How did I start my very first project?
The hiring process at High Tech High involved teaching a hands-on lesson and getting interviewed by select students and staff. It was definitely a surreal experience for me that ended with this sobering conversation with Ben Daley.
Ben: [smiles] So what do you think?
Alfred: [blank stare] So let me get this straight...you want me to teach 9th grade math & physics...I don't need to use a textbook...and I could do whatever I want?
Ben: [smiles] Yeah.
Alfred: Well [smiles back] I better get to work!
High Tech High definitely stuck to their principle of Teacher as Designer. I was not only a first year teacher, but I was also a first year PBL teacher embarking on my first project. YIKES!!!
How did I start my very first project? Well, I...
1. Replicated An Existing Project. This is Nesting Bird in Palm, a public art sculpture designed by Marina Zeldin, that I just happened to see while commuting to work. It was one of many sculptures of the Urban Tree program done by the Port of San Diego. It was inspiring. It was perfect.
2. Stuck With What I Knew. I came from the business consulting industry, so just played the part of a project manager who wanted his team [my students] to design small-scale models of a public art sculpture that showcased mathematics. The students used a master action plan that followed a simple project cycle to help manage and monitor their progress.
3. Customized the Deliverables & Requirements. During my research of the Urban Trees, I found out that the artists went through the same design process. They had a proposal (or project) sheet with the original requirements that included wind load calculations. I added math requirements of my own, while the wind load calculations also allowed me to integrate the physics.
4. Documented Everything Online. I called the Port of San Diego to find out the judging criteria during for selection. They were surprised when they saw my digital portfolio, H Tree H, that I modified their Urban Tree program for education. Then something amazing happened...
5. Took Them on a Field Trip. They invited our class to see 200 artist submissions currently at their office. What timing! We started the project with a field trip! Wait! Did I just say we went on a field trip at the beginning of a project? What happened to, If you don't finish your homework, then you're not going on the field trip? Going to the Port of San Diego was one of the main reasons my first project went so well. My students couldn't stop asking questions after seeing what was expected of them. An Entry Event launches the inquiry for a project.
6. Made the Student Work Public. The students were definitely more engaged when they knew someone was going to give them feedback. We put pictures of their work on digital portfolios [it would have been nice to critique them asynchronously online]. We invited the staff to a gallery walk where they voted for their top 6 and commented on the models. The Port of San Diego Judges visited the school and choose their favorite from the 6. Jeanette & Elise were chosen to present their Spinning Tops at a board meeting where 150 people just happened to be attending.
I couldn't have asked for a better start for my PBL career. However, there was definitely a lot of room for improvement. My friend Blair Hatch told me once, "You never do a project until the second time." Perhaps the second time around could have went like this...
During the following summer we did try to build it to full scale, but working with a 15 foot pole with a 6 inch diameter proved to be another major hurdle. It's like raising the obelisk. We realized it's one thing to make a small model, but the logistics get tricky. I did eventually get a chance to go big with another project. Remember, there are no bad projects, only good lessons.
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