It was 10:30 AM and there were five girls and five boys in a middle school classroom who were very excited to be in an algebra class.
Truthfully, I was not expecting that kind of cheerful conduct from kids facing the task of learning math in school; certainly not from teenagers. This learning space is the 7th and 8th grade classroom in The Project School, a chartered public school in Bloomington, Indiana (figure 1). Based on my observation, I assert this space fosters engagement and supports creative learning experiences. I will describe the creative learning that happened in that space in the context of the projects and interests, community and values, and the physical space.
My field work consisted in observing the planning and filming of 15-second videos to create a "graphing story" in the algebra class. The teacher’s idea for this creative class project was inspired by the website graphingstories.com (figure 2). The purpose of the project was to observe a specific phenomenon and learn how to graph its behavior with respect of time. Though the class project came from the teacher, each student had the freedom to choose anything of personal interest to video record with their iPads. The teacher asked the students to draw the two axis shown in figure 3 below on a piece of graph paper and write down the variable of their interest on the y-axis (e.g. height of bouncing ball). Six of the kids stayed in the room for their chosen observations and the other four went outside the school to work on theirs with their teacher.
There were a variety of unique and creative projects. For instance, one student asked the teacher to film him as he was swinging back and for on the playground swings. This boy was interested in the changing distance between his feet and the camera. Another boy who went outside was punting high in the air his soccer ball and graphed the changing distance between his foot and the ball in the air. Another boy wanted to capture the changing angle of rotation of his body as he jumped and made a turn in the air, landing by rolling on the ground. A girl asked her girlfriend to jump rope for the whole 15 seconds to later graph the distance between the highest point of the rope (when passing over the girl’s head) and the lowest when the rope hit the ground under the girl’s feet. Every student was surprisingly engaged and focused on this project, especially because each one had the liberty to work on a personal activity.
In spite each student was engaged in a personal and fun project, I believe the classroom’s rules of conduct had a big influence in promoting engagement in creative activities, specifically by being a safe environment for exploration, failure, and success. It was interesting the behavior of the students as they worked on their own video recording without the supervision of the teacher, since he was outside with four students. The students were motivated and totally engaged. The students were free to move around, get materials and tools, talk and get help each other. I actually found the classroom’s rules of conduct on a poster with the initials of each student:
Finally, the nontraditional setup of the physical space, with its tools and materials, afforded this community of young learners the freedom of movement and the making of creative projects. The classroom is nontraditional in the sense that it has a couple of benches, a couch by the small classroom library, a big open space in the middle of the room, and some tables with chairs. Kids are welcome to sit anywhere they want, even on the carpeted floor. Kids have the freedom to walk around the room, with access to the teacher whenever they need to, or to go to another table to get help from another classmate. Also, the tools and the technology available to kids was instrumental to capture their personal projects on video. Each student has an assigned iPad and laptop, so the availability of this technology per student denotes the commitment of the school to support the learning and creation of creative ideas.
I hope this brief blog post highlighted the creative projects of this particular learning community with nontraditional physical space and tools. It was very invigorating to see how excited and engaged these teenagers were as they recorded their videos and learned how to graph their data. That classroom is certainly a community of creative learners.