Project-Based Learning and the Research Paper

Edutopia

Students take responsibility for their learning and develop solutions for complex problems when their research paper becomes a PBL unit.

November 27, 2018
A class of students works in groups together in the library
©iStock/Rawpixel

In 11th grade, students in my county are expected to generate a research paper or product. In the past, I stuck to the traditional paper, mostly because doing so was comfortable for me as an English teacher. I can do papers. I can do essays. I can provide feedback and teach revision.

However, last year I took a risk—instead of the traditional paper, I told my students we would be embarking on a project-based learning (PBL) journey. They seemed excited, mostly because they thought they wouldn’t have to write a paper. In the end, they did so much more than that.

PROJECT-BASED LEARNING IN HIGH SCHOOL ENGLISH

I had my students form groups and then gave each group the task of choosing an issue they were interested in. The project would involve coming up with a viable solution. As a class we brainstormed all kinds of big issues, including school shootings, poverty, LGBT rights, bullying, and homelessness, as well as local issues like the need for more options in school lunches, such as vegan and gluten- and diary-free options.

Next they had to brainstorm possible resources and questions they needed to answer. Therein lies the beauty of PBL: Since I couldn’t anticipate their every need, they had to take responsibility for their own learning, and solve problems as they encountered them.

MINI-LESSONS AND FORMATIVE ASSESSMENTS

Their first formative assessment developed organically as they realized they would need to email professionals who could answer questions to guide their research. These adults included our school principal and our security team, as well as local government officials. Students reached out to their local delegates and other elected representatives, including the congresswoman for our district.

I gave a mini-lesson on how to write a formal email, and then the students composed their emails. Before they sent the messages, I previewed them, offering feedback and constructive criticism (formative assessment), and students made revisions.

By the next class period, my students had one of two versions of the same problem: Their recipients had responded or they hadn’t, but either way my students didn’t know what to do.

I gave a mini-lesson on how to send a follow-up email when someone doesn’t respond and on how to move forward when they do. They wrote follow-up emails, and again I previewed these. As we awaited responses, several groups asked if they could poll the staff or their peers about school lunch choices, improving school security, and expanding the school parking lot. This exercise could benefit all groups, so we decided to make it the next task.

I showed them how to create an online survey using Office 365. Their surveys had to contain at least two graphics and 10 good questions (open ended, multiple choice, or order of importance).

Meanwhile, students continued getting responses from their email recipients and needed to set up interviews with those people. How to write good interview questions became the next mini-lesson. My students were largely unaware of how to interview someone and didn’t realize that the questions they prepared were critical in gaining the evidence they needed to support their proposals.

For example, a group who wanted to expand the school parking lot went from asking broad questions like, “Do you think we need a larger parking lot?” to very specific ones like, “How many accidents have occurred in the parking lot since the school opened?” Most of the interviews were conducted over the phone, but some were in person—one group, with permission from their parents, interviewed members of a local homeless camp.

Students also had to find at least three solid sources and take notes to be embedded in their final product, with correct citations. They found statistics and data to support their proposals, and made sure to address counterarguments.

THE FINAL PRODUCTS

I gave my students options for their final products. All of them had to contain their survey results, research, and emails and interviews in one form or another. They came up with ideas like a public service announcement, a formal proposal, a bill, a documentary, a photo essay, or a piece of music or art.

I created rubrics and exemplars so students would know what I was expecting. I didn’t want to be too controlling, but I wanted high-quality products. They shared their final products with a variety of authentic audiences, including their congresswoman, our principal, a county supervisor, and our security team.

I gave each group one summative grade, but in the future I plan to split the grade: 70 percent of each student’s grade will be for their group’s work, and 30 percent will be an individual grade based on my observations, students’ self-reflections, and peer reflections.

As students shared their projects and we reflected on the process together, a few things became clear to me. First, I’ll never teach the research paper any other way because the PBL model we used helped develop real-world problem solvers, thinkers, and doers instead of rule followers. I learned that to encourage students to step out of their comfort zones, I too had to step out of mine, but beautiful, authentic learning happens when we create the right conditions for it.

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Inquiry-Based Tasks in Social Studies

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Assignments that are bigger than a lesson and smaller than a unit are a good way to experiment with inquiry-based learning.

 

January 2, 2019
High school students engage in civic debate
© Barry Sloan

 

Many schools, both nationally and internationally, are adopting the College, Career, and Civic Life (C3) Framework for Social Studies State Standards. Some states, districts, and schools adopt the full framework and standards, and others adopt the general framework, but modify or create their own grade-level standards. An important element of the framework either way is something called the Inquiry Arc.

The Inquiry Arc comprises four dimensions: “one focused on questioning and inquiry; another on disciplinary knowledge and concepts relating to civics, economics, geography, and history; another on evaluating and using evidence; and a final one on communicating and taking action.” The basic idea is that students ask or are given compelling questions and then investigate those questions, evaluate and find evidence to answer them, and communicate their answers.

For example, middle school students might be given the question “Can disease change the world?” in order to spark their exploration of the Black Death. Starting with questions such as “What was the Black Death?” and “How did the Black Death affect people in the 14th century?,” they explore geography and history by examining maps and other sources.

They then write an argumentative essay to answer the original question, using the sources they examined as evidence. As an extension, they might create a public service announcement on how to assess how effective their school or community is in preventing and controlling the spread of disease.

By default, inquiry is hardwired into the C3 framework and standards: In order to effectively implement the C3, you must engage students in inquiry practices.

THE INQUIRY DESIGN MODEL FOR TASKS

The Black Death exercise is an example of an inquiry-based task that uses the Inquiry Design Model (IDM) developed by some of the key authors of the C3. They describe these tasks as “bigger than a lesson, smaller than a unit”—just right for teachers who want to implement inquiry-based learning but may not feel comfortable devoting a unit to it. IDM tasks include the following:

  • A compelling question that is of interest to students and addresses issues found in one or more of the academic disciplines in social studies. It should provoke student thinking and align to curricular outcomes.
  • Specific standards from the C3 framework.
  • An activity to stage the question to elicit student inquiry.
  • Supporting questions aligned to the compelling question. They are specific and content-based, and guide the students to be able to answer the compelling question.
  • Formative assessments to check student knowledge of the content under the supporting questions. These can be short paragraphs, graphic organizers, or other traditional ways to assess student learning.
  • Sources—usually primary sources—aligned to the supporting questions.
  • A summative performance task that is argumentative in nature. Students must answer the compelling question using evidence to support their thinking.
  • An option for students to take informed action in the world around them.

In an elementary example, students learn economics standards by investigating the compelling question “What choices do we make with our money?” They examine short readings and images, and write a short argument using these sources. They discuss the pros and cons of saving and spending, and have a chance to take informed action such as creating a poster listing ways families can save money.

There is also a version of IDM called a focused inquiry. A high school examplehas the compelling question “Did the attack on Pearl Harbor unify America?” Students answer a single supporting question and complete one performance task and then write short claim and counterclaim arguments. They then propose a revision to their textbook based on the sources explored in an extension assignment. This takes one or two class periods, versus five or six for the elementary school economics example.

WHAT ABOUT PROJECT-BASED LEARNING?

Project-based learning (PBL) is also a great way to implement the C3 framework. PBL employs inquiry and includes elements that increase engagement, such as authenticity, high-quality public products, and voice and choice.

But there may be challenges to implementing the C3 framework through PBL. Teachers may not want to transform a full unit into PBL, or the unit may not be a great fit for PBL. In any case, an inquiry-based task like IDM has many of the essential elements of PBL: It assesses key knowledge and skills, has a challenging question, and requires inquiry. It also may allow students to do more public work if they take informed action through the extension assignment. It’s also possible to have an inquiry-based task within a PBL unit, as another way to assess student learning: If students are collaborating on the final PBL product, an inquiry-based task is an effective way for teachers to assess individual students’ understanding of the content and skills in the project.

Teachers need to use their professional judgment about what makes sense for student learning as they consider PBL and smaller inquiry-based tasks. Both can increase student engagement and be used to assess deeper learning.

Birmingham Covington: Building a Student-Centered School

Edutopia

Here are some fantastic examples of student-centered learning.  Be sure to watch the videos.

 

Educators take on the role of guides and motivate students to direct their own learning.

A group of middle school students in full beekeeping gear examines one of the hives their school keeps in the woods nearby. “Ooh, there’s honey!” says one excitedly. “I see nectar!” says another.

These eager fifth and sixth graders from Birmingham Covington, a public magnet school in suburban Michigan focused on science and technology, are empowered to become self-directed learners through hands-on experiences in and outside their classroom.

Birmingham Covington’s student-centered philosophy is embedded throughout the curriculum, from third- and fourth-grade classes focused on teaching individual resourcefulness to an almost wholly independent capstone class in seventh and eighth grade called Thinkering Studio. Teachers at the school often say they’re “teaching kids to teach themselves” and rarely answer questions directly; instead they ask students to consider other sources of information first. Even the classrooms, with their spacious communal tables and movable walls, emphasize fluid group and peer-to-peer dynamics over teacher-led instruction.

By relentlessly focusing the classwork on student interest and independence, the educators at Birmingham Covington hope to transform students into active learners who will be successful throughout their lifetimes.

“When you get kids collaborating together, they become more resourceful and they see themselves as experts,” said Mark Morawski, who’s been the principal since 2013. “All of a sudden you’ve opened the ceiling to what kids are able to do, and they surprise you sometimes.”

Solving Real-World Problems: The Bee Project

Birmingham Covington’s unique bee project, like much of the coursework prioritized at the school, was driven by student interest. After reading an article about the extinction of honeybees in their science literacy class, fifth- and sixth-grade students said they wanted to do something to help.

In the class, which combines inquiry-based science and English language arts (ELA), students build their research, literacy, and collaboration skills through small group projects aimed at effecting lasting change around real-world problems. Working on a range of activities—from building a website to managing a real beehive—students become more active and engaged learners, teachers say.

“Science literacy is teaching our kids to be curious about the world around them, with the problems they identify,” said ELA teacher Pauline Roberts, who co-teaches the class. “Even as students, they are learning how to become effective agents of change. It’s bigger than the science content—it’s about helping to develop the citizens that we hope our children become.”

Teaching Resourcefulness

Throughout Birmingham Covington, both coursework and instruction push students to learn lifelong skills like independence and resourcefulness, which teachers encourage early on in the primary grades.

Third- and fourth-grade teacher Jessie Heckman says she empowers her students to become more resourceful by solving common problems with the support of their classmates. Instead of raising their hands when they have a question or encounter a hurdle, for example, Heckman’s students clip clothespins to their computers and fellow students circulate around to troubleshoot—a system she calls the help desk.

“Kids need to learn teamwork-based skills because every other class in any other subject that they have—third through eighth grade—requires them to work in different sized groups accomplishing different tasks,” Heckman explains.

Modeling Collaboration: Teacher Labs

Students aren’t the only ones at Birmingham Covington improving their collaboration skills—teachers also identify as a “community of learners” who use planned, peer-to-peer feedback to help each other raise student outcomes throughout the school.

The school’s voluntary Teacher Labs—facilitated by an instructional coach and organized around a clear, written protocol—enable teachers to reflect on their craft with support from their peers. Through the labs, small groups of teachers observe each other’s classes and then offer constructive feedback around a stated objective.

“We’re really asking teachers to step outside of their comfort zones,” said Roberts, who serves as the lead facilitator in the labs. “We are creatures who live behind closed doors. To experience being in someone else’s classroom is really powerful.”

Increasing Independence for Older Learners

As they near the end of their time at the school, Birmingham Covington seventh- and eighth-grade students are accustomed to self-reliance and problem-solving. They put these skills to use in Thinkering Studio, an elective class where they design their own independent learning projects, and Engage, a class focused on design thinking—a system of solving problems that follows the steps of inquiry, ideation, prototyping, and testing.

In Engage, teachers Roy McCloud and Mathew Brown guide students to work on various self-directed, team-oriented projects like designing a new sport for third graders or building a roller coaster. Their support and feedback direct students toward the right resources while encouraging them to dig deeper: Did students ask the right questions? Did they get the right information? Did they go to other groups for feedback?

In these culminating classes, as in the curriculum more generally, teachers act as guides rather than instructors, directing students toward helpful resources but ultimately insisting they solve their own problems.

This innovative, student-centered approach to learning—the bedrock of the school’s vision—takes the long view, helping students develop skills and interests they can continue to draw on after they leave the school. The school believes that this model better prepares students for real-world challenges, since modern workplaces are increasingly collaborative and involve complex, interdisciplinary problem solving.

“The ultimate questions we’re going to be asked by future employers is ‘Can this person work well in a team? Does this person have the ability to problem solve and critically think?’” said Morawski. “Because our students are more resourceful, they have more intrinsic motivation in the learning process and ultimately, are learning to be learners.”

Why School Sucks (hint: it’s not because it’s “boring”)

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Isabella Bruyere

(Google Images)

Read the title. Now notice that I said school, NOT education. Yes, there is a difference.

This fall I’m going to be a Sophomore in high school, and although I’ve only had one year of high school so far, I kind of hate it. It’s cliche really; the high school student who hates school, texts all day, goes to parties, etc. Well, really only 1 out of 3 of those things applies to me but let’s rewind for a second to when I didn’t completely hate school: kindergarten-5th grade.

Hate is a strong word, I don’t hate school. I’m only comparing my feelings now for the ecstasy of my elementary days. Back then I loved school. It was my favorite place, simply because I’ve always had a love for learning. I had a great childhood (well I mean, I’m technically still in my childhood, but let’s ignore that); I grew up reading every day, going on Zoo adventures to learn about animals, hiking up to the observatory to star gaze, visiting every museum possible, and etc. A seed of curiosity was planted in my mind at an early age, and continues to grow today. There is something about having a question and finding the answer that satisfies me, but what really excites me to the core is being able to do something with that answer. It’s the difference between knowledge and wisdom.

Now imagine little kindergarten me, sitting in a room (on a rainbow rug that only added to the excitement of it all!) where all (well, most) of my questions could be answered. I was able to learn how to read, write and count. I was able to understand things about different animals, plants, and the world. I was able to learn about my ancestors and the history of everything. Not only that, but everything was fun! Why just read about the different parts of the plant when you could label the construction paper parts and glue them together like a puzzle? Better yet, watch your very own plant grow! To me, school was some sort of paradise.

So how did my love for school change? Simple: school stopped being about learning. As I entered high school, and even middle school, everyone around me, teachers and students alike, had the mindset of “cram cram cram, A’s, A’s A’s”. They’ll shove useless information into your head as fast as possible, “it’s okay if you don’t understand it, just memorize it and get an A on your exam!” The exam? An hour in a room of no talking, just bubbling in multiple choice answers while bubbles of anxiety grew in your stomach. School slowly became a place of memorizing facts just long enough to get the A, doing the bare minimum to get into the best college. Everything was just to get into college, to be better than your peers. Why help your classmate? Why not sabotage them so you have less people to compete with when it comes to applying to Harvard, Stanford, Yale. That is the mentality that I hate, yet it is the mentality of everyone around me, and maybe even myself.

Why can’t school be a place where teachers taught slowly, treating their students as equals and engaging with them in meaningful conversations. I once had an algebra teacher yell at anyone who asked a question because “we are in algebra, we are supposed to be smart enough to know these things”. Why can’t school be a place that welcomes questions of all kinds, and actually allows time to ask them? I’m so tired of cramming for exams only to forget everything the next morning. In real life, we have unlimited resources. The internet, the library, our peers. Instead of sitting in a room for an hour bubbling in a Scantron, why don’t we get together with our classmates and use our resources to work through a complex critical thinking question that relates to the real world as well as the subject. That is how you grow minds fit to solve world hunger, and etc. That is how you engage students, and cause them to be enthusiastic about a certain subject. I’m not saying schools should take away testing and homework, I’m saying they should make it more about the learning experience, and more like real life. Testing should use a combination of critical thinking and prior knowledge; it shouldn’t isolate the part of the brain that memorizes facts, because half of the time students don’t understand them!

I too have fallen prey to this harsh reality. I’ll stay up late to study, knowing that I’m only going to forget everything after I test. I’ll get the A, I’ll push myself, but at what cost? I’ve fallen into a hole, developed anxiety and OCD, and if I don’t stop soon I can add depression to that list. School is encouraging me to continue to push myself, but how long is it until I reach my breaking point? These days the only things I do are homework and studying. I stressed out so much my freshman year, I not only landed in the hospital, but I didn’t read a single outside reading book all year, and to me, that’s even more tragic. I am only in 10th grade, and I feel like I’m barely clinging on.

So yes, school sucks. But that doesn’t mean that learning has to. I’ve made myself a promise that from this day forward, no matter what college I go to, no matter what job I end up doing, I will always love learning, and always strive to know more. And despite all I have said in this article, I still enjoy going to school, and I wouldn’t trade my education for anything. I have always been the type of person to read a book about ‘Ancient Greek Mythology’ or ‘A-Z animal facts’, simply because I want to learn, and I hope to continue being that person.

A New Kind of Classroom: No Grades, No Failing, No Hurry

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Students at Flushing International High School in Queens working on projects during a summer program. CreditSam Hodgson for The New York Times

Few middle schoolers are as clued in to their mathematical strengths and weakness as Moheeb Kaied. Now a seventh grader at Brooklyn’s Middle School 442, he can easily rattle off his computational profile.

“Let’s see,” he said one morning this spring. “I can find the area and perimeter of a polygon. I can solve mathematical and real-world problems using a coordinate plane. I still need to get better at dividing multiple-digit numbers, which means I should probably practice that more.”

Moheeb is part of a new program that is challenging the way teachers and students think about academic accomplishments, and his school is one of hundreds that have done away with traditional letter grades inside their classrooms. At M.S. 442, students are encouraged to focus instead on mastering a set of grade-level skills, like writing a scientific hypothesis or identifying themes in a story, moving to the next set of skills when they have demonstrated that they are ready. In these schools, there is no such thing as a C or a D for a lazily written term paper. There is no failing. The only goal is to learn the material, sooner or later.

For struggling students, there is ample time to practice until they get it. For those who grasp concepts quickly, there is the opportunity to swiftly move ahead. The strategy looks different from classroom to classroom, as does the material that students must master. But in general, students work at their own pace through worksheets, online lessons and in small group discussions with teachers. They get frequent updates on skills they have learned and those they need to acquire.

Mastery-based learning, also known as proficiency-based or competency-based learning, is taking hold across the country. Vermont and Maine have passed laws requiring school districts to phase in the system. New Hampshire is adopting it, too, and piloting a statewide method of assessment that would replace most standardized tests. Ten school districts in Illinois, including Chicago’s, are testing the approach. In 2015, the Idaho State Legislature approved 19 incubator programs to explore the practice.

More than 40 schools in New York City  home to the largest school district in the country, with 1.1 million students — have adopted the program. But what makes that unusual is that schools using the method are doing so voluntarily, as part of a grass-roots movement. In communities where the shift was mandated — high schools in and around Portland, Me., for example — the method faced considerable resistance from parents and teachers annoyed that the time-consuming, and sometimes confusing, change has come from top-tier school administrators. Some contend that giving students an unlimited amount of time to master every classroom lesson is unrealistic and inefficient.

New York City Department of Education officials have taken a contrasting position. The city has a growing program called the Mastery Collaborative, which helps mastery-based schools share their methods around the city, even as they adopt different styles. To date, there are eight lab schools, whose practices are being tested, honed and highlighted for transitioning schools. M.S. 442 is one of them. Some struggling schools hope the shift will raise test scores. But the method is also growing in popularity among high-performing, progressive schools, as well as those catering to gifted and talented students and newly arriving immigrants.

This fall, the Education Department plans to spread the method further, by inviting schools to see how the Mastery Collaborative works, even if they aren’t yet considering making the switch. They will be encouraged to attend workshops and tour schools, with the hope, one D.O.E. official said, that they will find elements that they can use in their own classrooms.

Several factors are driving this. The rise of online learning has accelerated the shift, and school technology providers have been fierce advocates. It’s no surprise that schools adopting the method are often the same to have invested heavily in education software; computers are often ubiquitous inside their classrooms.

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Joy Nolan, left, and Jeremy Chan-Kraushar, right, co-founders of the Mastery Collaborative, with Lara Evangelista, the school’s principal. CreditSam Hodgson for The New York Times

Mastery-based learning can be traced to the 1960s, when Benjamin Bloom, a professor at the University of Chicago and an education psychologist, challenged conventional classroom practices. He imagined a more holistic system that required students to demonstrate learning before moving ahead. But the strategy was not widely used because it was so labor intensive for teachers. Now, with computer-assisted teaching allowing for tailored exercises and online lessons, it is making a resurgence.

Government policy has also contributed to its adoption. Under the federal education bill passed in 2015, states are permitted to forgo single end-of-year subject tests for nuanced measures. In the mastery-based learning world, this is largely seen as a positive move.

Joy Nolan, one of the directors of New York’s Mastery Collaborative, said the method gives students more agency and allows them to gain traction, no matter their level. “The mastery approach really puts the focus on you and your growth,” she said.

Some of the schools she assists — like the North Queens Community High School — came to mastery-based learning as a way to help disillusioned and at-risk students.

“It’s the narrative we want to change,” said Winston McCarthy, the school’s principal. “We want to change the conversation from ‘I’m not successful at this’ to ‘This is where you are on the ladder of growth.’”

Mastery-based learning, of course, has its critics. Amy Slaton, a professor at Drexel University in Philadelphia who studies the history of science and engineering in education, worries that the method is frequently adopted to save costs. (When paired with computers, it can lead to larger classrooms and fewer teachers.)

Jane Robbins, a lawyer and senior fellow at the American Principles Project who has written critically about mastery-based education, said she finds the checklist nature of the system anti-intellectual. While it may work to improve math skills, it is unlikely to help students advance in the humanities, she said.

Others question the method’s efficacy. Elliot Soloway, a professor at the University of Michigan School of Education, contends that students learn by slowly building on knowledge and frequently returning to it. He rejects the notion that students have learned something simply because they can pass a series of assessments. He suspects that shortly after passing those tests, students forget the material.

“Mastery folks don’t understand the fundamentals of what learning is about,” Mr. Soloway said.

In any event, advocates argue, the current education system is not working. Too many students leave high school ill prepared for college and careers, even though traditional grading systems label many top performers. Last year, only 61 percent of students who took the ACT high school achievement test were deemed college-ready in English. In math, only 41 percent were deemed college-ready.

Even proponents say the system has its problems. Switching to mastery-based learning requires a great deal of coordination. “It’s not an overnight thing,” said Lisa Genduso, the math coach for M.S. 442. It can also meet with resistance from faculty members who aren’t keen on experimentation. The year M.S. 442 moved away from the traditional system, it lost seven teachers.

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A learning outcomes chart. CreditSam Hodgson for The New York Times

But Moheeb defended his school’s approach. It encourages students to “work on what they’re struggling with,” he said.

“It’s different for different kids,” Moheeb said with a shrug.

In New York, where students speak more than 200 languages and arrive in classrooms with varying degrees of proficiency, some schools adopted the method out of necessity.

At Flushing International High School, whose student body is dominated by recent immigrants, mastery-based learning lets students concentrate on learning English. This gets them speaking, reading and writing as quickly as possible, while also rewarding them for picking up academic skills and knowledge. In a biology classroom, for example, lab reports are evaluated on the student’s understanding of concepts as well as on a command of scientific vocabulary.

The Young Women’s Leadership School of Astoria educates girls who may become the first in their families to go to college. In addition to fulfilling Common Core requirements, assignments are designed to help students learn critical thinking and workplace skills. Students engaged in a group history project, for example, may need to demonstrate that they have learned to collaborate and investigate. For a solo science assignment, they may be asked to demonstrate that they can innovate.

At Moheeb’s middle school, the approach has been transformative. In the 2013-14 school year, 7 percent of its students read at grade level, and 5 percent met the state’s math standards. Two years later, 29 percent were proficient in English, and 26 percent proficient in math, pulling the school close to the city average.

This year, all the eighth graders at the school who took the algebra Regents exam and 85 percent who took the earth science exam were marked proficient. The scores signified a high point for M.S. 442, teachers said.

To make the system work, teachers used New York State curriculum guidelines and Common Core standards to develop a rubric of every skill students needed before they could move to the next grade. In Moheeb’s sixth-grade class, there were 37 skills designated in math and 37 in English. They included the ability to add and subtract decimals; identify, understand and describe unit rate; recognize story elements; and discern what is important in a text.

In lieu of grades, students are assessed on a color-coded scale: Red means not yet meeting the standard; yellow, approaching it; green, meeting a standard; and blue, exceeding it. The scale is designed to be visually appealing and to encourage students to think of learning as a process. To meet grade level for each skill, students need to prove three times that they have acquired it. They may explain to a teacher their process for working through problems as a way to show they understand the material. Or they may perform well on an online test or a quiz.

Progress throughout the year is cumulative, meaning that even if students don’t grasp something early on, if they learn it by the end of the year, they will get a “good” grade. The school also has an online point system for behavior.

Ms. Genduso, of M.S. 442, said the approach was introduced at a challenging time for the school. A third of the students at the school require special-education assistance and attend classes that include a number of high-performing students. Even with two teachers (one trained for special education), it was difficult to engage everyone.

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A student at Flushing International High School in Queens working at her own pace to master a required skill. CreditSam Hodgson for The New York Times

“We were not reaching all of these kids,” Ms. Genduso said.

In late 2012, educators at the school were trying to think big. Housed on the second floor of a sprawling brick building on Hoyt Street, M.S. 442 was 14 years old and struggling with low test scores and declining enrollment. It had done a poor job of attracting families from the neighboring brownstones, and many of the teachers were dispirited. The school shed its name, New Horizons Middle School, and introduced computers. Some teachers began using computers for in-class lessons. Another group thought it would complement the student advising system. The changes led to conversations about what had been happening inside classrooms and whether a new approach was needed.

Eventually, the school decided to switch to mastery-based education. Still, the move was slow. First, the school offered more hands-on group activities. For a seventh-grade math unit on ratios and proportion, for example, the class opened a pretend catering company. Students practiced their math skills as they figured out pricing and discounts for their menus.

The next year, the school transformed its mentoring program. Students set behavioral goals and logged online. They could determine to be on time more often, do their homework more regularly or talk less in science class. Their mentors noted their goals and the progress made. The platform was a hit with students and with teachers, who believed it empowered children to think about their growth in new ways.

In the 2013-14 school year, educators at the school came up with a list of desired academic outcomes. If students could be motivated by an online log to stop talking in class, perhaps a log would motivate them to learn to write an introductory paragraph or add fractions.

Engaged by the project, Jared Sutton, a 27-year-old algebra teacher, helped develop a software program for grading called the Hive. It’s the program that Moheeb uses, via his iPhone or a classroom computer, when he wants to check his progress, which he does multiple times a day.

Parents, however, remained skeptical. While students received end-of-year report cards with their mastery points translated into percentage grades (necessary when applying to high school), many parents were confused by the frequent progress reports detailing dozens of outcomes for each subject. Some simply wanted to know whether their children were passing.

“There can be a real concern that they don’t understand,” said Noreen Mills, principal of M.S. 442. “But once they understand, they get on board.”

On a sunny morning last spring, the new approach was visible in a sixth-grade math class. Signs around the room reinforced the school’s philosophy: “Failing proves that you are trying,” one read; another, “Being wrong is the key to being successful.”

Students in T-shirts and hoodies organized into four groups. At one table, they worked on a conversion problem, trying to determine when a dog owner would need to buy more dog food. The dog owner had 45 pounds of kibbles, and the dog ate 10 ounces a day. The problem tested a math skill they would need to master by the end of sixth grade: “I can convert from one unit of measurement to another.”

“He’s confused,” one boy said of his seatmate, who had circled the correct answer but was puzzled by the procedure. “But at least he got the right answer.”

“I don’t think we should leave it at that,” said Priyanka Katumuluwa, their teacher, who leaned over their desks as she pointed to the problem. Both boys looked up at her, then down again at the page. They were listening intently.

Little boat built by students in Kennebunk completes Atlantic crossing

6/27/17

‘The Little Boat That Could’ washes ashore in Scotland after traveling thousands of miles since January.

“The Little Boat That Could” has lived up to its name.

After 168 days and 12 hours at sea, a small sailboat built by high school students in Kennebunk washed ashore in Scotland after traveling thousands of miles. The boat had sailed across the Atlantic, then up and down the coasts of Portugal, Spain and Ireland before it was discovered Friday by a pair of Canadian tourists exploring a beach on a remote Scottish island.

“It really was a crazy journey,” said Leia Lowery, the director of education for the Kennebunk Conservation Trust who worked with the students who built the boat and documented its journey on Twitter.

The 5-foot boat washed up on Balivanich Airport Beach on the island of Benbecula, where it was found Friday by John and Angelika Dawson of British Columbia as they were walking their dog. The couple notified local police, who called the Scottish coast guard.

At first, no one quite knew what to make of the boat, which is covered with stickers from Maine groups and businesses. The blue and white sail is a bit tattered and the underside of the boat is covered in mussels, but the solar panel, camera and sensors appear to be undamaged. Even the tiny Lego pirate that had been the students’ mascot while they built the boat survived the journey intact.

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“Everyone was really excited to hear it was in pretty good shape,” said Ed Sharood, a teacher who worked with the students to build the boat and who informed them of its discovery via text message and email. Some students who had doubted the boat could make it were a bit surprised, he said.

After determining the boat was not hazardous, the Scottish coast guard moved it to a secure location while officials tried to contact the owner, according to a Facebook post from the HM Coastguard Benbecula. In an update, the HM Coastguard Benbecula said the boat has been handed over to Mari Morrison, a primary school teacher from North Uist. Morrison had previously been involved with the rescue and repair of a similar mini boat that landed in Scotland in 2016.

The boat project is part of an ongoing partnership between the students in the Kennebunk High School Alternative Education program and the Kennebunkport Conservation Trust. The trust bought the kit to make the boat from Belfast-based Educational Passages using an $1,800 grant from San Francisco-based RSF Social Finance.

 

Even the Lego pirate on the boat launched by high school students in Kennebunk survived the transatlantic journey to Scotland. Photo courtesy of John and Angelika Dawson

 

Seven students from the high school program teamed up with the trust and The Landing School in Arundel to construct the 5-foot self-steering boat that is powered solely by wind and currents. Inside the boat – named “The Little Boat That Could” by students – is a waterproof pod that includes a chip that should have collected data from the sensors, along with information about the alternative education program, Kennebunkport Conservation Trust and items that tell about life in Maine.

Kristen Cofferen, one of the students working on the project, suggested the boat’s name after a classmate expressed skepticism that it would make it across an ocean.

“We thought it would be a good opportunity to engage ourselves,” Cofferen said in December when the students were finishing up the project.

Students in the alternative education program take classes for the first couple of hours each day, then spend the rest of the school day in the community working on projects and learning about career opportunities. There are seven students in the program, which launched in 2012 to serve kids who weren’t finding success in traditional classrooms.

Students handed the boat over to Educational Passages on Dec. 29 and it was launched near Georges Bank on Jan. 2 by a fishing vessel from the Portland Fish Exchange.

The students and their teacher tracked the boat on the Educational Passages website, following its progress as it initially made a beeline for Spain before veering south toward Morocco. It came within 100 miles of Portugal, then headed back out to sea.

“We laughed and said we’re the only ones who would send out a boat that would boomerang right back home,” Lowery said.

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The Maine students had hoped their boat would make it to across the Atlantic and that they’d be able to connect with students in another country via Skype. Now that Sharood and Jacqui Holmes, the other teacher working with the students, are in touch with the Scottish teacher, they’re planning to make that happen.

Sharood said Morrison’s students have been studying the ocean. During an assembly celebrating the last day of school Friday, Morrison plans to bring out “The Little Boat That Could” to show students. Sharood and Holmes plan to coordinate with Morrison to start a conversation between students in Maine and Scotland.

Sharood thinks his students will have lots of questions about Scottish culture and life on Benbecula, an island off the west coast of Scotland with about 1,300 people. He said they’ll work with the Scottish teacher and students to retrieve the data and make repairs so “The Little Boat That Could” can be relaunched. Sharood and Lowery also are dreaming of finding a way to get the Kennebunk students to Scotland for a once-in-a-lifetime trip to learn about the island where their boat made landfall.

“So many of (our students) thought the boat wasn’t going anywhere. They ironically named it ‘The Little Boat That Could,’” Lowery said. “I wish we could get these kids over there to teach those kids how to fix the boat and relaunch it.”

More information about the path the boat traveled is available on the Educational Passages website.