Friday, March 30, 2012

Heritage PBL in Social Studies

The Great (x3) Grandparents of one of my students;
he found this photo online today.
Spring is in the air, which means that it is time for my SS10 students to sink some serious PBL time into Heritage Research. The last cycle of research and presentation wrapped up last December (blog post & background here), and this new class is showing the characteristic enthusiasm that this project generates.

My students will use some class time and their own time to work on this project over the next 6 weeks, and then we'll take a week or more of class time for presentations in early May.

What I've noticed this year, is the how to boundaries of this project have been blown open by some changes in the way students learn and the way learning takes place in my classes and our "learning commons" library.  At this point, I'm seeing four trends:

1. Self-renewing tradition of story-telling
So many students have done this project now that students arrive in SS10 with some anticipation about this project. I get siblings coming in, armed with existing family trees, interview records, albums, etc, who are excited to carry on and add a new layer to the story with their own questions. The project has spread across all of the SS10 classes in our school, with a basic inquiry about heritage connections that has a place in all other SS classes. We've found some pretty solid ways for students to complete this project for whom "family" is tough sell, whether due to a lack of data or the presence of drama (divorce, custody, neglect, painful pasts). In fact, probably two of the most powerful projects we've seen in the last year involved students pushing through the difficulty of the project and using the inquiry as a means to bring some healing to their experience of family. One involved a critical examination of residential school survival and the other was pretty much a survival guide for broken homes. It is, in fact, heritage and identity that are under the microscope, not necessarily family, and the primary skill being developed is the ability to tell a story, not necessarily to investigate problems in personal histories. The stories invariably connect to the major themes of Canadian history and geography, indeed connect to virtually every major learning outcome in the Social Studies curriculum. Just this week one told me about her great-grandfather who fought in the Battle of the Somme, and another student told me how she is related to the Dionne Quintuplets. They weren't in my SS10 class, but it is increasingly important for students to weave their identity into the context of learning. My colleague Ian has noticed that his SS11 students are jumping in throughout the course with anecdotes about 20th century events that come from shared personal recollections. Colleague Joe notices the same thing in History 12, and Cheryl builds up her SS8 and SS9 students with a sense that their own history is important and relevant. This narrative skill comes across at every stage in the project; the students talk freely and without invitation when the learned experience of their heritage comes up. When they present, they rarely look at their notes or read from poster or screen, they speak passionately and with a sense of importance and usually use up more time than they thought they needed. It has to be seen to be believed (I really should suffer through the FOIPPA maze and record some of them).  The coolest part is to see students who are otherwise weak or reluctant come alive when they are making personal connections to curriculum through their own stories.

2. Cross-curricular learning
Today we met in the library, truly a learning commons at D.P. Todd, me, the teacher-librarian, 27 students, and on the sides a dozen or more students on spares who usually spend their time in the library. The students have heard my stories and background a few times now, and have shared some of theirs, and today was the librarian's turn. We gathered around in chairs and listened to her talk about life for her grandparents and their generation (1920s-1940s). Her story (history/herstory) wove between fashion, shipwrecks, technology, illnesses, expressions, immigration, attitudes, hair, sports, travel, and work. Her comments (and the students comments in reaction) would have been as appropriate in a Science, Planning, Textiles, PE, or English class as they were in my SS class -- there are heritage connections and associations in every context, and today reaffirmed that student identity, the one they negotiate between past/present/future, is the true curriculum. The students were rapt by her fast-paced story, and we followed with the Socratic thing where we examined what she had said, how she said it, and speculated on what kinds of questions would be needed to gain that level of intimate and engaging knowledge.

3. Multi-age learning network
As we told stories in the library, I was able to look around and realize that the Gr. 12 students on spares had all done a Heritage Project when they were in Grade 10 (and a related "Echo" project in Gr. 11).  I used some of them as examples of how to prepare and present heritage research, and before long they were chiming in and sharing what they had learned about themselves and the characteristics of past societies. I encouraged my students to reach out to others who had done this work and get advice, which they did. I left today wondering what would happen if we threw multi-age groupings together more often, especially students on either side of a specific comprehensive project. I also wondered about how I could make useful ties with students in other schools and so on. With four full classes to teach and an otherwise busy life, I'm not feeling terribly ambitious about expanding the scope of this project just yet.

As we finished this story-circle, grandiose advice from me & the librarian, and contributions from past students, there was weird silence like we had all just shared something important (that doesn't happen too often, believe me).  I yelled GO and they sped off to start on 27 different paths (that also doesn't happen too often).

4. Leveraging technology to involve parents
We use a variety of tech tools, sites, and strategies to get in to the research (e.g. Heritage tools on right column here).  We also rely on books, photo albums, heirlooms, recipe cards, old Bibles, and interviews with anyone willing to share).  Today was day one for most of them, though, and we had an hour at the computers to play with the project design and start differentiating between what would be useful to find online and what was worth looking for elsewhere. Naturally, many students wanted to plug their family names into genealogical search engines and hit the heritage jackpot (one actually did, finding a site tracing her family back 12 generations to 1600 in merry old England). Most students had no clue what names to use, some didn't even know the first names of their grandparents. The before and after questions I ask area always stunning, well over half the students report at the end that almost everything they learned from the project was new to them, that the family stories were somewhat known to parents, better so by grandparents, but few of them shared their stories unless they were asked... that's all it takes... just ask!  And ask they did today... I "made" them text or call their parents on   the spot, with questions like "what's oma's first name?,""where was grampy born?," "what was the name of the town that our family helped build?" and "where should I start when doing the Moffat history?"(that name opens the door to some of the most colourful local history in our region). There were some delays and call-backs and lots of students wandering around on their phones, getting something they thought "juicy" and diving back to their search to see what came up. It was interesting that they turned immediately to their own tech devices to solve problems (and their own data plans -- our wifi is hopeless), and were not as natural on the computers. One boy talked to his grandmother in Punjabi and learned, new to him, that his relative was an important Sikh leader embroiled in the aftermath of Operation Bluestar and the raid on the Golden Temple.  He got the name of some villages and such that probably won't seem like much to him now but I have a gut feeling will ring about in his head for the rest of his life. Another boy had a great tree with notes and photos set up online by his family, so he was texting his mom back and forth in order to interpret it and figure out what was significant about what he seeing on the screen (picture below). He had found discharge papers online for a WWI vet that matched a name in his family and wanted to establish the connection. From what I saw on the screens and in conversation, I think there were dozens of "lights going on" around the library-lab.  I got to play facilitator, playing off what they already knew, were learning about, and where they might go next.

"hey mom how are we related to the henry king guy that was in WWI on the ancestry tree"
Although we've set up this project for a couple of months with prompts, testimonials, and exemplars, the is just day one (of the dedicated time for the project), so I'm keen to see where we end up.


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