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August 18, 2017

Project-Based Learning: Exploring Creativity, Innovation, and Change

In laying the foundation for learning about the civil rights movement, AltSchool educator Jaqi Garcia invited her Upper Elementary students to first learn more about two important related events—Jim Crow and the Great Migration, and the Harlem Renaissance—and provided a medium for them to flex their creativity. As part of this experience, Jaqi designed an engaging, hands-on project exploring progress, innovation, and change in American history. 

Researching American History

‍The Unit Jaqi created inviting students to learn more about pivotal artists from the Harlem Renaissance.

The idea grew from an EdgeMakers curriculum that Head of School Alex Ragone created earlier in the year. Through this curriculum, students explored the definitions and practices that lead to innovation, creativity, and change: curiosity, deliberate practice, brainstorming, prototyping, iterating, and testing inventions.

‍‍Jaqi's Card about jazz in America.

Jaqi then designed her large-scale project, allowing students to apply these concepts. She started by creating an overarching Unit in the AltSchool platform that provided background about these two pivotal events in our history. Students then tested their reading comprehension and writing abilities, answering questions about the text and writing a summary of what the movements entailed in Cards within the larger Unit. Throughout this exploration phase of the project, students worked both in groups and individually at their own pace while Jaqi monitored their progress in the platform, regularly answering questions and providing guidance.

Discover how AltSchool utilizes technology to amplify student agency.

How Art Shapes History

The Harlem Renaissance gave students the perfect opportunity to take a deeper dive into the creative aspects of innovation. Jaqi created Cards within the Harlem Renaissance section of the Unit that allowed the children to learn more about how art and creativity played a huge role in giving African-Americans a voice during this era. Students learned about key artists and works in the movement, including poets Langston Hughes and Countee Cullen, novelist James Baldwin, and the growing popularity of jazz music. They also learned how these artists used their struggles with racial and economic inequality to inspire their work.

The class then took a trip to the National Jazz Museum in Harlem, where they learned how jazz originated in New Orleans but developed and grew in Harlem. The trip provided an opportunity to deepen their understanding of the history of jazz and participate in some scat improv with live musicians.

Translating History Into Creativity


Then it was time for the students to become their own creative forces, first by considering what creativity means—both through history and to themselves. Students thought about how they might address current social issues and express their message for change through a creative medium. 

Working with Jaqi and guest design expert Nadya to identify common themes across their work, the class created a “‘zine” that embodied their learning throughout the year and their values in a call-to-action. To create a cohesive publication, they brainstormed article subjects, designed a cover and internal artwork, wrote pieces, and took photos. To hone their persuasive writing skills, students each wrote their own “Letters from the Editor” explaining the magazine’s concept, its audience, and its message and mission. They read their letters out loud to their group and received feedback from their peers, which they then used to make revisions to their letter.

‍The final mixed-media product included poems, symbolic recipes, illustrations about students’ vision for the future of America, essays, and persuasive letters.

Bringing Learnings to the Stage

The students performing their play.

In the final phase of the project, students wrote a play inspired by Afro-American artist Romare Bearden’s murals and paintings. They constructed a set in the same style as Bearden and performed their play for family and friends during a final showcase. Students then read excerpts from their ‘zine, shared their artwork, and presented what they had learned about the Great Migration and the Harlem Renaissance to family and friends.

“These artifacts of their learning were their message to the world,” Jaqi explained. “They were empowered by the impact that their creativity can have beyond the classroom.”

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