This is the sixth time I’ve taught a unit on the Holocaust, but this one’s very different. Usually my students learn most of the information via lecture, notes and videos. Because I’m responsible for distilling the information, I learn much more than they do. Not this semester. Instead, they’re doing it all themselves. And the end result will be a classroom Holocaust museum curated by my grade 10 English students. The beauty is it involves inquiry, collaborative, and project-based learning all in one.
I have a new ELA 10 curriculum that was just released. And although it’s not expected that it will be implemented this year, I’m going to. Not because I’m a keener. But because it supports and assesses the skills my students are engaged in much better than the old one. Its three foci: identity, social responsibility, and social action. Perfect.
When I say classroom Holocaust Museum, don’t think project fair with cardboard project boards. Think displays that need to be built, that have walls, and, as a whole, tell a coherent story. It will be much akin to a travelling museum exhibit. I’m guessing it won’t fit in our classroom.
Do I think this is too difficult a task for my students? No, these are the students who raised $22,000, in less than two months. We need to require more of our students, not less. And it needs to happen in ways that matter, not just writing 15 pages instead of 7.
Planning an exhibition like this is a comprehensive process that involves research, writing, design, problem solving, communication, interpersonal and self-directional skills, and teamwork. Furthermore, because my students will be explaining the museum content to visitors, they’ll be developing their oral communication skills as well. The visitors are an important element; they create an audience beyond their teacher. Our museum will be open to classes in our school, friends and family, and if there is interest, and my students are willing, classes from other schools.
My role in all of this is to create an environment that is well designed and conducive to their learning. I have switched from the all-knowing guru, to the role of co-collaborator and facilitator. Since I’ve never done this before, I truly am a co-learner with my students. The purpose of this project is to provide my students with an authentic task that teaches 21st century skills, as well as deepens their understanding of the events of the Holocaust.
To begin with, we looked at the purpose of project based learning. I believe it’s important to teach my students why we are doing things, even if it’s why we’re learning differently.
Next, we spent two days talking. My students understand that my classroom is about a different way of learning and teaching; I think they’re getting used to it.
To begin with, we discussed the purpose of the museum and their role in it. They are the creators and curators. They are responsible for everything from research to conception and design, to presentation hosts. They excitedly brainstormed different ideas for the format, and while I allowed them to do this so they could begin to catch the vision of the project, I affirmed that the final design will emerge from the research.
Next, while sitting in a circle on the floor, each of my students took sticky notes, and brainstormed topics they thought should be part of the museum. Once finished, we posted the notes in categories to see what the recurring topics were. All of the ideas mentioned distilled into three categories: the Nazis, the Jewish people, and the world’s response.
Once we outlined these three areas, we then took the topics of interest from the sticky notes, as well as a few additional areas that were offered by the students, and outlined the specifics of each area of research. This process involved a lot more silence and waiting than I would have thought. This project is based completely on their ideas, and initiative, rather than having the project outlined for them. Not something they’re used to. Inquiry learning is not a process they are familiar with. Instead, by grade 10, my students have learned if they wait long enough, they will be rescued. Not anymore.
After we outlined the areas, and the specific topics in each, students chose their specific area of interest. By far the largest interest is in the Jewish people, and the world’s response. Only four students are researching the Nazis. I was surprised by this.
Another interesting thing happened. One of the groups is absent of any of the students who naturally function as class leaders. It’s not a group I would have chosen. Usually when I choose groups I balance quieter students with more outspoken students, weaker students with stronger students. However, for the students in this group, I think this is the best thing that could have happened. They will need to communicate and express their ideas, rather than agreeing to whatever a strong leader puts forward, and while I think it will take work to make sure this is happening, many of these students will discover skills, and a voice, they don’t know they have.
We also spent time talking about what an effective team looks like. We talked about the different roles that people perform in a team, and the importance of communication and high expectations of one another. The one area they really focused on is the need for effective and honest communication. And that all team members need to speak up, instead of some relying on the ideas of others. Communication is the linchpin of this project.
My students spent this week researching both primary and secondary sources. I began by teaching the difference between the two. That was the extent of my teaching. For the rest of the week, my students scoured the internet for resources, bookmarked important sites, and checked the credibility of sources . There were many times during the week that you could have heard a pin drop in my classroom. I didn’t have to tell them to get to work or to stay on task. That’s what happens when students are engaged.
I have no assumptions about what this project will look like in the end. In truth, it’s not my project. My job is to provide the parameters, feedback, and reflection my students need to be successful. The rest is up to them.