Change is Difficult but Possible

I am the first to admit that I move slowly when starting something new. Rachel Simmons, author of Odd Girl Out, spoke to our community last week and I realized, very late in life, that I am sometimes scared to take a risk. This is very enlightening since I just celebrated a later milestone in the aging process and thirty years ago would have scoffed at anyone who told me that I was risk adverse. So, I will assume as a result of this new revelation, it took me over a year to absorb, plan and implement GI into my teaching strategies. I mulled, ordered all the books and read, I read more, and I searched for enlightening commentary on the internet, and after some time decided to approach the freshman class teachers to rework the Tangled Web project that was in existence before I took over this position.

While I knew this was a step in the right direction, from experience I know that in order to facilitate change I need to approach teachers thoughtfully. Change is difficult in the teaching world so I have developed a strategy whereby I present a change as an improvement not just change for change sake.

The Tangled Web project is a cross-curricular adventure in research during the second semester of the freshman year. It provides a venue for research skill instruction from the librarian and writing instruction including MLA style from the English teacher. Making it cross curricular gives the girls opportunities to have a topic that can fall under any of these areas: biology, religion, world geography, and English literature. Topics are drawn from a hat; the content is graded by the subject teacher and the writing/MLA is graded by the English teacher. At the time of my intervention, biographical in nature, the research was not challenging and the products quite boring. Students may learn how to navigate databases and resources, take notes with annotated bibliographies, write and footnote in MLA style but they never really enjoyed it and I felt they did not really learn anything.

I start my classes on research with this quote from Carol Kuhlthau. “Uncertainty is the beginning of learning.” So after a few years with this project, I realized that the students were not experiencing uncertainty. They already knew how to write a biographical report and even with the “how has this person influenced the world?” question, were not challenged to think. Joyfully, I found that these teachers felt the same and in addition were terribly tired of reading the same boring papers year after year. Note to self, approach change from that perspective. “You must be so terribly bored reading the same papers year after year so let’s shake it up.”

We started shaking it up a year ago when we began brainstorming this change. We began by ditching the biography approach and looking for authentic learning that would require the girls taking a risk with exploring the unknown. I began a search for concepts in each area of study and after planning sessions with the teachers we decided on the following:

English Literature – Dicken’s Tale of Two Cities, Homer, and French Revolution
World Geography – Control of Kashmir, Maori of New Zealand, Cambodia/Pol Pot regime, Keystone Pipeline, and South African Apartheid
Biology – HeLa cell discovery, Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution, equilibrium between inhabitants of ecosystems, exotic species, and emerging infectious diseases
Religion – Process of beatification, Wall separating Bethlehem from Israel, Pope John Paul II and communism, Anti-Catholic sentiment in US and the rise of Catholic Parochial school system, and Growth of monasticism during the Roman Empire

With these concepts and some very broad starting questions, we launched into the process with an ISP lesson, introduced the broad questions and the students drew from the hat, and then began Exploration with the assignment to take these conceptual questions and explore them for homework and return the next day with the first wave of developing broad search terms and keywords. The best quote of the whole lesson was when one student drew her question, read it and exclaimed, “What is Pol Pot?”.

Jean Pfluger

Tomorrow: Exploration to Formulation

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