Where's your head at?

Project based learning, thinking on learning and amazing Art projects

A School in Transition

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beachcombing front pageIn my application for the AHT post at my school, I mentioned that despite the best efforts of the head of year 7, our transition program was a bit of a mess, well for me it was anyway. The two days, where the Year 6’s come in to get a feeling for life in a secondary school should be seen as one of the most outstanding opportunities for you to set out your stall as a school; this is what we will give you, and this is what we expect you to be, and there is no better place for you to be than here. This school is a place where we can take your learning to new places, greater heights and open new doors to where your life might lead.

In previous years, whichever teachers had free lessons in lieu of Year 11 leaving, were expected to teach a lesson. No joined up experience, no real point apart from ‘This is French, this is Art, This is Maths’, closely followed by ‘Get used to it’ I would watch students sitting in our gym, feeling just a bit uncomfortable, whilst teachers would arrive, pick the classes up one by one, to give them a 45 minute spiel about  their subject. There was a huge amount of listening involved in some curriculum areas, and not a great deal of inspiring learning happening.  I would look at some rather drawn faces at the end of the day, perhaps with some of their dreams a little tainted by 3pm on Friday. This just wasn’t good enough. It wasn’t fair to them; they have just spent the last 6 years of their lives at primary school, just building up to this crucial moment. We as a school have a once in a lifetime opportunity to set out a clear path of expectations and possibilities. Teachers have a chance to grab their new learning customers and get them to buy everything in the shop, but this just wasn’t happening. Not one little bit.

 

I decided to come up with a project based on the theme of ‘beachcombing’ inspired by that amazing grains of sand picture under a microscope. I held a meeting with the head of geography, design tech, second in English, head of Year 7, and two budding young Science teachers to try and set out a plan of action. Now, this was about three or four weeks before the Year 6 cohort were to arrive, so the time was very tight. I gave some examples of how we could approach this from these subjects’ perspectives and explained my worries about how we have always done it. Each department was to have a 2 hour lesson, so that they could make the experience worthwhile, and had to design a memorable learning experience around the theme, with an attached optional homework, for students to explore their learning further over the holidays.

Within a week, I had 4 really interesting proposals of how students would spend their two hour slots, what they would be learning about and how they could further their learning over the summer break. It looked really good, it really did. I put together a homework document for students to take home and discuss with their parents and worked closely with the head of DT to create a fantastic learning experience for them.

English focused on a range of poetry styles; analysing some famous poetry about the shoreline, exploring a sensory carousel, listening to the sounds of the sea and creating some brilliant poetry at the end of the two hours.

Geography investigated why Jersey is the shape it is, how different rocks are formed and were taken on to the dunes to learn how to create a field sketch of St Ouens Bay. In the fog. I kid you not.

If you look hard enough, you may just notice the sea!

If you look hard enough, you may just notice the sea!

In Science, they had a smorgasbord of learning experiences such as ‘how do wetsuits work’ a rockpool mystery’ and a look at cell structure of seaweed and what an individual grain of sand looks like under the microscope.

A who dunnit rock pool mystery!

A who dunnit rock pool mystery!

Not quite an electron microscope, but very cool all the same.

Not quite an electron microscope, but very cool all the same.

 

In design, students were given an impassioned lecture on design classics and explored and commented on a whole range of design movements, from art deco, to Memphis, to natural forms which would then inspire their beach hut panels which were to go on the beautiful Miami lifeguard towers.

    50 kids, one Mr Booth explaining why that red box with a thing called a telephone is such a thing of beauty.

50 kids, one Mr Booth explaining why that red box with a thing called a telephone is such a thing of beauty.

analysing design periods

analysing design periods

Memphis inspired beach hut panels

Memphis inspired beach hut panels

 

I helped teach the design one and managed to get round to see all the other experiences. The students LOVED IT! Being taught by teachers who were passionate about their subject, committed to improving the transition experience and loving the opportunity to spend more than a fleeting lesson to ensure they really learnt something.

At the end of the two days, I had several lovely emails and letters from parents to say what a buzz their children had had, and how they came home full of excitement about learning and doing great things.

Over the holidays, I kept open a forum for students to speak to each other about their homework task and ask me any questions. One student in particular really caught me with her comments about doing too much! I wondered how much students would do. Would they have lost that excitement over the holidays? Would their enthusiasm have waned over the 6 week break? Only time would tell.

We had an exhibition day, where, in unparalleled chaos, we took three hours to put up an exhibition of over 150 students work, with all the kids helping, whilst lessons went on around us. It was a bloody nightmare to be honest, but the children beamed and sparkled with pride as their work went up around us. More and more tables had to be brought in to display umpteen beach huts, scaled models of geographical features, huge posters filled with different types of carefully labelled seaweeds and food chains, books and books of stunning poetry,  and much, much more. My favourite was a hand built website, with links to videos of a student performing his poetry on loads of different beaches around the island and this blog with Design, English and Science work expertly displayed. It brought a tear to my eye and a lump in my throat  that so many kids wanted to make such an extraordinary effort to produce something of such wonderful value.

Parents enjoyed being able to comment on the work.

Parents enjoyed being able to comment on the work.

Hand made glass panel made from beach glass, with lots of comments!

Hand made glass panel made from beach glass, with lots of comments!

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A huge variety of homework explorations were on display, including a painted garden shed!

A great use of ICT by some students.

A great use of ICT by some students.

 

There was some unrivalled rubbish in there, but that was a very small minority; I could count them on one hand. Each student had to put a comment sheet next to their work with a ‘Statement of Intent’ where students had to explain what they had done and how they did it.

students loved giving feedback to their peers

students loved giving feedback to their peers

This was just the most beautifully crafted poem, carefully placed onto the lobster pot ball

This was just the most beautifully crafted poem, carefully placed onto the lobster pot ball

 

In the afternoon, I took three groups at a time to critique the work. This they loved, giving delicate, but affirming feedback to students on their comment sheets.  After school, parents came in to look at the exhibition and their teachers had a chance to critique and award a range of particular certificates to reflect the range of skills and understanding on display.

Rock pools in a jar!

Rock pools in a jar!

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Just the coolest beach hut EVER!!

 

I’m sure this sounds great, but it could have been better. It was crammed and it was difficult to give everyone the display their hard work deserved. Many students had explained to me that they had never tried so hard to create something of value, but I’m sure many students didn’t get the feedback their hard work deserved because there were so many outstanding pieces to take the eye away from the everyday. One student lost his work  which he placed in his form room. That was unforgivable.

We had a great deal of parents in and invited in all our feeder primary schools to look round too.

We had a great deal of parents in and invited in all our feeder primary schools to look round too.

Parents were really happy with the start their kids had made. In my heart, this felt a little worrying, because now is when we really have to raise our game. The buzz which the project and subsequent exhibition provided was intoxicating for those children and their parents. But how will this translate into classroom expectations? I guess time will tell, but it won’t be enough. Students will switch off, be disappointed, get bored, feel frustrated and tune out. We are a work in progress, needing a great deal of critique to get us to the excellence our students deserve.

The curriculum and the teachers who teach it need to remember just how brilliant our young people can be when we set the right conditions for learning and expectations. As I said at the new headteachers ‘vision’ talk later that week;  there are three sets of people who don’t realise the potential of young minds; their parents, their teachers and the children themselves. My new job as a director of learning at key stage 3 is to do something about that. The transition project was a small nudge in the right direction.

 

Author: Pete Jones

I am primarily an Art teacher, but over the past 5 years have been co-developing an experienced-based learning programme in the school I work in called Pebble, (short for Project Based Learning). I read extensively on learning and education, and I intend to use this blog to record what is going on in my head as well as in the classroom. Hopefully I will be able to share resources and ideas with like-minded thinkers in the future. The Pebble course runs through the whole of Year 8 for 5 periods a week. I am desperate for our world wide education system to catch up with the way we live our lives. Transformation of what we learn in schools and how we learn in schools is desperately overdue. Pebble is a skills centered curriculum with the focus very much on what students need to be successful learners, giving them valuable, deep learning experiences to boot.

10 Comments

  1. Love this idea of beach combing. Some wonderful outcomes. Might steal it. We have gone fully PBL. Year 7 have 36 hours a fortnight for PBL, delivering all subjects except Maths, MFL and PE. Pupils complete 8 challenges through the year. We are 4 weeks in and it’s brilliant. Kids and staff are very positive. Y7 now only have 6 teachers instead of 14.

  2. This is really inspiring, Pete. I read “The Art of Excellence” by Ron Berger over the summer and this project is just the sort of work he describes his students excelling at- meaningful, leading up to sharing with a real audience, and involving lots of peer critique.
    Off to re-think our transition!

  3. Love this….exactly what teaching/learning should be about….fun, aspiration and engagement! Think you’re right in saying this may lead to future ‘downs’ BUT over time it won’t…..as with anything, first time it’s done sets the standard then EVERYONE has to improve, inch by inch, from there.
    The whole y6/y7 transition period needs work ESP after y6 SATs…becomes bit of a dead zone of trips etc (which they thoroughly deserve) when wouldn’t it be much better to have this link where they could start with you/us then develop in their last half term to take on with them….how much more valuable would that last 8 weeks be to all involved then?
    Well done….great idea and blog

    • Thanks Neil. We have a long way to go, but this was a pretty good experience. Lots more to do, but it’s a start!

    • Thank you. Yes I’ve long adored dear old Ken’s speeches. My only problem is he offers us very little as a way forward. Just that the current system is broken, which he has been saying for the last decade, in between writing some very interesting books, but again, provide no concrete challenges or solutions.

  4. This is beautiful and with a son starting secondary next year I have read it with a tear in my eye. Thank you so much for doing this, and for sharing how it went.

    • Hi Sue. Wow! Thanks so much for your lovely comment. I have an unerring belief that we have an absolutely pivotal role in a child’s future at KS3. Transition is a vital cog in this role. Must do everything we can to make learning effective and inspirational, pushing students to reach new heights! Lots of room to improve, but this is a start.

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