Animal Farm 2.0 – Reading won’t hurt

 We are almost the end of the first week of the two week Animal Farm 2.0 project. Our goals have been clear. We want the students to get back into reading books, talking about books and thinking the language of books. We also want them to use what they are reading to help them learn about basic creative writing techniques, start to repack ‘language’ in a formal context and then to produce a series of books containing short stories.

It’s fast and furious. I am not the ‘classroom’ teacher – in fact there are 8 of them. I think that the design of this project has created for the teachers a real feeling of ‘unity’. Casual conversations with the teachers suggests that they feel enthusiastic, becuase of the way the students have taken to reading and asking questions. It has not been perhaps the ‘battle’ to get 15 year old boys to get engaged with reading that it might have been in the past, but that is just a feeling I get from talking to them.

The students have shared a simple GoogleDoc with their teachers online, and have been actively responding to questions. These questions are individual to each student, so the teachers have mapped the ‘key learning’ and been able to explore the student’s ideas as well as meet the objectives of the unit. The classroom lessons are given to explore the text in groups, take part in writing exercises to support it. The deconstruction and reflection of that classroom activity – is done in GoogleDocs, and it may well be that the students are talking to a different teacher.

In effect they are talking to an advisor and mentor. When they return to class – its clear that the students are bring a number of persectives to the class.

They can say to the teacher ‘That is what I thought, but then Snowball said ….”. It gives the student some ‘expert’ feeling, that they are bringing information and new ideas to the teacher – creating a greater democracy in learning.

Around the campus, students can be seen reading. They have also formed discussion groups with teachers at lunch time – because they want to know more and get more from the text. In the 3 years I’ve been at the school, I have never seen this in 9th Grade. The actual manditory tasks this week are actually quite low, yet the effort and enthusiasm is remarkable. We have a new teacher in the mix, Brad. Lucy has taken on the project in her usual creative and enthusiastic manner and Brad has falled right into line. Her understanding of how technology can be used strategically to create a sense of drama and mystery in learning is fantastic.

The students know that there is something about to happen in the project, and not sure what, but it has something to do with the meaning that they need to get from Animal Farm. (I’d say more, but they might read this). What is important is that when I ask the students about ‘how’s the project going’ … they talk about the meaning of the book, and how it might apply to all manner of things, no least the way the school operates. They are not retelling the story. At the end of almost a year, these kids are now looking well beyond the immediate ‘task’.

In this project, I think we’ve got a strong ‘content’ and ‘learning’ balance. One of the critisisms of PBL is how kids stack up against kids learning the same content in more traditional ways. I guess that really depends on how you define the summative assessment – but I do think that there is a danger to skip content milestones in favour of other goals – which are valid – but make it hard to draw direct comparisons.

This project, so far, has created unity in the teachers – each has a part to play, and has been able to teach in their own style. The enthusiasm that the teacher brings to class is picked up by students. At times I think teachers can be lost in the fog of technology, or the process of project based learning – and students know it. When putting this task together – a major goal Lucy and I had – was for the teachers. To create a project that let them do what they do best, to learn a new tool (GoogleDocs) and create unity and engagement as a teaching team – that has the ability to focus on individual students. I am learning just how critical that is – and unity is as much of a key word as collaborative to me right now.

The next phase of creative writing starts tommorrow – so I really want to try and capture that – with the end ‘book’ writing the week after.