Breaking Down the Walls, Building up the Excitement

Shipwrecks abound in room 202 at William Kelley High School in Silver Bay, MN. Each student in my class is researching his or her very own Lake Superior shipwreck. Engagement has never been higher. Students feel ownership over their reading because they are the only one with knowledge about a particular shipwreck. After a local storyteller’s visit, students have begun telling their own stories. Conversations between students and parents have been sparked as students bring their excitement home. Students who typically feel left behind are on track because of the work done by our special education teacher to modify the reading without making it noticeable to classmates. We are only one week into this unit, but we are well on track to arriving at our destination successfully.

Next week, students begin writing two versions of their shipwreck stories – one in third-person in a highly-structured research form and one in first-person narrative form. Soon after that in their math classes, they’ll design maps of the course their ships were on before the wrecks. The unit will wrap up with the art teacher helping students to bind their stories into books that they will take home.

The most energizing part of the project for me has been how excited the students are about the teachers working together. Kids have come into my English classroom telling me what they learned about shipping in their math class. When I showed students the prototype for their books that the art teacher made, they started plotting about their own final project. The more I tell the students about how excited the teachers are about the project and how connected the subject areas really are, the more excited the students become. It is a lovely domino effect.

Next week marks the beginning of the second PAINT project I’m working on this year. I’ve already felt the same effect. Just mentioning that we were preparing to work with the art teacher on a project has created excitement in my 10th grade. Students are completing the reading and asking anticipatory questions about what is coming up soon. They are as close as I can get 10th graders to the edges of their seats.

The overlapping of subject areas and collaboration is just as vitalizing for the students as it is for the teachers. It is refreshing for someone to acknowledge that the world isn’t divided into subject areas – and it’s just as refreshing for the students as it is for us. Sure we can all do great things within our subject areas, but when we combine knowledge and skills from multiple domains, we create more ways to be successful (and, by doing so, we encourage more students to want to be successful). Even more applicable, perhaps, we are also modeling a collaborative working environment where team members are responsible for parts of a whole. There has to be a standard for that.

There are times in this project where I feel flustered or where I feel like I haven’t planned as well as I would like. It is at those times that I now step back and observe the larger lessons at play.  

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