Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Time to Disturb the Universe

It's the week before Christmas break, and everyone's tired. The kids are restless and unfocused...except for the eighth graders in my school, who are preparing for the annual O'Dellmer III project.  O'Dellmer III is an Earth-like planet inhabitable by humans, and the kids, who hope that their team will be selected by NASA to colonize it, must create a government system to protect its new citizens, select green energy sources to construct there while protecting its environment, and share their plans with their grade level in a multimedia presentation.  Christmas may be coming, but the kids are still focused on learning.

While students work in small groups, spread across three adjoining rooms, I wander from place toplace, listen in, ask questions, and answer a million questions. Some students have chosen a dictatorship for their planet. "It's easier because you don't have to have a Preamble to your Constitution," says one student, "or even a Constitution."  "But assassination is also easy," replies another boy. Although these two are not working in the same group, a lively discussion about the relative advantages and disadvantages of different types of government ensues.  "Communism looks good in theory, but I don't think it's ever worked," observes one boy.  In the end, the first student has decided that his planet will have a government modeled after our own.   The reason for his choice?  It's the most familiar, and therefore, the easiest to work with (he IS still a kid). 

Others are debating the laws they'll have for their planet and the rights they'll reserve for their citizens. They're thinking deeply about their own personal values and trying to decide how best to create a world where they would want to live.  Some students share their idealism and attempt to create a system of government that they hope will result in world peace. Others declare that world peace is impossible, that conflict and violence are inevitable.  Everywhere I turn, I find thoughtful discussions and students using excellent problem-solving skills.  (Yes, they are normal eighth graders, and they do come up with weird middle school ideas, like growing Dorritos as major crops, having a jello-like substance for terrain, domesticating dinosaurs and using them for transportation,etc., but the point is, they are meaningfully engaged in school work.)

I remind students that complex problems cannot have emotional solutions. I ask them to examine their decisions to determine whether they really reflect their values.  We learn from each other. Everyone who contributes to this project will take away knowledge they can keep. Although I've oversimplified the explanation of the project expectations here, I'm certain it's clear that higher order thinking skills are strongly emphasized.

Another colleague and I sat down recently to design a project-based learning experience for our seventh graders for the spring. We were excited to break down the walls between language arts, social studies, and science, and plan meaningful, engaging learning experiences for our students. Then I had a horrible thought. I pulled up the state testing schedule for the spring, and it looks like our school computers will be reserved for testing for approximately three months, severely limiting, if not completely eliminating, our ability to use computers for student instruction. We're making plans anyway, and hoping for the best.

The test itself is a newly developed assessment which will be given this year only as a placeholder until a new test is developed. The data we receive from it will have no meaning, as it will be a baseline for nothing and cannot be compared to any previous test. But the testing company must make its money, and the state must still have a way to define winners and losers.  I have no idea what's going to be on this one time only test, but I'm positive that none of the skills my students are gaining from project-based learning will be measured. A large part of me would like to tell the state what they can do with their test.  I want to refuse to subject my students to the hours and hours of testing that will replace their instructional time (after which none will feel successful or motivated or even competent).  

But I have too much to lose.  Outside of the classroom, there's no one colonizing another planet and shaping it to reflect their ideals. On my new planet, when the politicians and the testing companies come, we'll lock them out of the building and teach. Who's with me?