A few weeks ago, my school embarked on a grand experiment entitled mini-term. Rather than have 6 classes per day, rather than divide learning into 45 minute blocks, we opened the schedule and challenged teachers to engage students in their passion. The experiment was, for most, a success and provided students wonderful opportunities to learn about and explore topics off the path of the normal curriculum as well as complete projects that could not be handled in a traditional classroom setting.
Mini-terms were taught by teams of two or three teachers. These teachers were encouraged to teach their passion and were free to design their courses around topics of their choosing, with an emphasis on cross-departmental work. The only guidelines for teachers were broad such as a required reading and writing component. The classes ranged from 18 to 25 students each from all four grade levels and met all day, every day for a four-day week. Students selected their top 6 choices, and were sorted into classes accordingly. Teachers were encouraged to take field trips, and engage in hands on projects.
The class I participated in was called “Zen and the Art of Furniture Design”, it was taught my a science teacher (Mr. Skinner) with an independent passion for carpentry and an art teacher (Mr. Huber) with years of experience in scenic design and construction. Our class was one big project: design, build, and paint an Adirondack chair, bench and table. Our class was split into two groups of nine to each build one set of furniture.
The first day was spent on the design phase: modifying the stock chair design and planning paint schemes. For the design of the chair, the two groups took different approaches. The other group drew their modifications on the teacher provided plans and then built a scale model of their design. My group took advantage of my CAD skills to modify the original design and produce new drawings and renderings. For paint, each group was required to choose an artist and paint the furniture to resemble that artist. Part of my group spent the day researching and picking an artist, finding work by that artist, and finally tracing that work onto a scale plan.
As we were working through the process, we found many opportunities for incidental learning. One student taught another student drafting skills that were learned in our architecture course so that the original plans could be annotated. Another student experimented on the Wacom tablets in the art computer lab, learning how to control pen size in Photoshop using pressure, then tracing printed artwork into the computer. This learning was spontaneous, not assessed and in some cases not even visible in the final project, but it was learning through doing and the students left with a new skill.
The next day we moved into the shop and began the actual construction. This included ripping lumber, cutting boards to the correct length (and determining those lengths from the plans our group produced), sanding the boards, and assembling them into actual furniture. Due to my technical theatre background, I was right at home in the shop, but still I saw something that surprised me: 18 students all working — no breaks, no “we don’t have anything to do”, no “watch and criticize”, but 18 students all working towards common goals, and enjoying themselves at the same time. It was a truly breathtaking sight, students who had never touched a power tool in their lives were ripping lumber on a table saw and screwing boards together.
Finally, we were able to get dirty and begin painting. The artists in the group went to work tracing the outlines onto the furniture so that we could paint them in. With three students to a piece, we were all busy turning bare wood into a tribute to our artists, and learning about those artists at the same time by both reproducing their work and studying it to produce our color pallet.
We finished with about an hour left in the day. Just enough time to admire our work. After three days of hard work in the shop, we were all tired. But, I have never seen a prouder group of students. We moved the product of our hard work into the chosen spots on campus, and patted ourselves on the back for a job well done.
I can honestly say that I have never had a more immersive learning experience in school. By allowing students to only focus on this one project they weren’t distracted and were well rested. The students were able to enjoy the Zen of the project - the beautiful, in the moment, experience of hard, dedicated work.
By giving students one overarching project, learning was able to happen through experience. Some of us learned about different artists while researching our paint scheme. Some of us learned about paint mixing and color pallets. We all learned how to solve the problems the project presented and the skills to face those problems in the future.
There was no grade, there was no homework, there was no test — the assessments were thrown out of the window. But, it was a stronger experience because of that. Students didn’t fear failure, they weren’t scared to learn something for the experience of learning. There was however a final product, and one that the students could be proud of. Every day, I experience the immense pleasure of seeing students sitting on the chair and bench that I helped build. And, that is something that I can be proud of. How often do our students get to be proud of their school work?
I was fortunate to be in of the most successful mini-terms. The less successful classes seemed to be those that didn’t embrace the new format and attempted to fill the time with traditional classroom instruction. Students simply can’t sit at a desk for 6 hours a day learning about the same subject matter. Those mini-terms that realized this and used project-based learning to keep students involved provided the best learning experiences. I would work to ensure that this was the case across the board.
I would also include students in the planning and teaching of the mini-terms. One of the best things about my mini-term was that once the initial instructions were given, a large portion of the learning was student-to-student. Each student was able to bring their own skill set to the table — whether it be in design, drawing, CAD, painting, or construction — and students taught these skills to each other. I would work to encourage student involvement in instruction earlier in the process. Students with an interest in teaching and passion for a topic could be provided the opportunity to work with their teachers on the design and execution of a mini-term.
Finally, and this is the smallest issue by far, I would work with teachers to eliminate the pre-break crunch that occurred before mini-term. With students over-burdened the week prior, they entered mini-term tired and resentful. While no other homework was assigned that week, fear over losing their students for a week caused many teachers to assign stealth homework in the form of overdue assignments created by the crunch.
Mini-term was a powerful experience for students and while many of them may not realize it yet, they will be able to build off of their experiences for the rest of their lives. The project truly embraced the kind of experiential and project-based learning we need to produce 21st century students who can think creatively.