projects were made at home with significant parent input. I never remember having any choice about the topic or the format of the project. They were assigned, or we picked the topic out of a bowl. These projects were often of limited value in the overall scheme of classroom work. They were “add-ons” to make learning a little less tedious.
“Projects” generally hold different meaning at our school. Our projects are connected to enduring understandings in every unit taught. They are real (authentic, in education jargon) – they have an application in the world or they simulate a real-world issue. They often include a public presentation where the student assessment includes an awareness of how to address different audiences. Most important, because they are authentic, our projects are very engaging. Children look forward to learning this way – and their learning is prodigious because of the high level of engagement.
I want to shout out three projects from this week that illustrate the Wornick way of doing projects – Hour of Code; Robotics; JCAT. About an hour ago, I completed my hour of code. By the end of the week, all of our students (kindergarten through 8th grade) and many of our staff will have done the same thing. Our school is part of a national effort (Hour of Code) introducing millions of children and teachers to computer coding. A couple of our sixth graders have taken the initiative to create a website to explain coding to their peers. Our students and staff understand the power of technology – they are becoming more than consumers of technology. They are the creators of it and they are developing a deep appreciation of this creative process.
Another exciting development in project-based learning is our fifth graders dive into an authentic robotics experience. We have partnered with a local technology company working on wireless devices, and our students will be programming devices and trying out different applications of these devices. In time, they will be able to think of creative applications of this technology. This is programming and robotics with real world application.
Finally, this is our second year participating in the national sixth grade JCAT (Jewish Court of all Time) project with ten other Jewish Day Schools in the United States. During this project, the students enter into a virtual world where they engage in real political challenges around an ethical dilemma. The sixth graders each selected a character from history. They researched their character and their character became their on-line avatar in a closed system for all of the participants. The students were then given an ethical dilemma. They considered the dilemma from their character’s perspective. Finally, the group nominated justices who provided rulings on the case.
The case this year concerned a family of Sudanese refugees who had fled to Israel and wanted asylum there. The case continued routinely, with evidence and testimony presented and analyzed. In character, the students discussed the different testimony. Justices were chosen to make the final decision: should the family be granted asylum in Israel, or would they be kicked out and sent back to Sudan.
A little before Thanksgiving, several "characters" (including Helen Keller, Nelson Mandela, and Golda Meir) created a movement called FRASH (Find Refugees A Safe Home) through which they withheld their Votes of Confidence (which enable justices to rule) to force the Court to send the refugee family to a safe home – outside of Israel. Then several separate groups, including "Go Guam" and "Together" emerged, as well as many characters advocating to return to the existing justice system. It was madness for about 10 days. For the staff, this was exciting to see the students disrupt this system in this way.
Ultimately, the Chief Magistrate Elana Kagan met with President Barack Obama (played by one of our students). They reached a compromise: the justices would compel Israel to give the refugee family a pardon and they would be resettled safely in the US. The case is now closed. But the student learning is not closed – they are still processing the entire experience.
I am so proud of our students and staff who are leading the way in technology education. We will be hosting a JEDcamp in May – an innovative professional development day for educators in the bay area. We are now in conversation with the national day school network (RAVSAK) about developing a similar sort of conference for day school students. We are on an incredible learning journey, and the excitement is palpable throughout the school. Help us spread the word that R.C. Wornick is the “place to be.”