Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Eighteenth Century Theme Parks - By Sally Griffin

The students in my high school senior English class have pretty much sunk into the routine of high school: write the paper get the grade, do the homework and get the grade, take the test and get the grade.  They don't necessarily look for anything exciting; but are surprised when it occurs.  My students were particularly surprised and delighted when they were asked to discuss the damage the trash that we accumulate could be doing to our earth and then were asked to describe some things we could do to change that.  That is how our "maker faires" in our classroom began.

One of the most difficult units for my students to grasp is the literature of the eighteenth century.  The reading is tedious for them and they often just don't do it. But the eighteenth century is full of inventions (the age of enlightenment), new writing genres, satire, and discovery of self.  It also marks a time when people came to see the human being as distinct from nature. Suddenly the earth was less important than what man could create even if it meant destruction of the earth.  This became a concern for the class as we moved through the fiction and nonfiction of the period.  My classroom was filling up with recyclables (in our own humble attempt to save the earth).  The students loved the idea of using up the recyclables to build theme parks that would reflect what they had learned about the eighteenth century.  Many of them were taking physics or biology and were anxious to incorporate ideas from those classes into their English class.  The first year we made theme parks, they were somewhat elaborate (depending on the particular group's understanding of the literature) but always creative.  The next year, I upped the ante by requiring that some or all of the park offerings move.  The physics students were ecstatic.  They found toy personal fans, stripped the motors, and attached them to Ferris wheels, petticoat rides, roller coasters, and other rides and attractions.  Some of the students used string lights to create different effects for different areas of their parks.  The mixture of ideas from the twenty-first century and the eighteenth century did not seem to bother them as they created rides of the future and gave them eighteenth-century qualities.

The theme park offers a way to assess student learning.  I always have thought that I needed to see what each student—independent of the others—is doing and knowing so that I can know what I need to do to help this student "get it."  I can see from what they build how they understand the assignments and what connections they are making.  That helps me structure future lessons.  Students went back to the pieces they had read, making sure they were correct and searching for innuendos that would make their park more interesting.  Each student contributed to a group paper describing the theme park for visitors and each student wrote her own paper about the experience.  Several wrote that they learned more about this unit than any other because they were left alone to do their own research and to choose what was important to them.  

In high school, students easily put what they are learning in each different class in a different box or notebook and leave it there---sometimes forever.  The maker movement in my classroom forced them to use what they were learning in other classes to complete the assignment.  Before the advent of testing and teacher paranoia over getting in the tested curriculum, students were free to let their minds roam from one class to another and teachers from different disciplines actually had conversations and incorporated each others' disciplines in their lessons.  These students had an opportunity to experience the interrelatedness of the disciplines through these makes.  They became responsible for their own learning and did more research and actual learning than they would have done without the hands-on experience.

The use of recyclables to create the projects took on its own life.  Suddenly students began to contemplate how they could remake something that had become obsolete into something useful.  They became more aware of what could be recycled and what went into the landfill.  They went to the physics/biology teacher for more information and for the life of items in the landfill.  The combination of creating out of unwanted items, reading environmental stories and accounts, discussions, and writing about it brought about change in our community—one that promises to continue as we continue to create new opportunities for learning through makes.Sall

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