Back at It!

Regardless of one’s feelings about the current state of the pandemic, it is amazing to see our students back together again! It’s a lot of bodies. It’s louder. It’s messier. But the energy, the smiles, the giggles, and the connections between old friends and new are so hard to ignore. Life in the ARCTIC Zone has shifted pretty seamlessly. Students have continued to tinker with their own passion projects, collaborate on their short animated films for this year’s upcoming Film Festival, and plan and produce their dream vacations for this quarter’s Flex project.

In Humanities, we’ve continued to read the book, Flipped, in which we are learning the importance of understanding a difference in perspective. Using the experiences from the book, groups must now work to design and build a 3D metaphorical representation of the two main characters’ differing perspectives. The conversations have been incredible!

What are we doing with the extra time we have now that we’re all back together again? Friday challenges are back! I have found one very interesting thing worth noting in the last two weeks of challenges. The first challenge I always present is the same each year. It is simple in nature and sure to get them laughing: the marshmallow spaghetti tower challenge. Each year, as I typically present this challenge within the first two weeks of school, there are inevitably strong disagreements that may lead to arguments, some hurt feelings, and many failed attempts at building a successful, free-standing tower.

This year, I noticed an immediate difference in the ways groups were communicating with one another, laughing together, enjoying each other’s company, building on each other’s ideas, and executing their plans of action. And in the end, we had far more standing towers than I have ever seen before!

Fast forward to our second Friday challenge – marble roller coasters. Groups had the choice of shooting for the tallest, the longest, or the curliest coaster. No winners or losers. Just putting brains together to make a fun creation that required SO many trials and SO much testing! You should have heard the laughter, the brainstorming, and the problem-solving going on in room 820 on Friday!

Despite the challenges and setbacks of this schoolyear (and last), our students are growing in ways that may not be immediately visible to the eye. They are learning to communicate with others, to persevere through hardships, to respect each other’s unique differences, and to lean on others during times of strife. I am so glad we get to spend the last few weeks of the schoolyear together again.

Creative Representations

Quarter three has come to a close, and with that comes the demolition and destruction of last quarter’s project products. The cardboard is cut up, the paint is put away, and we are finally able to see the floor again. It’s bittersweet, of course, as the hard work and creativity we watched come to life the last few weeks is put behind us as we move to the next challenge.

Let’s shine some light on the creative projects our students designed last quarter. The challenge was to design a miniature golf hole that represented a historical event. Each hole was required to include at least one simple machine, descriptive sentence strips, and a paragraph summary of their historical event. Throughout the project process, students learned about Newton’s Laws and simple machines, practiced summarizing, conducted historical research, drew out blueprints to scale, designed and constructed their final miniature golf holes. In the end, we celebrated by creating a giant miniature golf course in our very own cafeteria at school!

No project would be complete without some time for reflection, for both students and advisors. If given the chance, there are changes we would all make to our project design, flow, and creations. That’s how we learn – Dream. Do. Reflect. Repeat. And so the cycle continues …

Creative Outlet

It is no secret this year has been the most uniquely challenging school year most of us will likely ever face or experience in our lifetime. Regardless of our own circumstances, each of us has undoubtedly encountered our own versions of struggle and strife in the last 12 months. Though a glimmer of light seems to be slowly appearing at the end of this shadowed tunnel, a heavy weight remains resting on the shoulders of our students (and ourselves) as we walk through our new normal each day. It may be our “new” normal, but there is nothing normal about it. Our hybrid learning model, limiting travel or time with family and friends, and relying on device communication, though necessary safety precautions and workarounds, have certainly added new layers of challenge and discomfort for students this year.

Allowing students to tap into their creative side can benefit mental health and attitude, allowing for a brief moment of escapism from the confusing and complicated realities surrounding them right now. We could all benefit from a little escape from time to time, but knowing when and how to jump into a creative journey can be easier said than done sometimes.

We need to pay attention to when we are inspired. The motion of the world swirls around us at lightning speed. To quote Ellen DeGeneres, “Have you ever forgotten what you were going to say … as it was coming out of your mouth?” We have so much information, so many signals, entering our minds at every given moment, it can be difficult to hold on to a single thought for more than a moment at times. So when inspiration does strike, we need to snag it and hold on tight.

As students were settling in to their project work time yesterday, a goofy middle school conversation erupted, like they do. I could not even tell you what led to the question, but one of my 8th grade students said, more to himself than anyone else, “I wonder how much a human eyeball weighs.” He quickly grabbed his iPad, a jaw-droppingly powerful tool, and had his answer in a matter of seconds. Did you know the human eyeball weighs about 7.5 grams? Now you do. The next few minutes were filled with an array of fun human eyeball facts. When he felt satisfied with the amount of information he had gathered, at random, about the human eye, he shifted gears and returned to his passion project work. I am not about to stifle an opportunity for learning that arises when a student has a silly moment of inspiration.

Creativity is flowing in the ARCTIC Zone right now as students plunge into the creation phase of their current Flex projects. The challenge is to design a miniature golf course hole that represents a historical moment or event in time. Do not fret – more to come on these projects as they quickly come to life.

Passion projects continue to encourage and nurture creative thinking.

And finally, short stories are starting to be brainstormed, as we gear up for our upcoming annual Film Festival. If you were tasked to write a short story about anything and anyone, what would you write about? Here are a few story ideas from Cohort A…

  • Coral can see ghosts but doesn’t realize until the worst thing happens. She then looks for an answer to why she can see ghosts but only finds one when the unbelievable happens to her.
  • This girl Pholish gets trapped in a room by a witch and has to escape if she wants to live. She finds a spell book that has a bobby pin in it and tries to open the door but it does not work.
  • It is about a girl who wants to save her town from evil robotic cats.
  • My idea is about a kid named Harry who lost his expensive shoes and needs to get them back.
  • I like mine about a bear named grizzly and there is a big forest fire. He tries to save all the animals but fails. Later the fire fighters come and put out the fire.

The energy in the room is just different when creation is happening. It’s lighter, lifted. What are you doing to tap into your own creativity? To find a mental escape? Pay attention to your own moments of inspiration!

Let’s Hear From Students!

My previous post worked to answer two of our most common questions when it comes to ARCTIC Zone confusions and curiosities. I am now calling on all AZ students, both current and former to share their own voices in the comments of this post to help broaden the perspective and share insider viewpoints and stories.

Students, please consider the following questions before commenting on this post. I urge you to be thoughtful and thorough in your response as you consider the eyes that may fall on your answers.

  1. What did/do you enjoy about your ARCTIC Zone experience?
  2. How did/does the ARCTIC Zone challenge you?
  3. How did/is the ARCTIC Zone helping you to grow as a person and a learner?
  4. High school students – How do you feel the ARCTIC Zone helped to prepare you for high school?
  5. What else would you like to share about your experiences in the ARCTIC Zone?

Thank you for sharing your voices, students! They matter! Now and always…

Common Questions

Registration time is upon us, which brings the usual questions about how certain things are accomplished in the ARCTIC Zone learning environment. Fifth grade families are preparing for their students to enter middle school next year, and with that comes the decision about registering for the ARCTIC Zone or for the traditional curricular model. Two of the most common questions we receive are, ‘How do you make sure students are learning the same standards as those outside the AZ?’ and ‘What is the transition like for students when it comes time for high school?’ Even after five years of programming, this learning model remains foreign to many adults, so these questions are very expected and appropriate.

Standard Completion

When originally designing the ARCTIC Zone, we spent time dissecting each of the standards a traditional classroom covers throughout 6th-8th grade. We condensed and combined standards in each content area to establish what we call our program’s Power Standards. These standards are used to guide our project work throughout each quarter.

Project-Based Learning (PBL) is a teaching model that engages students in an authentic driving question or challenge for an extended period of time. It is interdisciplinary, and unlike a class project that a traditional class might use at the end of a learning unit, students learn content knowledge and skills through active exploration during the project process. We use three different types of project work to drive learning in the ARCTIC Zone.

Class Projects, like our annual Film Festival, are teacher-guided and offer students opportunities to use voice and choice in their final products. Flex Projects, like this quarter’s game of Clue, are teacher-designed and offer students many opportunities to make personal choices throughout the project process and in their final product. Student Passion Projects are student-driven and -directed. Students use their own passions and interests to design a project of their own, while problem-solving and making decisions for how to progress along the way. During frequent check-ins with an advisor, they explain their choices, reflect, and reevaluate.

One thing to consider is how flexible certain things can be when it comes to content learning. For example, on a traditional science path, a student would cover Earth Science in grade 6, Life Science in grade 7, and Physical Science in grade 8. The concepts in each curricular area are nonlinear and do not require one area to be learned before moving to the next. Because of this, a 6th grade student in the ARCTIC Zone may be conducting a project that connects to Physical Science concepts while an 8th grade student may be covering Earth Science. In this way, when an AZ student covers specific concepts may look different from a non-AZ student, but all will be covered throughout their time in middle school.

Transitioning to High School

We often have parents, guardians, and other adults who worry AZ students might struggle with a transition “back” to a traditional learning environment when moving to high school. When imagining some of the differences the ARCTIC Zone offers compared to a classroom with which most adults are familiar, it can be easy to jump to conclusions about how different the entirety of the classroom experience might be. The teaching and learning process is certainly quite different. I wonder, though, what it is adults are concerned about with the “transition.”

An AZ classroom still has a teacher in the room who offers the expectations and goals for the day, teaching and modeling specific skills as needed, checking in with students as they work. Students are still assessed on their content knowledge and project progress. They still have at-home expectations. Plus, when not in their AZ classes throughout the day, our students are in traditional classrooms with non-AZ students like art, math, computer applications, health, foreign language, etc. I also argue that time in the AZ spent practicing and developing essential life skills like organization, time-management, collaboration, communication, goal-setting, self-reflection, and the ability to ask for help offers students an extensive toolbox with which to enter their high school classes.

We have graduated two classes from the ARCTIC Zone so far, soon to be three. Students have been met with much success at the high school level. I enjoy hearing from former students and families with stories about how they are using their experiences from driving their own projects in the ARCTIC Zone within their current classroom environment.

“Different” can be difficult to accept or trust. It is good to ask questions and to challenge new concepts. It is also good to ask questions about and to challenge the way things are and have always been. “Different” might be just the thing you or your student is craving.

Student Activists

After spending first quarter exploring systemic racism and its impact on recent days and events, students have now been challenged to choose a relevant issue they find to be unfair or unjust and to work for positive change. The end goal is not just to learn more about the topic of choice but to DO something about it. This requires digging. Digging to learn more about why and how certain things came to be, who is responsible for making change, and who or what might be intentionally or unintentionally standing in the way of progress.

Each student or group of students have chosen a topic that is meaningful to them. They began by looking at their broad vision: what the world would look like if they accomplished everything they set out to do. They scaled back on that vision and determined the main goal they had in place for themselves for this quarter. They scaled back even more to divide that main goal into reasonable short-term goals. And for the past several weeks, groups have been making progress toward each of those short-term goals with the hopes of activating real change.

Here are some examples of student topics:

  • Lowering gun violence
  • Eliminating the use of racial slurs
  • Offering gender-neutral bathrooms in our school
  • Eliminating the Pledge of Allegiance in our school
  • Creating a more equitable dress code in our school
  • Eliminating the gender wage gap
  • Decreasing youth hunger
  • Eliminating stigmas surrounding mental health

Activism is about fighting for the greater good, working to ensure equity for all groups of people. This can be a difficult concept to grasp, especially for young minds. Another challenge is the limiting belief that a middle school student cannot possibly accomplish some of the large-scale ideas they have chosen to tackle. My goal, as their teacher, is to make sure every one of my students leaves my classroom knowing they are capable of challenging any obstacle that comes their way. With enough time, energy, and thoughtful effort, they can at least stand their ground. I do not expect success every time, but they either succeed or they learn. Either outcome is a win in my book.

It’s Been a While…

I have been terrible with keeping up with my blogging this year. If I’m being honest, I have struggled to know what to share or write about. In years past, I naturally wander around my classroom taking photos of all of the crazy awesome things we have going on, and the photos inspire my writing. This year has been so different in that way. With masks and distancing, I have not found as many photo ops this year, which I have found has also affected my writing.

This year has been challenging in many ways. Anyone who knows me and my classroom knows I do not like to sit for long periods of time. I love to incorporate tons of movement into my lessons. I enjoy hands-on activities, team-building challenges, design challenges, drama activities, and anything else to get students thinking, doing, speaking, listening, and working together. Social distancing has made many of these activities and ideas very tricky, and some near-impossible. It has certainly encouraged some creative thinking and problem-solving for all of us.

This year continues to push and pull us in all sorts of directions. I am regularly impressed by the grit and perseverance of my students. The truth is, mindset is powerful. I have found there are two ways to think about a tough situation. You can either think, “I have to…” or you can choose to think, “I get to…”.

I have to limit my lessons to two days per week.
I get to see my students for a full 90 minutes for each day we are together.

I have to stop doing the team-building and hands-on group activities I love doing so much.
I get to be creative and stretch my thinking with how we accomplish certain things this year.

I have to follow all of these strict social distancing protocols.
I get to be part of the solution.

I have to teach 100% virtually this week.
I get to see and talk and laugh with my students in a safe way this week!

What you think about you bring about, and I am choosing to think positively about school. What other choices do we have? This is the only middle school experience these students are going to have, so I am going to bring my best to the table for them, regardless of the circumstances.

We are making it work!

Who’s to Blame?

Today, my classes are reading a short story called Storm Warning in which a young couple with little sailing experience decides to rent out a sailboat to spend an afternoon picnicking on an island outside the harbor. An overwhelmed employee skips a few steps in order to get the sailboat checked out to the couple quickly. A bystander decides against warning the couple of the storm brewing nearby because he figures they probably know what they’re doing.

Their lack of sailing experience, paired with the brutal storm winds and whitecaps, the couple finds themselves in a deadly predicament, unable to find their way back to the harbor. A conflict between the air and boat rescue mission crews causes a fatal accident, as one of the sailers is flown from the boat, never to surface again.

After reading the story, students are asked to think about all characters in the story. There are seven total. Then I ask, “Who’s to blame?” On their own, they ranked the seven characters in order from most to blame to least to blame.

Finally, I removed myself from the discussion and told them to talk about their rankings. The expectation I set for them was that by the end of the discussion, they all needed to have the same exact ranking. So far, I have completed the activity with only one of my five Humanities classes.

Wow.

Observations

  • Initially, students naturally broke into small groups to discuss with a neighbor or two and started to share their choices and reasons. This could have been because some were afraid to share their opinions to the whole group right away. It could be because they recognized the benefit of starting small and transitioning to bigger. Either way, it was fascinating to watch.
  • Eventually, the conversation somehow naturally morphed into a whole-group discussion. It often occurred when one group had a break in the action and overheard a comment from another group they wanted to chime in on. The natural transition was so fun to observe as each small group suddenly turned to join the group as a whole.
  • There were very minimal interruptions. Overall, students were very respectful with their listening and waiting for an open turn to comment.
  • Without prompting from me, students were naturally citing evidence again and again from the story to prove their point and to persuade others to change their rankings about certain individuals in the story. They also often pulled from their own personal background knowledge and experiences to support their ideas.
  • They showed empathy toward various characters at different times throughout the discussion. They often considered how they would feel if put into a similar situation and tried to justify or at least understand the actions of some of the story’s characters.
  • Some students spoke more often than others. Some kept quiet more often than not, but all chose to speak out when they felt compelled to comment. All voices were heard.
  • After not making much progress toward the ultimate goal of matching their rankings, they strategized and decided to reverse their thinking and work their way backwards through the rankings.
  • After about 25 minutes of discussion time, the entire group had a matching ranking they all felt good about.

Takeaways

  1. The ranking the group landed on in the end did not match one student’s original ranking. This means every single student changed their minds at some point during the discussion. This also means they allowed their minds to be changed. By entering with an open mind and truly listening to the voices and opinions of those around them, each of them was swayed at some point throughout the discussion.

    How many adults can say they walk into similar situations in the same way as my students did today? How many adults can say they are open to the possibility of having their minds changed? How many adults can say they are able to participate in a discussion in which people are disagreeing and are able to truly listen to differing opinions without interrupting others involved?

  2. As the teacher in the room, it is so difficult to keep my word and to keep my mouth shut. If I’m being completely honest, I disagree with their final ranking. That’s not the point. In fact, the point really is that there is not one right answer. Every single person in the story carried some of the responsibility.

    When we apply this thinking to current events, as we did at the end of class today, it becomes evident that all of us play a part. The fact is, when it comes to the enduring racism in our country, the current pandemic, the approaching election, you name it, there is not one person to blame, not one person who carries the weight. Each of us carries a responsibility on our shoulders.

  3. To piggyback off of this idea, a final take away for me had to do with my first class’s choice in ranking one particular character from the story. Tom, a fisherman passing by the sailboat on its way out to the ocean, has the opportunity to warn the sailors of the impending storm. Assuming they know what they are doing, he decides not to say anything and goes on with his day.

    Of the seven characters in the story, the students in my first hour class today deemed Tom the third person to blame. This speaks volumes to me. Tom is the only character who is never actively involved in the actual story scenario. He is an innocent bystander who happens to notice something odd and chooses not to say anything about it.

    Third on the list? We all find ourselves in uncomfortable situations in which we are the innocent bystanders on the side. It can be easy to redirect responsibility onto the shoulders of those directly involved. According to my students this morning, though, we all have a responsibility to speak up when we see or hear something that isn’t right.
A Decade of Work — The Shoulder to Shoulder Campaign

Tough Conversations

I think we can agree our country is in conflict. That might, however, be all we can agree on. As the political climate intensifies, as we walk through a complicated and confusing pandemic, and as we watch those around us rise in protest, the differing beliefs and opinions among us are many. As a teacher, it is challenging to know what my role is amidst such chaos and unrest.

After the death of George Floyd in Minnesota this summer, when riots emerged around us and social media erupted with negativity, aggression, and hate, my role became clear. We need to learn how to have tough conversations without demolishing every person and relationship in our path. I decided to start with racism.

Let me be clear. As their teacher, I do not ever attempt to impose my own beliefs or opinions on my students. I do not strive to change or alter their ideas. I DO hope to open their eyes and their minds to ideas other than their own, to listen to the words and experiences of other people, and to seek to understand from where others are coming. I encourage them to be willing to change their minds – not to change them. There is a difference.

Since day one this year, I have been prepping my classes for the coming days and weeks where we will be joining in some tough conversations together. We will address certain instances that have occurred in recent days, and we will reflect on events from the past. We will view these incidents from differing perspectives to try to gain insight and understanding, and we will pull from our own backgrounds and experiences to discuss our personal reactions and responses.

In order to get comfortable with the inevitable feeling of discomfort that accompanies these tough conversations, we had to set some ground rules. First, students anonymously shared the fears they had about what could happen while discussing racism together. I encourage all readers to look closely at the lists you see below and ask yourself if you have had any similar feelings in recent months. I have. And I do. I understand the gravity of my role as facilitator of these conversations. I admitted to my students I share similar fears. I worry I will say the wrong thing or that feelings will be hurt. It scares me, but I believe this is why we need to do it.

Next, they anonymously shared what they hope does happen while discussing racism together. Here I urge readers to notice the courage that exists in the words you see below.

Finally, we agreed that setting some group guidelines would be helpful in doing our best to avoid the fears listed while nurturing and encouraging the hopes. Imagine social media platforms in a world where all members were cognizant and mindful of the following guidelines. My students offer hope, strength, maturity, and respect at a time when those traits feel forgotten and misplaced. The future looks to be in good hands.

Grace & Silver Linings

After five full months away, I walked back into my classroom on Monday. It’s funny how some things are like riding a bike (colleague interactions and project planning) while others are not (setting an alarm and sitting on my rump, staring at a screen all day). However, most of us are realizing it’s not a bike we’re riding anymore. We’re riding a roller coaster of new information, new schedules, and new guidelines, and it has not always been easy on the stomach.

I made the poor choice a week or so ago to jump into the rabbit hole of community comments on social media regarding back to school (and fall sports) decisions being made by our district. It’s tough to read accusations and criticisms toward the district for which I am proud to represent. It’s tougher to read accusations and criticisms of teachers who are currently at the whim of all district-decisions. And it’s tougher, still, when you know some of the parents and community members making such hurtful comments.

The thing many do not realize is the amount of work and thought that has been put into every detail and decision made so far. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: I do NOT envy anyone in positions with decision-making power right now. No decision will be made without upsetting someone. Though I admittedly do not agree with every decision so far, I do realize and respect the time, energy, and consideration being put into each one.

I also realize how concerned and frustrated and afraid our community continues to be. While some choose to lash out with hurtful words behind the mask of their keyboards, I am trying my darndest to breathe deeply and offer some grace. Those in positions of decision-making power are facing questions and obstacles no one has ever faced before. They are human. They are our neighbors, family, friends. They are doing their best. Which is what we need to do… our best.

As I sit in my classroom in these final days before the school year begins, I have a choice. I can worry about the unknowns. I can panic about preparations. I can fear for the safety of myself and my students and families. I can argue things I know I cannot change. I can cry about not seeing the faces of every student every day.

Or I can look for silver linings. Because there are many.

I get to leave my dining room desk and return to my colorful classroom. I get to see and interact with my students every week. I get to extend and deepen discussions and learning opportunities as we navigate a new block schedule. I get to flex my creativity to create meaningful projects that combine in-person and virtual components. I get to explore profound topics of race, truth, politics, equity, mindfulness, and personal wellness with young, eager minds.

I don’t know much. But I do know exerting energy on the negative stuff is exhausting and drags me down. Putting my focus on the silver linings energizes me and lifts my spirits.

This year will be unforgettable, no doubt. I’m not ready for all that lies ahead, but I’m ready to do my best.

1e32557f7be684b512f9209d021b2699