Middle School Project Process
(From the Middle School Student Handbook)
Students have both core classes and electives (which are classes that they can opt to take or not take). But a good part of their academic learning comes through projects.
- Students do one guided project each quarter, encouraged by the theme for that quarter.
- Each quarter’s theme is typically taken from the book that the middle school Language Arts classes are reading for the quarter.
- The themes and the books are on a three-year rotation; this means that the students who come in the first quarter of 6th grade finish with the rotation the 4th quarter of their 8th grade year.
- The books read in middle school Language Arts are subject to change based on teacher discretion and other opportunities that often present themselves during the year.
These themes are used to inspire and give direction to students, who conceive of then devise and develop a project, based upon an idea that they have found from the theme. Examples of some books and themes are: the book Walk Two Moons gives way to the theme “Explorations;” the books Airborne and The Little Prince (both books are read in one quarter) promote the theme “Flight;” the book The Diary of Anne Frank, lends itself to the theme of race. Examples of projects done during the quarter of “Flight” include Amelia Earhart; Sputnik; military helicopters; the birds of the Amazon Rain Forest; the history of space exploration.
Sometimes students have a desire to do a project that doesn’t fit into a particular quarter’s theme. Teachers generally will agree to this, as what is most important is not the exploration of the theme but learning and fine-tuning the project process. The themes are meant as merely aids to guide the first step in this project process, which is Finding a Topic. Teachers engage students in brainstorming sessions, using webs, t-charts, and other tools to help students generate ideas for these guided projects. Much discussion focuses on the appropriateness of a topic: is it too narrow? Is it too broad? Are there enough resources available to find plentiful information? Do they already know enough about their subject? One tool for helping students see the appropriateness of a topic is the know/wonder chart; this chart asks students to record what they already know as well as questions they have about the topic. It enables them to see if they have enough open-ended, broad, questions to explore within the subject.
The next step in the project process is Finding Resources. This overlaps with teaching skills for how to navigate a computer search, as well as how to use an on-line library and the school library. During this time teachers introduce students to the idea that some sources are better than others; they teach what a reputable source is and how to tell a good source from a source that isn’t so worthy.
Students are asked to find several good sources before they are sure that their project itself is worthy of attention. Once they have done this, they fill out the project proposal sheet; on one side of this sheet is a list of some potential resources, on the other is the know/wonder chart—a graphic organizer designed to help them decide what they already know and what they might need to discover to do their project. Once they are ready, students meet with their advisors and “propose” their project. This proposal process is also used as a teaching tool; students typically come away with new questions to ask.
Once students have proposed their project, they are given instruction in how to Take Notes. Teachers put time into helping students see what is useful and particularly interesting information and what is not as important to their topic. They’re shown how to highlight and they are encouraged to print anything they find from the computer to take notes on these documents. Initially, students are shown and required to take notes a particular way; but after they have demonstrated proficiency with their preferred method, they are free to take notes the way they choose. This note-taking is typically the longest portion of time students devote to their topic, and we have frequent check-ins with them to make sure they’re headed in the right direction.
After students have gathered adequate notes, they are shown how to Organize Their Information. This is often when students begin to see the benefit of having a good note-taking system, as this will usually make ordering and organizing their information more easy. Students are given example outlines and shown how to group similar information, creating topic headings and sub-headings. They make their own outlines, and they use these outlines either as preparation for a paper they will write, or as a way to order their information to present to their peers and demonstrate what they’ve learned.
Each quarter students will Demonstrate Their Learning to their peers and their teachers. And each quarter they will do this differently: the first quarter, students write a paper and make a poster board; the second quarter, students create a power point or a prezi (a web-based, graphic presentation tool); the third quarter, students will make/create/or do something; and the fourth quarter, students may demonstrate their learning in any way that they choose. Each quarter, advisors teach students these methods of demonstrating, complete with expectations and standards. And although these methods of demonstrating what they’ve learned change, what is consistent each quarter is that students stand in front of their advisory and tell what they have learned, much as they would if they were giving a speech. This is what Arcadia calls finalizations, or presentations. Both teachers and students fill out a “rubric” for the presenters; this is how they get feedback on their projects, and it is also how teachers are able to observe and comment on the culmination of the student’s work.
Deadlines for the completion of each stage of this project process (finding a topic; finding resources; taking notes; organizing notes; demonstrating learning) are established by teachers and followed by everyone at the same time. This helps to teach a rhythm to the process, and gives them a sense of time management.
These projects are all largely research based, and we feel it’s important to teach the skills that accompany each stage of this research. But we also acknowledge that not all projects involve reading and research, and we often encourage individual, additional projects for students (particularly for our kinesthetic learners) who are interested in exploring a project that isn’t necessarily “research” driven. In addition, each year, we incorporate a collaborative service project into one of our quarters. Students are also encouraged to participate in History Day, a nationally sponsored history project competition.
Although each advisory is a mixed grade grouping, advisors take special effort to make sure that 6th graders and other new students are given more direct teaching in the project process. We also have a mentorship program that pairs 6th graders with high school students, to give them extra social and academic support. Additionally, in order to be prepared for high school, and to be given an added challenge, 8th graders do an honors, or 8th grade, project. This process typically begins the 3rd quarter, when 8th graders are introduced to the concept and oriented to the expectations and guidelines.
Advisors are cognizant about what particular ages, and what particular students need by way of challenge or support for their project process. With some students, we concentrate on the rudimentary project skills. For others (and ideally, for all of them when they’re ready), we push critical thinking. This is often done during the project proposal, but it happens throughout note checking and even finalization. This is when we ask students to form opinions, come to their own conclusions, put their learning in some sort of context, or create original ideas.
Arcadia also uses more conventional means for achieving academic growth. In addition to learning through guided projects, middle school students also take classes, some required and some elected. The required classes (dubbed “core classes”) are content area classes: Language Arts, Social Studies, Science, Math. These classes meet 3-4 days a week and last for the whole school year. We also offer elective classes; these classes are options for students, but we strongly encourage students to sign up for at least one elective. In the past we have offered such elective experiences as dance, theater, creative writing, Spanish, technology lab, drumming, and the Arcadia green house. Art, Physical Education, and Choir have been—at different times—either required classes or electives.
Transcripts with core class scores are mailed home at the end of each quarter. These transcripts also include the short advisor narratives, commenting on trends in core class scores and observations on growth and areas of work. Finalization rubrics for each quarter’s guided project and students’ reflection papers, are mailed home at the same time. These documents, combined, give parents an accurate assessment of how (and what) their child is doing during their middle school years. In addition to these quarterly mailings, all parents are encouraged to come to presentation nights, the evenings when student projects are on display.
Another important part of how Arcadia students learn are the frequent field trips that we take. These trips might be to supplement core classes (such as The Science Museum), or meant to enrich their social learning (such as Feed Our Starving Children). Often our field trips are arts based; we frequently find ourselves at such places as The Guthrie, the Children’s Theater, or The Heart of the Beast. We believe in this “out of school” experiential learning, and our students typically participate in a half dozen field trips or more each year. We use these out of school excursions to complement our other purposeful combination of more traditional classes, social curriculum, and projects.
Arcadia’s middle school curriculum is very successful in helping students succeed both academically and socially. Our morning and afternoon circle, student contract, purposeful project process, and offering of classes and field trips work together to produce well-rounded, thoughtful young people, prepared for success in high school and beyond. We firmly believe that our system fosters students to become fine citizens and excellent learners.