Innovation Day 2011

As a teacher you have good days and you have bad days and if you are lucky you have a great day. Today was one of those great days. We held our inaugural Innovation Day for the 6th grade in my building. Throughout the day we had over 250 6th grade students working on self chosen and self directed learning projects. One of the hallmarks of the school I work in and the principal that leads us is innovation. As teachers we are encouraged to be innovative in every aspect of our jobs. Naturally, this spilled over into our work with students. Matt Langes, who is a 7th grade teacher and team leader, piloted the innovated day idea with his team of roughly 100 7th graders with a great level of success about a month ago.

The 6th grade teams began talking about doing a similar day but decided to do it with the entire grade level instead of just one team. To get things rolling we had to introduce the whole idea to the students. Our students have been known to break down crying when their lockers are jammed so telling them they would have an entire day to own their learning was a big step. We told them that they would have an entire school day to learn about what they wanted and to create evidence of their learning in any way they chose. As we started talking about the day, the students started getting excited.

When we got closer to the actual day, students were filling out plan sheets that outlined exactly what they were going to be doing. Within their plans they had to pick what they were going to be learning about, what resources they needed, and what their final product or evidence would be. As teachers we helped students focus their plans but the ideas were theirs as the power of choice was a key belief we had.

Today was the actual “Innovative Day” as students came to school with their supplies, resources, and an abundance of enthusiasm. We broke the students into working areas based on their topics of choice and the resources needed. There was a section for building, art, music, technology, videos, cooking, physical education, and more. Variety was the name of the game as there were over 200 different learning projects being worked on over the course of the day. Many students were working independently but there were plenty of learning groups that developed throughout the day as well. Students started helping each other with projects and ended up learning more than they even originally planned. Here is just a sample of the great work that was done.

We had a student:

• Writing and performing his own guitar solo
• Creating a model out of wood of the Sears Tower
• Writing her own historical fiction short story
• Creating a Rube Goldberg machine
• Designing and creating a replica suit of Roman Armor (out of tinfoil and cardboard)
• Creating a how-to tutorial on baking a cake
• Painting a still life on canvas of a nature scene
• Writing and performing a one-man comedy act
• Researching and presenting on the concentration camps of the Holocaust
• Creating a video highlight reel of basketball moves and plays
• Building a model of the Leaning Tower of Pisa
• Writing a biography of his favorite teacher Mr. Stumpenhorst (<-----ok, I made this one up!)
• Creating a video documentary of Innovative Day
• Building a model of Big Ben
• Choreographing and performing a dance
• Researching Walt Disney and creating a model of the Epcot Center
• Creating a model of numerous World War II battles
• Building a model of the Eiffel Tower
• Researching and creating countless Power Points, posters, and Photo Stories

There was amazing work being done everywhere you looked and it was not unnoticed either. As the students were diligently working they actually had some unexpected visitors stop in. A few adults in suits and business attire stopped in and roamed around the work rooms. They sat down with students and talked with them about what they were doing and genuinely got involved in the students work beyond just the role of a bystander. These adults were the administration from our district office which included our superintendent himself. This is not something that happens often and was a great thing to see for so many reasons. First, they took time out of their administrative schedules to be with students. This simple act shows that they care about the work being done in schools and have an invested interest in the kids. It is nice for our student’s work to be noticed by those outside of our classrooms or their individual homes. The second reason this was a great thing was it allows the decision makers within the district to see the great work the teachers are doing. This is important for them to see what teachers are doing so they can adequately support them in a positive way. As a teacher, to see one of your struggling students able to articulately speak to an associate superintendent about her passion for her work was a very powerful thing for me.

In addition, to the “big wigs”, we had many teachers outside of the grade level stepping in and giving up their plan periods to hang out and work with the students. It was great to see so many teachers and other personnel in the building stepping in and taking an interest in student learning in its purest and more unfiltered form. Nothing they were doing will be on a test. None of their activities were part of a district assessment. There will be no questions on a standardized test about what they did. They were learning about things they had a passion for and nothing else.

There are surely those readers who are asking a few questions that I will answer in the closing of this post.

Was the student’s work graded? Nothing was graded nor will it be. The focus was on the learning.

Did you have any discipline issues with giving kids the freedom to day what they wanted for a whole day? None! When you give kids a highly engaging activity that they choice in and buy into; behavior problems are nonexistent.

What did you do with the projects and things kids created? We documented them all with pictures and videos taken throughout the day. In addition, students saved all their work in a global network drive for future viewing. We also spent the last 45 minutes of the afternoon doing a large group show and tell with the students sharing their day’s work.

Again, this was a great day. One of the best moments was the end of the afternoon when a 12 year old boy stepped in front of over 250 of his peers and played a song on his guitar that he wrote himself. The room was dead quiet except for the sound of a blaring electric guitar responding to his small but nimble fingers. When he was finished nearly every student in the room was on their feet cheering and yelling.

As the students were walking out at the end of the day one student stopped me and asked, “Can we do this again tomorrow?”

I responded with, “Well, I would love to but tomorrow is Saturday,” in a half joking manner.

This student looked me dead in the eyes and replied, “I would come back tomorrow to do this again.”
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