The teacher has told me this is a very project-based class (the whole school’s philosophy is Project Based), and now a group of four, following Carol’s lead, is working on a project organizing sheet– dedicated not to the content of the project, but to the process, things like “action items, persons responsible, next steps, due dates”. These students are learning as much about (and accountable for) good group project process as they are the content of the topic– which is great preparation for their future. The students are relying on each other for the project’s success, and speaking in strong terms to each other about their responsibilities. Carol says “you could have texted me” if you needed help over the weekend. Ten groups are focused on the task, all over the room, and the teachers are circulating, “signing off” on the project organizer sheet. On one wall are a series of paper sheets, stating from left to right: “Initiation,” “Planning,” Research,” “Analysis,” “Construction,” “Delivery,” and “Wrap-Up.” Carol seems to be just flying around the room, working at a pace I have rarely seen at schools, a pace you’d see in a newspaper newsroom maybe, but not so often in a high school classroom.
Carol’s computer displays her very impressive (this is a sophomore) six page, single-spaced paper complete with pictures, maps, and links, analyzing the causes of the very recent “revolution” in South Africa, in which Mbeki was deposed in a revolt of the ANC. Love how current and contemporary this is– all the students were given a choice among a list of contemporary political turmoils, including Venezuela, Nigeria, Zimbabwe, and North Korea. Her paper opens with a paragraph summarizing recent events in South Africa, then reviewing each of the five historical world revolutions (above), and then she explains which of these is the best parallel to contemporary SA. Carol is speaking to her seat-mate: “Do you know how long the French Revolution was, it was heck of long!” The students have had to integrate into their analysis 15 vocabulary words, such as “upheaval, intervention, interim, null, conciliate, dispensing, prerogative.” Marzano tells us research has demonstrated strong evidence that vocabulary needs to be taught with serious purpose, and it is great to see that here. Carol has chosen the Chinese revolution as her parallel, “because there are a bunch of small groups fighting each other for what were the best goals for their country.” She goes on to identify each of the South African groups and what their goals are.
We are writing this paper as if it is a textbook chapter, so at the end of the paper she has to write 30 “review questions,” like the ones you see in a textbook; twenty of the questions are to be lower level, Carol explains to me, and ten are higher thinking questions. How excellent, instilling in these kids the skill of thinking about what would be the key questions of their topic. Example lower level questions she is writing: “Why did the French people revolt?” “What caused the social divisions in Mexico?” “What were the English people and the Parliament afraid of?” “What are the people of South Africa blaming the migrants for?” Her essay/higher thinking questions: “Do you agree that China relates the most clearly to the crisis in South Africa?” “If you were a citizen in South Africa, would you be upset with the number of migrants entering your country?” “Do you think it was necessary for William to lead England to war against France?” “Do you think a revolution in South Africa is necessary?” These papers will be collected, at year-end, and the best selected for a school-published world history textbook, one these kids will have written (!)– which makes this work more authentic, more personal, more relevant. Carol points out a Modern World textbook on the desk next to the computer, but tells me quickly “honestly I haven’t even read anything in it.” Instead she has used the internet for all her research. Isn’t this an awesome inversion: instead of students learning history by reading a textbook, they are learning it by writing one, complete with pictures, maps, and review questions.
Looking around the room, I see forty students engaged, at work, focused. Yes, they chitchat a bit with seat-mates, half about their work, occasionally other things, but this is what happens in any professional environment and is good for kids.