I teach 6th graders in a low-income area. Some of my students are somewhat familiar with technology, but for the most part, they know nothing of tech they cannot hold in their hands. Even though many of my students have some kind of smartphone in their pockets or backpacks every day, disturbingly few of them knew how to send an email when asked. On the first day I cracked open my classroom’s brand new Chromebook cart, over ⅔ of my students needed help just to open a Chrome window and login to their previously-created Google Classroom pages.
The challenges continued when I expected the students to submit the final draft of a personal narrative writing assignment through Google Classroom. Many of the students “lost” their work and had no clue about the undo feature, nor that their work would have been automatically saved within the Google Doc. Eventually, after tons of hassle and unexpected hard work, most of the students had at least turned *something* in as asked.
Fast forward a few weeks and a few more activities with the Chromebooks and Google Classroom, and I thought it was time to introduce something new. We had just attended a very brief crash course on Defined STEM and while all of the other teachers at my school decided to wait on bringing Defined STEM into their classrooms, I jumped ahead and felt it was my turn to be the pilot program for the school. As I mentioned before, I teach 6th graders. 6th graders in a low-income area with many, many bad schools. The majority of my students check-in at a 2nd or 3rd-grade reading level, with many below and very few above. In fact, this school year, I have three 6th graders (out of over 160) who are reading at a 6th-grade level or better.
Defined Learning is an excellent, thorough program, but it does ask for quite a bit from the students. Most of my co-workers did not think our students were ready for the rigors of Defined Learning's project-based lessons, not yet. Not with their issues with reading, and especially not with their issues with technology. But I had faith. I knew if I expected a lot, more than I should realistically have ever expected, my students would at worst meet me halfway, which would already be a level they had not yet reached. I chose the 11th-grade project on Defined Learning for my 6th graders who are almost all low-performing. I went ahead and chose an 11th-grade project for them because I thought the subject matter was something that would interest them. It really caught my eye and I knew it would catch theirs as well.
We started working on a project about 3-D Printing and the legality and ethics behind it. Thanks to the all-encompassing customizability of projects on Defined Learning, I was able to simplify some things, leave some things out entirely, and add some new things on as well. I used the 3-D Printing project as a strong guide but ended up working out many of the things on my own. It was an excellent mix of lessons, ultimately, as the students seemed engaged the whole time even after struggling to get to the right places because they searched for the web addresses instead of just typing them into the address bar. The students produced a policy paper, they made a presentation, they wrote pro and con editorials. They created posters with a list of rules and consequences, showing the school that they were ready to be responsible if they were to acquire a 3-D Printer for the school.
The students were legitimately upset once we finished the projects and went back to “regular” class days. Vocabulary tests and reading comprehension checks just didn’t seem the same when they weren’t intertwined with the videos, articles, and podcasts the students had experienced within the 3-D Printing project. I and my students cannot wait to launch a new Defined Learning project right after we return from a well-deserved Thanksgiving break.
David A Marcillo is a 6th Grade English Teacher and Department Head at a charter school in Los Angeles, California. He also works as a sports writer in what little spare time he has and can be followed on Twitter @DavidMarcillo77