Looking for the Sweet Spot: Modern World PBL/Inquiry

I am about a month into my PBL/Inquiry version of our Modern World class. I embarked on the class with the understanding that the content and skills would be the same as the regular Modern World class, although the approach would be different.

The students selected the class, for the most part, but they are coming from a pretty traditional ninth grade history course. In my transition to more Inquiry and PBL, I have included a fair amount of structure in the first unit. We started the project, creating a model to show who has power in the world at any given time by looking at who has power today. Then, we took a break from the project to study the Ottoman and Mughal empires in a little depth – empires of the early modern era is the content of the first unit of the regular Modern World class. The end goal of the unit is to have the model reflect the major powers in the world today as compared with the early modern era (1450-1750). I gave them material for the Ottomans and Mughals, and started to look at the Ming and Qing dynasties in China with them. We have been reading, taking notes, discussing, and comparing empires.

I am starting to feel a little restless, though. I am defaulting back into my old routine. I want to create a course where students take on the ownership, with my support and guidance, of course. So, instead of spending another day going through the Chinese dynasties together as a class, we are moving ahead to the next phase of the project. They will be researching the other powers in the early modern world, figuring out how to measure their relative power and illustrating that on their model. We have done some work on research, including reflecting on the process.

I want to push them gently on the way to greater ownership over their learning, but I know that I need to provide enough structure and even some of the content, so that they can actually get beyond a superficial understanding of the history. My instinct tells me I should move on now, but I know that I may have to backtrack if it doesn’t work. I think that we need to treat the entire unit as a learning experience about the content but also about how to do inquiry-based learning and PBL well. At the same time, I don’t want to lose the kids in the first quarter and have to try to get them back. ¬†In the end, I think it will work, but I am a little afraid of how messy it might get along the way.

The only thing I know for sure is that it’s not a linear process – learning really never is.

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The WSJ, the shower, and global trade

I am more convinced than ever that I need to make time to step away from work. I used to get up at 5:00 am to be able to get work done – planning, grading, etc. This year, I have been using the hour between 5:00 and 6:00 (when I need to start getting myself and my family ready for school) to have a cup of coffee and read the Wall Street Journal.

With my PBL/Inquiry-based Modern World class, I have completed my planning for the first unit, and have begun to think about the second unit, which will begin in about two weeks. The subject matter is the development of global trade, beginning in the 16th century. I knew that I wanted to start with the Indian Ocean trade interactive map (http://www.indianoceanhistory.org/LessonPlan/FirstGlobalEra.aspx) but beyond that I have not been able to think of the project that would come from this. The first unit, which has focused on empires and power, ends with a model for tracking power throughout the year, as empires and states rise and fall.

This morning while reading the paper, I came across a review of a book called A Thirst for Empire: How Tea Shaped the Modern World. I made a note to ask Renee to order it for the library and moved on with my morning. While I was in the shower, I had the eureka moment. The project for the second unit should be an updated version of a project we used to do (but found it took too much time in the regular curriculum) – the commodity project. Students would trace a commodity and its impact through the global economy.

Now I am excited to plan the unit, beginning with an NPR piece that shows the many steps that go into the making of a t-shirt. Then, students will identify commodities to research from the interactive map. After researching, they will put together a presentation (still thinking through the details and will probably consult with the class about what the final product should be) about their commodity. I am also thinking I will have them write something about global trade based on their own research and what they learn from the research of others.

I am so grateful for the time I have given myself to step away from work and the space that my curriculum allows.

Walking the Walk: Taking Back the Weekend

Yesterday, on Labor Day, I experienced a powerful convergence when my passion for the Great British Baking Show combined with an impulse selection at the library, and one of the key insights I gained from the CTTL Academy on Teaching and Learning I attended this summer.

I have committed to implementing many of the most effective strategies for teaching and learning that I have been thinking about since the Academy this summer. I am going to do more low to no stakes quizzes, interleave and space the material, help students make meaning out of what might seem to them random information, and talk to students about how they study. Some of it will make perfect sense to them and some of it will seem counter-intuitive. I will ask them to trust me, even as they leave the comfort of their business as usual rereading and highlighting of texts and notes. I recognize that even when presented with robust research, they may resist when interleaving seems to lead to confusion while massed learning is clear, even though the long term effects of interleaving are definitely superior.

With these ideas buzzing around my head, and not much work piled up after three days of classes, I went to the public library on Saturday to get a book that a friend recommended. I brought home a pile of books, as I usually do (several will go unread or partially unread) and started one called¬†The Weekend Effect. It is the story of how workers fought hard over the years to earn two days a week off from work, but we have been giving those back in our always on, ever connected world. I have seen this work culture up close where vacations are not completely honored as laptops and phones can connect anywhere. There is a lot of evidence that working too much decreases productivity. It is easily a vicious cycle where it takes longer to accomplish tasks, which eats into one’s time, which increases fatigue and decreases productivity, which leads to longer hours to accomplish the same amount of work. It is true for students and it is true for teachers. Many of us are conscious about the impact on students and try to moderate our homework expectations. Yet, we treat teaching as some sort of nine-ten month gauntlet we have to run, until we get to rest over the summer. Every year I am exhausted in June, and every year I wonder if this will be the year I can no longer turn it back on in August. In other words, when will temporary burnout become permanent? Not this year, thank goodness.

What if we took the weekend back? What is we were truly rested on Monday and ready to tackle the week? What if we had more to talk about than housework and schoolwork and family schedules? We would be better teachers and we would be better role models. On Labor Day, I finished the book, jogged a few miles, ran a few errands with the kids, and baked bread for the first time (thanks to the Great British Baking Show for awakening a new passion for baking). In other words, I took care of myself and my family.

I woke up today refreshed and excited for the week. I was able to work enthusiastically and productively today. I am not sure how long I will be able to maintain my claim on my weekends, but it seems worth fighting for. I want to make this the year I give the counter-intuitive but well-supported conclusion that taking true breaks from work leads to more accomplishment in less time.