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6th Grade's Flight to Understanding

6th grade social studies teacher Sharon Greene shares her creative project-based learning approach

In its simplest form, experiential learning means learning from experience or learning by doing. Experiential education first immerses learners in an experience and then encourages reflection about the experience to develop new skills, new attitudes, or new ways of thinking. Sixth grade teacher Sharon Greene has designed her curriculum to support this type of learning and shares her thoughts about her approach to teaching social studies at CEE.

"I have a deep appreciation for this age [sixth grade students]... they are in this awkward, quirky stage, often in the biggest growth spurt of their lives. It's a time when the students are trying things on, taking risks, experimenting with new interests and identities. We all remember what it was like to be 12 years old! The students still have the innocence and energy from their earlier elementary years, but are ready for deeper level conversations and addressing bigger issues."

She helps students get into the mindset of taking ownership over their own learning, "I call them scholars every day; I want them to identify with that word. Once they believe they are a scholar, they will put in the work, because it's part of who they are. You see them put energy towards their habits." Sharon sometimes asks students, especially the ones who may struggle academically, to think about their special superhero power. When a student may not feel like they are good at math or a strong artist, perhaps they can recognize their 'superpower' in storytelling, designing a presentation, or writing songs, for example. It is in this way that students can feel supported and build confidence in the areas in which they are less sure.

Also, Sharon keeps her students' developmental stages in mind when designing her curriculum. For example, she explains that she keeps things moving in each lesson approximately every 9-12 minutes, and loves the round tables in her classroom for the fact that, with this group. "You can't keep them engaged if you stand up and lecture through the entire class period," Sharon explains.

Throughout the year, the class 'travels' to each civilization they study in depth. At the beginning of the year, each student receives a blank passport (seen above). Then, Sharon kicks off each civilization's unit with a 'flight' which takes them to their destination. She even dons pilot gear, brings her luggage, and creates a KWL chart (what I know, what I want to know, and what I learned) for the students to complete during the flight about the civilization. Parents volunteer to bring "flight snacks" or food from the civilization they are studying. This interactive experience allows for Sharon to engage her students in a way that makes them feel as if they are authentically experiencing the place and its history.

During the flight, Sharon introduces the civilization through a presentation - the "in-flight entertainment", through which the class reviews the 7 markers of civilization (see below). She makes sure to include engaging videos and media that can show both the current nation and its ancient civilization.

The different civilizations students learn about throughout their sixth grade year are:

Early man (Africa)
Ancient India
Ancient China
Kingdoms of West Africa
Mesoamerica (Aztecs, Mayans, Incas)
Medieval Europe and Japan (if time permits)

With each location visited, students choose a nation and investigate the seven markers for their country. Every project has a visual and written language component embedded in it. As not everyone is a strong writer, Sharon carves out many opportunities for students to learn through various modalities so students can comprehend and absorb the information they've gained with each unit in their own way. Creating skits, building artifacts in the Innovation Center, and writing music are just a few ways students have demonstrated understanding of concepts learned in their social studies courses. This differentiation has been an integral part of Sharon's ability to assess her students' strengths and stretches in an authentic way. At the end of each unit, student groups present their final projects where they co-construct an oral report, visual aid and creative element and share their findings with their class. Students are required to dress up professionally for their presentation.

When designing lessons, Sharon is mindful of students being able to see themselves reflected in the curriculum. Research shows that schools should be spaces where kids explore the unfamiliar, but also see their own lived experiences validated and valued. This concept is sometimes referred to as "mirrors." For students whose racial, cultural, linguistic, or economic backgrounds differ significantly from that of the mainstream, creating mirrors in curricula is particularly powerful, and Sharon feels strongly about prioritizing this in her teaching.

When asked to describe her own superpower, Sharon said, "My superpower is that I'm highly relatable. I am a middle schooler at heart, so I understand my students! I hope that every student in my class feels like I see them."

By Jessica Levin and Nassim Shandy