Sunday, July 10, 2016

Pride, perseverance, and process: What we're learning from our new summer program

Depot students busy at work on their Gardens
"No, it's not good enough. The nail's sticking out the side of the board!"

"OK. Let's fix it."

Building a simple raised bed is not easy if you've never done it before--even harder if you've never used a hammer.

But that's why we're here. We're here to build foundational skills--our students' and our own. They're learning pride and perseverance. We're learning how to run a summer program and really support students.

Pride and perseverance

I wrote a couple of weeks ago about the student who finished his raised bed and said this was the first time he'd ever been proud of anything at school. He's taking a similar pride in his lab notebook and the experiment he designed for his garden, and in beautifying his box.

Painting our boxes
I got the idea from some beautifully painted beehives I'd seen online. I showed them to the students, and it captured their imaginations. They were excited to make their gardens even more beautiful, and more their own.

They applied the same pride to applying their fertilizers, keeping track of which ones they added and how much, even measuring the water they added, for their controlled experiments.

And then there was the new box. We had some extra soil and needed to build a couple of smaller boxes, so two  students decided to build one on their own. They'd never done it before, and even getting the nails in straight was a challenge. At one point, the boards were obviously crooked. While one claimed it was "good enough," the other insisted they pull it apart and start over. What an important lesson in quality and perseverance! No, it still wasn't perfect, but nothing ever is, right?

Making home-made pizza for their classmates

Never enough support

Speaking of imperfection, the weak point in the program so far has  definitely been the online work. The students love working on the gardens, helping cook lunch, and they're even engaged in my little mini-lessons on science while they eat some breakfast.

The online courses are proving much more challenging. They had three choices: for math and two courses on Moodle that I've created over the past few years: Biology and The History and Philosophy of Science.

So far, one student is cranking through Biology and doing very high quality work. There's another a bit behind, four others have done a few assignments each, and two have just gotten started.

We work on the gardens until noon, have lunch, then spend the last one to one-and-a-half hours working on our online work. What I'm finding is that, even with me right there with them, they struggle to stay focused and be productive after lunch. I can think of a few possible reasons for this:

  1. Post-lunch dip. Their own biology is overriding my online course. :-)
  2. Those darn Chromebooks. I used to be a huge fan, but it's so easy to get distracted by Youtube when you're supposed to be working, and the little laptops make it hard for me to see what they're doing.
  3. Lack of clarity and capacity. I continue to tweak my online courses to make everything as clear as possible, but I'm sure I've got a long way to go, and as the Heath brother's have said, "What looks like resistance is often lack of clarity," and the same goes for a lack of capacity.

I was wondering why one student hadn't started the course yet. Well, this week, I found out. He said he thought it was too late, since some of the deadlines had passed. I told him I had only set deadlines as guidelines, that there are no late penalties, and that he could (and should) still do all the work. I thought I'd made it clear, but obviously I hadn't, and it had consequences.

And then there's the capacity issue. Not only do they need help staying off Youtube, they probably need more help with the content. With one stellar exception, the few who have done written assignments online need to go back and resubmit. What happens when they are faced with the choice of working on an assignment that is difficult or unclear and watching Netflix?

This whole summer program is about extra support, but it's still not enough. They need more, so let's make it better. We're going to try expanding the program to once per week and rework the online time to make it more structured and better supported.

Build it. Examine it. Make it better. Repeat.

Whether it's a raised bed or a school, it's a process, and it's worth the effort.

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