Amy Wilkes is Mount Vernon’s Middle School Head of Learning and Innovation. We got together to discuss the work being done in grades 5-8 during the 2018-2019 school year.
Mount Vernon (MV): What are some of the notable projects Middle School took on this year?
Amy Wilkes (AW): We worked on several projects including a few on “heavy” subjects. Grade 5 has been experimenting with their own Genius Hour. Each week, students get an hour of self-directed learning to pursue topics of their own interest, culminating in a gallery walk of their learning. Grade 6 took an expedition to Space Camp and each class worked to write and edit their own magazine on space. Each student chose a topic of interest, then designed and laid-out their research using graphic design software. The magazines were then published. Grade 7 has been working in Dr. Kimberly Jackson’s Personal Freedom Unit studying human trafficking and the prison system. Grade 8 has been working in Mr. Leflar’s Conflict Course researching the UN Sustainability Goals and producing awareness billboards and infographics around them, as well as studying WWII by creating a museum experience around the Holocaust and Anne Frank.
MV: How are these projects initiated?
AW: It varies. For instance, the scale model houses project was developed from our curriculum. Others, however, are designed by teachers, based on student interest. In the past, some of our teachers have noticed that students might take to a particular topic, so they built on that. Most of the projects come from collaboration with one another. When our teachers start to see overlaps in curriculum, they work together to create a more well-rounded experience for our students. It’s the whole beauty of ‘Yes and…’ and, “What if we did this?”
MV: Do projects and plans ever shift?
AW: Of course! For instance, our seventh-grade literature teacher designed a unit she was extremely excited about. Her students came in and said, “we did this last year.” Actually it was a different concept, but in their minds they had done the work before. So, she asked herself, “What can we do instead…” and she pivoted. They worked on the same high level topics, but presented it in a different way than planned.
MV: It appears the general idea of this project work is “creativity within constraint”. While there are guidelines, students are encouraged to express themselves as they see fit. Is that true?
AW: I wish we were a little bit further along in the choose your own method of expression – but we aren’t quite there yet. Sometimes we just have to say, “We’re going to make a model house.” However, in a some cases, we do encourage a variety of expression. For example, students can make a video, an audio recording, a slideshow, interactive graphics, or simply create a classic poster. It really comes down to the type of project they are working on.
MV: Several of the projects you mention include External Experts, site-visits, etc. How would you describe “real-world work” as it relates to Middle School students?
AW: For this particular age group, students who are still reliant on adults for access and transportation, “real-world work” is based more on relationships and empathy and how it relates to current day. What makes the world real, is the histories and the stories of the people around us. Regardless of age and status, we are all capable of listening to others, telling the stories of others, and working with and for others. The “real world” is a network of communities and connections that we should be striving to strengthen. As long as these connections and the people within them stay as the core of our focus, we will be prepared for anything that comes next.
MV: Why is that important at this age?
AW: The ‘real-world’ isn’t math word problems or memorizing dates. You go out into the real world you see all kinds of different things. Nothing looks the same. I think that is also true when we try to expose our students to real world work. However, I believe the most important thing is recognizing that what we’re doing is relevant and it matters; it’s something that the students can actually impact. And that’s the real part: It’s not real job, it’s real people. Real world is the human element.
The Interview continues after the projects inset
Notable Middle School Projects
Teachers: Margaret Gunter and Carolyn Edwards
Genius Hour is a way to allow grade 5 students to explore interests and passions unabated in a way that serves them best individually. Students had freedom of choice to spend the hour each week learning about a topic of their choice, including: cake decorating, web development, escape rooms, sushi making, whittling, and general WWII history. During this hour, students were able to decide how to learn more about their specific topic. Genius Hour culminated with a gallery-walk for students to exhibit their learning.
Model Houses and Solar Energy
Teacher: Jayne Liu
Every year students in grade 6 go to Space Camp. The sixth grade team has intentionally built a robust inter-disciplinary experience for their students regarding outer space. With this strategy, students gain a well-rounded perspective of a single topic – through literature, grammar, science, math, and their Pioneer Course.
This is an example of a planned unit that allows students the freedom to be hands-on while learning new skills: graphic design, lay-out, and publishing. They get to investigate their specific topics further, then design and create something that is tangible.
Grade 7 Freedom Course
Teacher: Dr. Jackson
Students chose between two real-world performance tasks related to physical freedom in the United States: “serve” on a human trafficking task force to explore the current state of human trafficking or, research and assess problems of the prison system and present the findings to a distinguished group of political leaders, educators, and investors.
Purpose To provide learners with an opportunity to engage in a real-world topic where they could collaboratively apply research skills, evaluate information, solve a problem, and present their findings.
Presentation A gallery walk was organized to encourage interaction, reflection, and feedback. One station was set up to allow for a virtual reality experience.
Grade 8 Conflict Course
Teacher: David Leflar
UN Sustainable Development Goals
Students were given the task of designing advertising, or subvertising (subversive advertising) campaigns in support of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, with the option of applying them to the present day, or anachronistically to past eras in history that we have studied (Civil War, Women’s Suffrage, Civil Rights Movement).
Tasked with creating a museum experience around the Holocaust, students reached out to museum curators to learn display and presentation techniques. During the project work, students had the rare opportunity to listen to a Holocaust survivor speak at the Anne Frank Museum. To quote the survivor, “I won’t be around much longer to tell this story, but you will.” The experience added a deeper level of empathy when reading Anne Frank and creating their exhibits, as students now had a real, human connection to the experiences of Frank and other Holocaust victims.
MV: What’s next?
AW: One of the things that I’m excited about for next year is grade six through eight are moving to a fully integrated, as best we can, humanities approach. So students will no longer have individual classes. Literature, Grammar/Composition and Social Studies are currently three different classes. We’re going to have a Humanities class where all three of those things will be integrated.
I’m excited about creating the time for those elements to come together, allowing students to see how everything is being woven together.
MV: What has surprised you the most this year, and with these projects?
AW: It’s the little moments – watching a student respond to a project, or seeing students demonstrate depth of learning. When I say that, I don’t just mean Math or Literature content – it’s their definitive understanding of all of the pieces that go into the project.
MV: What would you like to see more of in the future for Middle School?
AW: All of it. I want to see more intentional design for giving our students an opportunity to connect with whatever that real world currently looks like. Sometimes, we have ideas and we can sit around and discuss these grand visions but when it comes down to what actually happens in the classroom it doesn’t always work out the way we plan. But – with Middle School, comprised of grades 6-8, moving into their new building – I’m excited to see what opportunities there are to actually make more of those big ideas happen because we have them. We have great teachers who dream big. They make a lot of great connections, and design these experiences for students, making them come to life. I’m excited to be able to say “yes!” more. and to watch our students continue to grow and connect with those around them.