Integrated Learning Lab for Junior High History, Language Arts, and Tech Tools Instruction

By: Mr. Robert Lipman
from YAYOE

Development of Critical and / or Creative Thinking, Real-World Learning

Subject(s) of entry:
Computer Science, History, Literature, Science, Technology Tools, Critical Thinking Skills, Data Analysis, Mindfulness, Awareness

IBL - inquiry based learning, PBL - project based learning, 21st Century Skills

Grade(s) to which this was taught:
6, 7, 8, Middle school

Grade(s) for which this will be useful:
4, 5, 6, 7, 8, Elementary school, Middle school

A first-in-its-class Integrated Learning Lab and Enrichment Option for 6th-8th grade boys and girls was configured for the 2016-17 school year, based upon the successes and lessons learned in earlier pilot studies in 2013-2016 (see, for example other submissions from this school). The goal of this ambitious program is to more fully involve students in the process of discovering, analyzing and engaging with new information, while giving them real-world experience in using the critical-thinking and technological tools imperative for rational, safe and productive interaction with today’s networked world.

Entry Narrative

The goal of this ambitious program is to more fully involve students in the process of discovering, analyzing and engaging with new information, while giving them real-world experience in using the critical-thinking and technological tools imperative for rational, safe and productive interaction with today’s networked world.

Rather than simply “jumping on the computer/iPad bandwagon” by moving schoolwork onto computers, as has proven so disastrous in so many schools, the 7th grade history and language arts curricula were redesigned from the ground up to incorporate research-based, tested, cutting-edge educational technologies and learning modalities. (The Integrated Learning Lab curriculum also forms a core element in the Tech Tools Module of our new Comprehensive Digital Citizenship Curriculum; see our school’s other submission.)

A first-of-its-kind learning environment for 7th grade boys and girls was configured for the 2016-17 school year. Critically, the learning environment is understood to include the classroom setting, the virtual online classroom, and the presentation structure. Designing this curriculum required a complete rethinking of classroom procedure, design of the learning environment, and construction of a secure yet usable “semi-walled garden” that would allow for use of real-world research and communication tools while maintaining the wholesome safety of the Orthodox day school. Lessons — both History and Language Arts — blend a mix of teacher presentation, student research and reporting (handwritten, typed, filmed, spoken…), critical thinking tools and skills, audio-visual presentation, and guided use of real-world research tools (including Google Tools for Education). Examples of this inter-disciplinary implementation are provided below.

The room is set up differently from a traditional classroom, to encourage collaboration and communication between students and teacher. Angled work tables, a large-screen presentation display, networked student laptops, multiple seating options, and a large print library comprise the physical space. Supporting the process are a separate student WiFi network, monitored with multiple layers of filter and supervision, including white-listed site access, complete activity logging, and mirroring of all computer desktops displayed for real-time teacher supervision.

In addition to the mandatory History and Language Arts curricula, an optional Enrichment program was added to YAYOE’s after-school programming. Building on the learning environment created for the classroom, the Enrichment program adds a Minecraft workshop, in which students learn the principles of 3D design, practice fundamentals of mindfulness while online, and utilize the elements of digital citizenship, in a supervised and “walled” networked online environment.

Results to date have far exceeded our expectations. Students are enthusiastic and engaged in their lessons; parents report excited and informed conversations at home about history, current events, and good judgment about technology use; teachers find active learners with greater involvement and increased retention of material learned, plus an impressive ability to apply the critical-thinking lessons of one unit to following units.

YAYOE looks forward to expanding the reach of the Integrated Learning Lab to the full Junior High in coming years, and to adapting portions of it to the Middle School curriculum.

Example: Geographical Spatial Paradigm of History.

A new paradigm in teaching history that looks at the assets and deficits of a given territory and analyzes how groups of people have or have not benefited from those features at different times in history, and how the same features play into present war and politics. For example, in one unit, we looked at the landforms in America and compared maps of Native American groups, European groups to show how unity and diversity emerge based on terrain, weather conditions, and so on. We compared maps of the geographical features of the U.S. with election outcomes in the recent election. Later, when we analyze colonization of the South, we will see even more clearly how different pathways of migration, land allocation and terrain continue to play a role in distinguishing how people act, vote, etc. To reinforce the significance of geography, we use Google Maps/Earth to explore regions and venues of interest. For example, while exploring reasons why the Native American capital of Cahokia remains unknown to most Americans, we travelled, virtually, to Cahokia, explored its mounds, and identified significant reasons why Cahokia existed at its location (where the Mississippi and Missouri rivers meet).

Example: Discerning and Evaluating Bias in Current and Historical Reporting

Another important aspect of this course is learning to discern bias, and to see under the surface. An example of this was a unit analyzing Proposition 51, a California ballot measure supporting the issuance of $9 billion to fund improvement and construction of new schools. Students were asked to research the measure, to trace the monetary support and to establish the financial interests behind the proposition. Using research procedures discussed in class, students traced the financial roots to architectural and other construction company interests. We compared the media rhetoric — the need for new schools — with the financial backing — appeal for more state funds towards construction — and concluded that it is important to acknowledge both and to establish or decide if there is actual need. We further discussed about how one would go about finding out if there is need.

This all fit into previous discussions about Status Quo, and the interests that support a status quo. In that light, we examined the fall of the Berlin Wall, a major change in status quo, using charts to show decline in GDP (and other significant stats) in Soviet Pact countries before the two Germanys were united. We discussed the impact of that on France. We looked at the status quo of a school institution and examined the various interest groups and motivations – teachers: money and altruism (mostly altruism), parents: want their children to be self-sufficient, etc. This is all very real-world while at the same time adhering to the requirements of the common core.

Example: Technology Tools, Digital Citizenship and Mindfulness

The Minecraft Enrichment Course provides a hands-on (and fun!) environment for teaching students to be aware of their surroundings, real and virtual. Minecraft has the advantage of being both a dangerous world and a safe world. There is room to explore and take chances, because losses can be rebuilt (“respawned”). By creating a hosted server specifically tuned to the needs of Middle School, we provide a safe-haven multi-player environment for kids to explore, and build three-dimensional virtual objects.

Our server is uniquely configured to meet the moral and educational needs of our students: that is, there is an allotment of “real estate” that cannot be demolished by anyone but its owner, and where the owner can work freely and creatively. Other zones allow survival and combat skills — all build mindfulness. The server environment continues to be made available even after the course is completed, for further exploration and enjoyment.

The next course following Minecraft will be a Sound Design course to enhance observational skills on an auditory level. Getting to know the sound/noise environment is rarely addressed in school, but we see it as an important part of the mindfulness we are trying to achieve with our students.

The enrichment portion of the program provides a unique opportunity to encourage kids to think about their environment and impact that that environment has on them and the people around them.