In preparation for Off Script 2017—a retreat for teachers and school leaders who seek to improve teaching and learning by bringing “real world” projects into the classroom—we thought it might be good to highlight a few examples of what it means to go off script.

For the next few weeks leading up to the retreat, we are partnering with our friends at Borton Elementary to share some stories that we hope inspire you as much as they inspire us.

The first story is a story of courage. Courage takes heart, vulnerability, and trust. Courage is about putting yourself out there, even when you might fail. In today’s learning environments, where teacher voice in school and district decision making is at an all time low, courage is something teachers must have everyday, every time they choose to say or do something off script.

When teachers make a decision to empower students to exercise their own judgment—even if it gets the project off track—it takes courage. The following story from Kathy Lohse is about the courage of improvising to learn at the students’ rhythm.

Finding the Right Rhythm

By Kathy Lohse

A decision needs to be made.

Should I make the decision and move the project along? Or should I truly “walk my talk” and trust the students to make this important decision?

I am the Project Based Learning Support teacher at Borton Magnet School in Tucson Unified School District. Basically, I support project work in all Borton classrooms from pre-K through 5th grade. I often describe my job as being a “back- up singer.” One of my main tasks is to work with teachers and students on the design of a project, assisting with the correct notes and rhythm (hence the back -up singer reference).

Currently, two 4th grade teachers and myself are involved in a project supporting our 4th graders as they create a classroom-based business that makes games based on mythology. We have startup funding through Real World Scholars to get the business off the ground, and there is huge buy in from the students. After all, it was a student’s idea and Mythology is a 4th grade standard or a correct note. Where we’ve hit challenges is with the rhythm of the project.

There is a lot going on at our school. The students have art, music, PE and outdoor learning as specials. There are district-required curriculum maps and pacing calendars to follow. All teachers participate in weekly 90-minute PLCS.

When can we do a project of this magnitude with 55+ students?

We had to get creative. The teachers and I decided that I would conduct “department meetings” with the students. Our fourth grade has four departments: Marketing, Production, Graphic Design and Social Media, and Website Design.

All the students have lanyards with name tags with their department names. When they put on the lanyards, the students are “on the clock.” On the days we all meet, we have the students rotate through different work tasks that all the students need to experience. This simple structure has helped improve the rhythm of the project through a unique kind of predictability that reflects the workplace as well as the classroom, yet gives students an out-of-the-ordinary experience that involves autonomy and responsibility as well.

Listen to how it’s worked in the Graphic Design Department. Early on, we all decided that Graphic Design would be responsible for selecting the logo for our business, TIME4GAMES. They decided to host a design “contest” of sorts. Students from both classes were invited to submit logo designs. Then, feedback was collected about the logos from the entire Borton Community and a graphic designer we found through CommunityShare. From this feedback, the Graphic Design Department selected four finalists who were asked to make revisions and re-submit their logos.

Three of the students happily did their revisions, but there was a problem with the fourth student. This student was absent from school due to an injury. She wouldn’t return to school until after Winter Break. The rhythm of our project hit a major pause.

In all honesty, part of me wanted to take the fourth finalist out of the mix—we needed to keep on time! Too many pauses do not help the rhythm of a project with over 55 students. Furthermore, the pause has ripple affects in my time and what I can do with other classes and their on-going projects.

After much reflecting, I decided it was really the students’ decision. So, I posed the question to the Graphic Design Department: What should we do? Wait for the fourth student to return or move ahead with three finalists.

The students, the Graphic Design Department that is, first gave the issue back to me. What did I want them to do? I told them that I would support their decision. The students decided to request further revisions from the three finalists, but to wait for a final vote until the fourth student to came back. They wanted her to have the opportunity to participate in the process, as well. As one student put it, “She is equal to any of us, and we need her to know that. She also has a really cool design that we might end up choosing.”

So we hit pause in the project and the logo design decision. School starts tomorrow. I hope this student has recovered. I hope she comes back to school. When she does, I will have the students tell her the story about how we waited for her, because we cared about her and recognized her talent.

Sometimes you just need to improvise until you find your rhythm.

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