Counting down until the end of the school year is a bittersweet experience. Sometimes it seems as though just when we have the students performing at their highest level, the year is over. The end of the year is full of complex work. Our students usually don’t see the dreaded “comprehensive final” that so often starts happening in middle school. There is no compromise to education by not assigning a finals exam. The teachers design assignments that require interesting thinking, draw upon the skills that have been honed, and integrate concepts that have been learned during the year. The sixth grade humanities course provides one example.
Students take on the largest research assignment of their careers at the end of sixth grade. The humanities curriculum covers the Middle Ages, not just in the cold castled parts of Europe, but, because the Middle Ages happened in all parts of the world, also in the Middle East and China. At this point in the year, students are researching an aspect of China. What distinguishes this research project from many is that students work in teams to do the research, write ,and then decide how to present what they have learned to the rest of their class.
One duo is working on the topic of moon cakes. When speaking with Zsofi about what she and her partner have learned so far, the first concept was that there are many variation of moon cakes, both in China and the rest of the world. There is even a westernized version for the United States. No one knows how moon cakes were invented, but their origin is tied to honoring the moon goddess.
I asked Zsofi if she ever finds, that when she researches, the information gets repetitive. “Oh yes,” was the reply, “and then we just have to read more and take notes on the new parts.”
A second example of a China research topic is first mechanical clock, and one of the researchers is Caidin, who thinks the clock is “really cool.” From the first water clock, Sun Song figured out a way to make a mechanical one, using a tall tower. The details were still being learned by the researchers. I asked how they divided up the research and was told,” We have to have fifty facts, so we are each doing twenty-five. Then when we write, we’ll each write half the paragraphs.”
In my childhood, working on a research project with another student would not have been possible. I can imagine my teachers wondering how they would know who did what? How would they keep students from talking too much when working? What is wonderful about teaching now, is that we know these worries can be dismissed. It is in talking about the research that the learning happens, because it demands processing. When thinking aloud with a partner about what to include, what to leave out, and what might still be missing, the evaluative decisions demand the cognitive leaps that facilitate intellectual growth.