Mack-Boulder: Passion Projects Provide Engaging Start to the School Year

img_1456For the past few years, Mack-Boulder has used Responsive Classroom’s First Six Weeks approach to kick-off the beginning of the school year. The approach focuses on: setting goals and expectations with students; creating classroom norms in very setting, learning and practicing routines; building classroom community through a range of games, songs, activities, and use of the new low ropes course; exploring academics through a process of guided discovery. The time and energy spent building community up front makes for a cohesive group of learners throughout the year, which reduces conflict and provides for a more dynamic and collaborative learning environment. Using the program also contributes to the creation of a positive culture for all throughout the school. A critical bridge is built between summer mode and the sudden barrage of routines and expectations of school.

Yet the approach does lack some things that teachers itch for at the start of the year. First, teachers always want to establish their routines in academics by launching into Units of Inquiry (our thematic study within the IB framework). Teachers also wish there were more in depth opportunities within the First Six Weeks for modeling/practicing fundamental research skills that students will use throughout the year. Yet diving in too fast can cloud the positive energy created by the First Six Weeks approach and stress students out unnecessarily.img_1329

During the staff week retreat in August, the teachers and administration set out to tackle this dilemma.

They followed a system of empathy-based design-thinking to create a new plan for the start of this school year. We started the process by interviewing each other about our beliefs and understandings about what children need at varying developmental stages at the start of school. We used this feedback to uncover some common themes – the most prominent of which was that children love exploring and sharing about their passions/interests. We used this theme to go through several cycles of ideation and testing/feedback that resulted in our teachers creating individual grade “passion projects.” The projects all focused on combining the tenets of the First Six Weeks approach with our desire to bridge deep-diving research and setting the stage for our IB work as we established the year’s routines. While our passion projects all looked different from grade to grade, they contained some similar themes and a higher level of engagement and excitement than ever before. Best of all, they were developmentally appropriate and fun.

For example, our kindergartners have been busy creating life sized cut outs of their bodies that they filled with pictures, drawings, and images of their passions. They are using their body shapes as “self-reports” to share what matters to them with their classmates and families. Our fourth graders are exploring all of their passions and then choosing one to further investigate. After researching that topic they are then sharing their passion with their peers through a demonstration lesson that plays to their strengths.

img_1299The middle school students are exploring a specific aspect of a key passion. For example, if a student is passionate about playing the flute, she might research the history of the flute or the creation of the musical scale—something that will give her a new perspective on her passion. Teachers are using this as an introduction to the process of research for the school year. Students are learning about narrowing research topics, research techniques, goal setting and timelines, rubric creation and presentation formats all under the umbrella of a personalized and emergent process.

So far the approach has been energizing and grounding. We plan to continue growing this idea by seeking feedback from other teachers and schools. For us this has been an exciting living appendix to the First Six Weeks approach. Our students are engaged and cohesive. Our teachers are building community while establishing important learning routines. It has been a fabulous start to the year!