In our Language Arts 1 class, building the school library is the material byproduct of collaboration.


This block in Language Arts 1, we are focusing almost exclusively on learning through collaboration and peer interaction. Such an approach to the classroom purposefully shies away from individual accomplishment but achieves so much more class-wide. What’s more, this approach focuses on the key dispositions that make learning possible over the long term: listening and communicating to others, navigating differences of opinion, and discovering internal motivation to tackle large, challenging problems. Our focus this block therefore not only underscores Proof School’s mission and axioms but also our theme of community, compassion, and kindness.

Since we have accomplished so much, and have learned even more, this post for "In the Classroom" is long. But I hope you will read it to see how we are approaching social-emotional learning in the classroom--and what’s possible when we rethink education to approach learning in a 21st century context.



Class-Wide Achievement

Before we jump into the process of how this is coming alive in our classroom, let’s get right down to some preliminary results. In the first three weeks of the block, our Language Arts I class accomplished the following:

  1. We created an interactive timeline of the US Library of Congress that involved researching its history; creating multiple databases of information and media; writing journalism ledes and headlines; fact-checking information; and a rigorous revising process for both accuracy of information and creative direction. It’s still in progress.
  2. We sorted, categorized, and organized our growing library of hundreds of books, and developed an in-house, simplified classification system and a process by which to check out books.
  3. We invented and embedded a secret code into our classification system. I would tell you what it is, but that would be giving it away! Suffice it to say that the code is complex but still decipherable, and it leverages the mathematical instincts of our students. This code will become a key theme in next year’s Building Things with Books class.
  4. We researched and vetted nine digital library systems, including web-based and app-based programs that can help us manage our books, make the check-out system easy, and track our holdings. We are now choosing among the top three as recommended by students: LibraryThing, Libib, and Home Library.
  5. We built a dozen bookshelves and anchored them to the walls; set up seats and step-ladders; and outfitted our new library with task lighting. 

While I think these accomplishments speak for themselves, I think they deserve some conscious recognition: we have done more in three weeks of class--as a class--than what is individually possible. In fact, we have accomplished more in three weeks as a class than what is imaginable.   

 Our library shelving, anchored to the walls.

Our library shelving, anchored to the walls.

Class-Wide Process

So, how did we do all this? The short version is that we worked collaboratively using principles of project management, especially SCRUM.

This means I consciously shed the role of “teacher” to play the role of project manager. That doesn’t mean I didn’t teach, or that we didn’t learn. In other words, we adapted SCRUM for a classroom environment in which we learned by doing.  

The basic principles we applied to the classroom included:

  1. breaking down each of our five accomplishments into component parts;
  2. forming teams to work on these parts simultaneously and interactively rather than sequentially;
  3. appointing team leaders who brought questions and answers to other teams; and,
  4. bringing the teams together for frequent, quick check-ins and class-wide presentations and feedback.

Breaking tasks into component parts gave students wide latitude in choosing what they did. Even in making the timeline, we formed different kinds of teams at different points of creation. At one point, students joined one of four scrums: Engineering (coding, database creation, software selection); Creative Direction (visual rhythm, typeface selection); Content (writing, researching, editing); Fact-Checking (sourcing, annotating, and documenting). Because we reformed scrums on a daily basis, students had daily opportunities to change the nature of their involvement.

Some students discovered in the process that what they thought they would like doing ended up being not as fun, while others returned to their original choices. I worked with kids each day on different kinds of dispositions. We talked about persistence and commitment in the middle of activities, but we thought about other activities they could choose in the next class. We talked about broadening their experience of the class on day three if repeated an activity on days one and two. We were working, in other words, on identifying the way choices and self-motivation played an important role in their learning. Over the next three weeks, we will pay more attention to talking and writing about the motivations behind their choices.  

 The Creative Direction team discussing visual rhythm and typefaces.

The Creative Direction team discussing visual rhythm and typefaces.

 Leaders from two different teams discuss options to make an idea a reality.

Leaders from two different teams discuss options to make an idea a reality.

Bringing It All Together: Reflection as a Mode of Learning

Thinking of the instructor as a Project Manager rather than a teacher challenges certain assumptions we often make about education, but it only underscores the core foundations of learning itself. By that distinction I mean our activities the past three weeks have looked little like a school classroom, but students have learned about themselves as a community and more about their individual way of learning.

The question for me is the following: how do I help students become aware of their learning? Arguably, an important distinction between doing and learning, between the office and the classroom, is the degree to which we are cognizant that we are, in fact, learning.

We’ll do that in our classroom through reflective writing. After the Thanksgiving break, students will write and revise an essay in which they address their own contributions to the class and their own learning process. They will describe both challenges and accomplishments, and their respective dispositions and the experience of learning. The essay will be each student’s opportunity to reflect on what they have been doing as a way to consciously address the process of learning.

For students who have remained engaged in the process of doing, the essay will be their chance to take a step back and realize what in them was motivated by the projects, so they can tap that motivation in the future. For students who at times felt adrift or challenged by the activities, it will be their opportunity to dig into themselves to discover what they could have done, and what they need, to feel more engaged. I want all of us to realize that we have something to learn from our experience, no matter our experience. 

When I wrote, some time ago, that Proof School builds social-emotional learning into the classroom, I had in mind something akin to the activity of our Language Arts 1 class these past three weeks. From my research into social-emotional learning, I knew that using activities to test and express our dispositions toward learning would materialize into an amazing achievement. I just didn’t know it would materialize so quickly, nor result in so much.

Please join me in saying “bravo” to our Language Arts 1 students!

--Zachary Sifuentes