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December 15, 2016

Project-Based Learning at AltSchool Brooklyn Heights

AltSchool Brooklyn Heights educators Zhanna Cannon and Jenny Hartman recently led Upper Elementary students in a three-month long project exploring the land and people of the Western parts of Asia known as the Middle East. Here, they share an in-depth look at how this project-based learning unit incorporated core skills work, social-emotional development, and real-world experiences.

Sparking Curiosity and Honoring Interests

Understanding how the history of seemingly far-flung regions influences our lives today is an important concept, and provides a rich opportunity for exploring many different subjects. Our goal was to demystify the unknown of countries we were not familiar with and to experience the interconnectedness of the world by exploring beautiful examples of balancing traditions and modern experiences.

As we started the unit, it was essential to spark students’ curiosity. We asked students to begin by exploring the different biomes of Asia and pick one they were most interested in. We worked with students to further explore their interests, whether it was studying flora and fauna of the region, or doing research on specific landforms and countries.

Looking at maps to study biomes, many students were drawn to the mystery and common misconceptions surrounding deserts and the countries within this biome. The biomes invited students to think about the land without the borders of countries. The learning unit evolved into a deep study of the Middle East, as students investigated the region’s geography, history, religion, and art.

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Practicing Core Skills

By organizing learning units into projects, AltSchool educators create dynamic opportunities for personalizing learning for every student, while ensuring that all students learn about fundamental topics such as history, math, or english language arts. Through contextualized learning environments, students incorporate and pursue personal interests that engage them and make learning meaningful. AltSchool’s tools give educators more time to spend with students to understand how each student learns best, and enable educators to assess standards-based progress. Through the application of technology, our picture of each learner becomes richer over time, enabling even greater personalization.

History: We gained exposure to history of the Middle East by looking first at geography and ecosystems, then introducing people, culture, and religion. This approach helped students better understand the desert biome and in turn, they demonstrated their learning by describing in detail the flora, fauna, and human impact on the region over time.

Math: Studying Islamic art enabled a unique approach to geometry, as students examined patterns, symmetry, and tessellations. They also looked at arrays and different ways to represent multiplication. Working in independent and small group settings, students began building number sense and strategies during this project and were excited to collaborate with peers to build math skills.

English Language Arts: This project presented ample opportunity for developing writing skills. Students learned about character studies, examined how characters are portrayed in stories, and explored different approaches to creating characters in their own writing. They also learned about informational writing by reviewing articles about their biome of choice. By writing memoirs about their chosen biome, students practiced exposition, exploring why they chose that specific biome, what role the weather plays, and the impact of humans. 

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Developing Social-Emotional Skills

AltSchool educators prioritize social-emotional learning in everything we do. During this unit, our class read It Ain't So Awful, Falafel, a book about a girl from Iran who moves to California in the 1970s. The book sparked rich conversations about how to learn about, and from, others. It also brought up many questions—which led us to explore what makes a good question.

The class learned to research before making assumptions and how to approach others respectfully. Students reflected honestly on their own biases, and humanity became a significant part of this project, as they developed self-awareness around their knowledge and actions, and learned how to become more compassionate. As part of the unit, students developed a toolkit for the classmates of the protagonist in It Ain't So Awful, Falafel to help make her feel welcome. The toolkit consisted of a collection of strategies to approach situations that are unfamiliar, uncomfortable or misunderstood. Each tool can be used to check our own biases, encourage observation versus judgement, and to recognize and respect the individuality of others.

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Incorporating Real-World Experiences

No matter the focus of a learning unit, AltSchool’s educational approach is designed to help students apply their learnings to the real world. Going on field trips and bringing in experts from the community are just two of the ways educators incorporate real-world experiences.

For this project, we visited the Children's Museum of Manhattan to learn about textiles and other Middle Eastern art. Children’s Museum of the Arts paid a visit to help students investigate biomes and look at Islamic art using stop-motion animation. And when an Associated Press photographer showed the class pictures from Pakistan, Syria, and Afghanistan, students learned that earning trust is an important part of being able to tell someone’s story through pictures. In each of these experiences, students applied their new skills to ask insightful and respectful questions to help further develop their understanding of the Middle East. As educators, it’s incredibly rewarding to see students develop deep curiosity of a subject area, learn new skills, and gain a thorough understanding of a subject that was so unfamiliar to them three months ago.

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