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Tuesday, May 28, 2019

Student Collaborative Project Takes Learning in New Directions


Highlands Middle School eighth grade students display their 3D models and presentation materials for a project that brought together all aspects of Portrait of a Graduate skills.

Eighth grade students from Highlands Middle School presented on a unique project at the recent Fort Thomas Independent Schools board meeting. The exercise brought together many different aspects of what has become known as the Portrait of a Graduate.

Portrait of a Graduate includes a set of skills students should have upon graduation, and the school district is working to integrate these skills across all grades and all subjects. Students develop skills to play five key roles that were identified by the school community: Creative Problem Solver, Curious Critical Thinker, Global Communicator, Empathetic Collaborator and Courageous Leader.

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Finding projects that build skills in all five areas at once is a challenge. The Language Arts 3D Theme Project successfully incorporated all the key areas in an activity that required students to take their learning in several different directions, incorporating reading, analysis, comprehension, writing, communication, hands-on technical skills and group collaboration.

"It amazes me in my first year at the middle school the amount of different types of learning that we’re seeing. It’s not the sit-and-get type of thing that we’ve traditionally seen in the past. There is constant collaboration, creativity going on in the classrooms. And this comes from our staff, our students. They do a fantastic job, so I just wanted to brag on them a bit," said Josh Feldmann, assistant principal. 

A multi-level, collaborative project


Teachers Amy Fry and Miki Beier worked with the students to develop a project for their unit on the Holocaust. It became a student-led, multi-level, collaborative group project.

"It’s a very large unit that teaches many critical thinking skills,” said Beier. “Students read a variety of novels and had to pick out the theme, analyze the theme, find text evidence to support their theme... This year, Ms. Fry and I were thinking we needed to do something a little outside the box. So, we started thinking about all the aspects of Portrait of a Graduate and how we could tie that into a project. We came up with this 3D theme project."

All of the students read different novels about the topic, she explained. They broke into groups, and each group worked together to pick a theme. They then created a small model that symbolized their theme and would be 3D printed. Each group came up with extended response questions and exchanged them with another group to answer them.

Students were not allowed to state the theme directly in their question. The question, with help from the 3D object, were to be designed to help the answerer discover the chosen theme.

Other than the parameters outlined by the teachers, the project itself was entirely student-led. The students had to rely on collaborative and critical thinking skills to make choices about their themes and how to execute them.

It was a challenge, said Fry. "There were a lot of bumps in the road along the way. There was a lot of unintended learning that took place," she explained.

Many steps, many different types of learning


The students described the steps in the process, the challenges they faced and the learning that took place throughout the project.

After deciding on a theme, the next step was to create a physical symbol that could display their theme.

"Our theme was 'There’s always more to life than what you think there is.'...We actually made our figures for the theme out of Play-Doh. We had to create two different sculptures and one of ours was a guy in a little open cylinder which represents a blockade from the outside to show there’s more to life than you just think... We picked the guy in the cylinder. It would print easier and go better with our theme," said student Cooper Gamble.

Once models were set, the students then entered specifications into TinkerCAD, a 3D modeling software. "My group chose to create people in a circle to represent the theme of our novel, 'Family is the light in the darkness.' We used TinkerCAD to take our rough design in Play-Doh and refine it to get a final product... Even though our design ended up not printing out correctly it was still a great learning experience," said student Owen Martin.

Getting their models to print on the 3D printer the way they wanted them was a challenge, but the students tapped into their problem-solving skills and found ways to improvise.

"The next step of this project was to develop and create an extended response question to give to another group to answer... But one of the difficult parts was you couldn’t reveal the theme in the question, because you wanted them to be critical thinkers to figure out what the theme was. It took a couple of rough drafts to figure out what your question was going to be because it was difficult but in the end we finally got our question," explained Madison Gillman.

The students had to work through disagreements about the theme and related questions and come to consensus on the writing of their questions as well as their answers to other groups’ questions.

AnnaLucy Surrey explained the process. "Answering another group’s question, it definitely took a lot of collaboration. We definitely had to talk about it before we decided what we were going to do but it eventually all came together..."

"The question we had to answer was 'Did the Holocaust strengthen or weaken the heart of the victims?' We all easily agreed that it strengthened...but writing an extended response together is hard because there is a lot of disagreements about how you are going to phrase things, what you are going to write and what quotes you are going to include. So we had to compromise," said Savannah Haigis.

Building Portrait of a Graduate skills


Throughout the exercise, the students were aware of the key skills they wanted to practice as part of a Portrait of a Graduate.

"We believe this project touched on all the aspects of Portrait of a Graduate. Being curious and critical thinkers in one part was having to create that question without revealing your theme in the question. And the other group could be critical thinkers as well trying to reveal what you thought the theme was," said Gillman.

"Another part of Portrait of a Graduate is global communication, and that’s demonstrating the ability to communicate effectively in writing and verbally... Answering the response questions helped our group very well with writing," said Will Herald. He explained that his group disagreed with the question being posed but worked it out through communication and cooperation.

"This project did use all the aspects of Portrait of a Graduate and especially displayed empathetic collaboration. When working with a group, you don’t get to pick who you are with...A teacher matches you up with a bunch of different personalities, a bunch of different ideas, which is definitely a very good thing...It does require a lot of collaboration and being empathetic in thinking about your other group members’ ideas and their feelings when it comes to deciding what to do and how to handle the situation," said Elisabeth Davidson.

"This project overall taught us how to work together in a group and how to achieve a better ending product when working together," concluded Haigis. 

Key skills for today and the future




Board member Karen Allen agreed, "This was the best presentation of Portrait of a Graduate competencies yet...Based on the current climate of our country, it is very important to learn those skills to know that I could be right, they could be right, and we can find a compromise and work together. Bravo!"

The books the students read were Night, by Eli Wiesel; I Have Lived a Thousand Years, also by Wiesel; Refugee, by Alan Gratz and Upon the Head of the Goat, by Aranka Siegal. The students also had the opportunity to meet a Holocaust survivor who spoke to the entire eighth grade, and, during a class trip to DC, they visited the Holocaust Museum, making real-life connections to what they had read.
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