Imagine this: Your boss approaches you and says from now on, every single day you’re going to be given one to two hours of time during your work day to work on ANYthing you want. You’re told to really think about what excites, intrigues, or inspires you, and to use this allotted time for this new purpose each day. What would you do?

Students in the ARCTIC Zone are presented with this opportunity every year. Depending on their schedules, they get to devote one or two class periods every day to a project of their choice. As 6th graders, students are often caught a bit off-guard, sure there must be some kind of catch. I try my best to pose a variety of options … “You could build something, write something, paint something, read something, film something, learn how to do something new, organize a fundraiser, plan an event, learn more about something, try to make a positive change in school or in our community! What do you want to do?!”

We always have a few different types of students each year. There are some students who are just not yet sure about or comfortable with stretching themselves or their minds to think beyond creating a PowerPoint presentation or a poster. And there are always a few who see no limits and end up concocting a project idea far beyond any realistic measure. Both are allowed and encouraged to, “Go for it!”

In the end, we hope to coach the first group to think bigger and further. To be more intentional about selecting a specific and relevant audience and to find unique ways to launch to that particular audience. With our help, the goal is for the second group to realize the need for careful and reasonable thinking and planning. We want our students to think and dream big. We also want them to be able to comfortably and successfully navigate the flow of a project of any size on their own. Finding harmony between big thinking, reasonable thinking, and authentic purpose, and relevance is the ultimate challenge.

What amazes me is watching our 8th grade students begin the year with a more solid understanding of what their options include. They come in with bigger thinking but with a more realistic understanding of time, resources, etc. that will help or hinder the progress of their ideas. And of course, as always, the variety of projects is incredible to observe. We have students building a mock volcano, some designing a website to teach young women about their changing bodies, some coding video games, some filming a stop-motion video of a car chase, and others designing a pamphlet to teach others tips for training cats and kittens.

Again, I ask – what would you choose?

A Zombie Apocalypse

Two days ago, our principal came to us live with an emergency announcement. Zombies had been sighted in and around Chicago, IL! This is a new breed of zombies that do not respond to weapons. Our only chance of survival is to run and hide until we can concoct an effective antidote to return the zombies to their human form. We needed to evacuate – and quickly! Luckily, each of us was given one free flight to anywhere in the world where we thought we would feel safer from the zombie outbreak.

Some groups chose to go where they knew there would be ample food from crops or local wildlife, some considered fresh water sources, and others chose locations with protective landforms for an extra barrier. Most groups travelled great distances with the hopes that the zombies cannot swim, using our great oceans as a natural obstruction. So far, the zombie spread has remained central to North America. With any luck, they can be contained to the one area.

In the meantime, groups have since relocated to their new sights and are working together on a number of things. The cartographer in the group is keeping a map of where new zombie outbreaks are occurring each day, as well as any natural disasters that could prove dangerous for their groups. The expeditors are tracking group supplies like food, water, firewood, etc. Each group’s accountant is maintaining and attempting to balance their budgets. And the consultant of each group is acting as a communicator with other groups, handling all trade negotiations. We’ve been lucky so far. All are well. We can only hope it stays this way.

Today, we received a encrypted message from the zombies! It was a message sent to us in latitude and longitude coordinates. After creating a giant grid on the floor, we all worked together to chart each coordinate in its correct location. Our efforts paid off because we cracked the code! The message read: “Help us! Make an antidote!” From this message, we were able to infer the human soles still exist within the zombie exterior! We need to save them before we’re all bitten and transformed! We carry the weight of the world on our shoulders!

***NOTE: I cannot believe I forgot to snap more photos – especially of our final zombie message! Too engrossed in the fun of it all!***

Love Wins

I tell you what – I try really hard not to allow myself to fall down certain rabbit holes on social media or to involve myself with particular side conversations in public gatherings – especially recently. There is so much debate, disagreement, uncertainty, frustration, and hatred swirling around regarding decisions being made by those around us and “above” us. I try to migrate toward positive circles and vibes, anyway, but as we embark on a brand-new school year today, one filled with mixed emotions and uncertainties, I feel it necessary to make one thing clear.

Regardless of your views on the pandemic… Regardless of your political opinion… Regardless of your thoughts on school policies… when your student walks through my classroom doors, you can bet that he/she/they will be met with kindness, respect, and acceptance from me. And you can be sure that I will spend the entirety of this year doing my best to cultivate a classroom culture of compassion that will be carried beyond the classroom.

As I look around my classroom today, I see a variety of shapes, sizes, colors, identities, and backgrounds. I know some students are so excited to be here and others were dreading the arrival of today. I know some are vaccinated and others are not. I know some are terrified about being called on while others are blurting before a question has even been asked. I know some are well rested while others were up till 3 am playing video games. I know some despise the fact that we have been asked to wear masks and others are nervous to be around so many other people given current conditions. I know some are carrying weight on their shoulders that I may never know about or understand.

Despite our differences, we will work to accept and appreciate one another. In fact, it is our differences that will make this year exciting, fun, and insightful. We will celebrate our uniqueness.

When your children enter my classroom, they become MY children. Rest assured, I will treat them as such. Love wins.

A Masked Film Festival!

One of my favorite things about the flexibility we have with the ARCTIC Zone is the ability to join together with family and friends to celebrate learning! The one project we carry over year after year is our annual Film Festival. Each year focuses on a different component of film-making (cinematography, storytelling, etc.). This year, as with everything else, we were unsure of how the film projects would unfold. Mask-wearing and distancing would not allow for easy filming opportunities. But the show must go on, and we found a way!

This year’s film focus: animation! For the first time ever, we had an entirely animated Film Festival! Every student began by writing a story of their own. They then joined students of other grade levels to form small working groups. A story was selected and screenplays were written. We spent several days tinkering with different types of animation like hand-drawn animation, claymation, object animation, and cut-out animation. From here, groups selected their animation of choice and created a storyboard to follow during the shooting process.

Animating provided unique challenges. Do you know how many frames are needed to create a fluid stop-motion sequence of 2-4 minutes in length? A lot! With new challenges came new opportunities, as well. It was very fun to see a spotlight shone on the talents of some of our very artistic students. We have many!

This past weekend, a panel of eight community members came to Northstar to view all finished films. Each judge critiqued one or two categories. Films were critiqued on the following components: Compelling Story, Creativity & Originality, Framing/Shot Selection, Animation, Sound Editing, and Video Editing. The top eight films were aired on the big screen at the Micon Budget Cinema in downtown Eau Claire this evening! It was an exclusive event, shown only to the top eight film makers and their guests. The top three films were awarded with movie gift cards!

Congratulations to …

Third Place: The Whisper

(Sam, Lin, Olivia, & Cadence)

Second Place: What’s Our Talent?

(Madison, Maddie, Charleigh, & Anna)

First Place: Metaphysical

(Michelle, Cienna, & Montana)

Our celebrations of learning bring me so much joy. It is a time to reflect on the hard work of the past few weeks and months. It is a time to laugh together, to learn together, to be together. When leaving the theater tonight, my face literally hurt from smiling, as it does after every ARCTIC Zone celebration. This one was different, though. After over a year of distance and isolation, uniting as one community of students, staff, and families to celebrate together was very special. It felt like a new beginning. And as the end of this school year very quickly approaches, I like the sound of that. May this ending be a new beginning for us all…

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.