This year has been a transformational year at school for our 8th grade son. Up until now, he diligently did all his homework and had good grades. That is no longer the case and his grades reflect this. I am not sure what happened, but I know that he did not stop learning. This might sound contradictory, but the learning he did was outside of school, aligned with his passions for skateboarding, snowboarding and BMX riding. Now anyone who teaches middle school might know that group of skateboarding, snowboarding, BMX riding boys and girls as the ones who are not dumb, but maybe are not applying themselves the way they could. However if you could see them outside of school, they are not wasting away in front of the television, instead they are learning. They learn from each other, they learn from experiments and practice, and they learn from You Tube. They videotape themselves to study their performance and share with others.
The one saving grace for my son this year is that he has a Tech Ed class every day. This is the one class where he has a high “A” for a grade. Why is this? It is because it mirrors what he does outside of school. Outside of school he builds ramps out of wood and snow. He practices the physics of stunts. (As twelve stitches in his mouth will attest to.) He fine tunes the wheels on his skateboard and bike. He changes the degree on the bindings of his snowboard. When he was bored, he takes apart his entire bike and puts it back together. His Tech Ed class provides him the opportunity to do the same thing at school. In fact, he and his partner built a water-powered hydraulic arm that had to lift balls over a wall. They built it in such a way that it could take two balls at once and thus they beat the old school record for number of balls moved in a minute by a large amount. As a result, he asked his teacher for, and received, a student copy of their CAD software to use at home.
All of this has me thinking, what would it be like to take this group of kids and let them have their own class? In this class they would focus on the non-traditional sports and then dream. Their topic: Build a better _______. They could fill in this blank with snowboard, skateboard, BMX bike, ramp, rail, clothing line, wheel set, tool to fix it, helmet, glove, shoe (we go through a lot of shoes), skate park, trick bike, etc. The list is endless. They would learn language arts, math, science and physics in a meaningful way as they collaboratively experimented with their designs. They would have to research the competition and study up on the business world of these sports. Once they have designed a better _____, they could write sample magazine articles about it, persuade people to buy it through sample advertisements and letters to companies, contact current industry executives to learn more about their business, and learn the economics of manufacturing. Again, there is no limit to the list. I am still trying to fit history in there, but they could definitely discuss the different cultures of the world and where their target market would be. They could also discuss why their sports are not mainstream and why skateboarders tend to have a bad name.
While this class won’t happen for my son, I still like to think about the possibilities for future students to bring their passions to school and learn academics in a real-world context. This is not limited to the skateboarding/snowboarding crowd either; I am sure there are many other passions that students enjoy that could fit this model.
Addendum: I just watched a TEDxTalks episode with Gary Stager who's quote "Young people have remarkable capacity for intensity" underscores the point of this blog post. Below is his presentation which focuses on individual learning projects.