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Wednesday, July 10, 2019

Me: A User Manual

We started our year in our grade 8 Humanities classes with a design challenge, with a couple of purposes: First, to help us learn about each other, and secondly, to set students up for success in the kind of collaborative work we knew we'd be doing all year. Enter, Me: A User Manual. The idea was for students to create a manual that would help other students know how to best collaborate with them.

I feel like I read about another teacher who did something similar, but after exhaustive Twitter queries, I came up empty. So I don't claim to have invented this idea, but I don't know who to give credit to. If it's you, let me know and I'll credit you!

The design question we aimed to answer through this project was:

How might we communicate so we might bring our best selves in collaborative situations?
We started with a reminder from Brene Brown about the difference between Empathy and Sympathy.

Then, students got into groups of three to do an interview for empathy.

From dschool-old.stanford.edu/wp-content/themes/dschool/method-cards/interview-for-empathy.pdf
The purpose of the interview for empathy was to learn about what gets the person excited, and what they're doing when they are their best selves. We did this in threes so one person could be a notetaker while the interviewer focuses on really digging deep. We had the notetaker use an empathy map to take notes with:
You can find this on Slide 6 in the slidedeck
Next time, I might have the notetaker just take jot notes and then have the interviewer sort those notes and organize them into the empathy map. I think it was a bit too much to pay attention to for the notetaker and the quality of information suffered.

After this, we invited students to bring in an object that they cared deeply about for a show and tell (Note: Eighth graders are AS excited about show and tell as Kindergarteners are). The idea here is that by bringing in a physical object that matters deeply to them, students would be able to drill down into what really matters to them most. We had students again get into a group of three (different from last time), and used a circle protocol for them to share their object. A circle protocol is a method gifted to us by many Indigenous cultures whereby each person has a chance to share, and the rest of the members of the circle witness their testimony silently, without interruption. After they shared, they wrote a quick 3x3 to summarize the object and its importance to them: three lines, with three words each, and it doesn't have to be grammatically correct.

The next day, we did some improv. We wanted to nurture camaraderie, and I'm forever indebted to the dSchool's Stoke Deck, a set of cards with improv games sorted into categories for what you need, be it to energize a group, create focus, get personal, communicate mindsets, or, in our case, nurture camaraderie. We reflected afterwards in our journals about what we learned about ourselves by engaging in these activities.

After this, we honed in on the concept that self knowledge is self care. We used an edited video from School of Life, which you can find on slide 14 in the slidedeck. It introduces the idea that our behaviours sometimes say something that can be misinterpreted by others, and that life would be so much easier if we could come with a user manual that would tell others why we were malfunctioning and how they could troubleshoot this. This is where we first introduced the concept of creating a user manual for ourselves.

We focused first on strengths. We used a beautiful video called 30,000 Days to focus us in on what makes us special, and an accompanying document called the Periodic Table of Strengths from the organization who made the film, Let it Ripple.




They chose a few of the strengths in this table that they felt they demonstrated strongly, and gave examples of how they demonstrate these strengths. We started focusing in on collaborative situations, too, and asked them to think about what strengths they show most strongly in collaborative work.

Then, we reflected on needs, and asked them to think about behaviours they show during group work, why they do them, and what might help troubleshoot this behaviour. For example, "Behaviour: I might not jump in with ideas right away because I need time to process and think. Solution: Give me some time to think about things before asking my opinion."

Then, we had the students look at a bunch of actual user manuals, using post-its to list what they noticed about language, about visuals, and about format. From these noticings, students created lists of features they'd include in a user manual about themselves. Then, we speed-dated to ideate, where the students shared ideas of things they'd include with each other, and added to their own lists based on good ideas they got from classmates.

After this, they prototyped a low-fi version of their manual, which they shared with a group. Then we had them collaborate with this group on a task related to another curricular area, and tested how the user manuals worked to help make group work meaningful. They spent some time reflecting on what they learned through the test, what they needed to add and iterate, and then they started working on high-fi versions of their manual, using this success criteria that was aligned with the standards (stems) we needed to assess:


  • Communicates personalized likes, dislikes, and preferences for working in a group. (Stem 7)
  • Communicates potential challenges and solutions (troubleshooting) when working in a group. (Stem 7)
  • Is formatted to reflect the look and feel of a user manual. (Stem 2)
  • Language and word choice is formal and appropriate to the genre of a technical manual. (Stem 2)
  • Uses visuals and diagrams to support and enhance the text. (Stem 10)
  • Reflects on and articulates the learning process, particularly in how information was evaluated and decisions were made to curate the final product. (Stem 3)

There are some big iterations needed in this project next year. I think this project would be a lot more purposeful and meaningful if we started by looking at user manuals, what and how they communicate meaning, and then did the design thinking process, stopping after each exercise to build out a page of their manual. Our hope was that the discovery/empathy work they did by interviewing each other, exploring treasured objects, doing improv, and identifying strengths and areas of need would transfer over into the actual manuals, but this was not consistent amongst our students. We underestimated the amount of scaffolding some of our students needed to be able to do this successfully. The building blocks to this project are good ones, but they needed to be built out bit-by-bit, as Angela Stockman would say. We needed to define what the blocks of a user manual are, and then create within them. That's work to revise for next year.

Another big change I'd make would be to purposefully use the user manuals in collaborative work for the rest of the year. This was the intention, but it didn't end up happening. I'd take the time to print, laminate, and bind the user manuals and would incorporate them into norm-setting activities at the beginning of any collaborative project from that point forward.

Resources to share from this project:

Note: Once again, this project was developed with Tara, my amazing teaching partner.
Tuesday, July 09, 2019

A Personal Manifesto Final Project

I find it tricky to carve the time and the will to blog during the regular school year, which often amounts to several posts recapping the projects from the year during the summer. This is both good and bad - I often forget details when telling the story of something from long ago, but it also gives me the time and space to be truly reflective. For the best of both worlds, I think I'll start at the end, and then jump back to the beginning in future posts.

At my school, we have the luxury of doing final projects instead of final exams. In grade 8 this year, we actually planned out of final project way back at the beginning of the year. We teach in a Humanities approach, blending Language Arts and Social Studies. I see each of my two groups for two double blocks each day, which lets us play with time, as well as meet many of the outcomes of both programs of studies within one learning task. The Social Studies curriculum for grade 8 is a study of worldviews, and focuses on three case studies: The Italian Renaissance and the emergence of a Western worldview, the conflict between the Aztec and the Spanish, and the isolationist and subsequent rapid adaptation in Edo and Meiji periods of Japanese history. Through all of these, worldviews is a throughline: how people create meaning and make sense of their worlds. The common threads we wove through our study of these societies were: geography, economy, values, beliefs, society, time, and knowledge.

At this point, I need to recognize and publicly declare my absolute gratitude for my team partner Tara. Tara and I have this wonderful scholarly friendship where we can push each others' thinking in the best kind of way, resulting in thoughtful task design and a seamless grade 8 experience for all our students. We co-plan everything, and everything I'm going to write about in the next few posts is 50% me, and 50% her.

The focus on worldviews led Tara and I to bring in an integrated focus on philosophies, wisdom, and making sense of our own realities and worlds as they relate to grade 8 students. Things came into focus when I came across this blog post, from author Ryan Holiday, about Commonplace Books. Great people through history have keep commonplace books, where they collected wisdom and quotes from wise people they read, met, viewed, and heard about. In this post, Holiday outlines his own method for collecting wisdom, which we adapted to suit our thirteen-year-olds.

We introduced the concept with our students, and then read Holiday's blog post, annotating it. We made a class list of what we took from this article. Here's one of my class's notes:



We gave each of our students their own box and stack of index cards, and post-it flags. One of the routines in our classroom is 15-20 minutes of free reading at the beginning of our first block together, and we encouraged students to write quotes from the books they read to the box. Several times throughout the year, we checked in with how they were doing. We also spent some time looking up quotes from other sources, too. The internet is full of them - at this point, we taught the importance of finding the source of the quote, teaching strategies for tracking down authors when the author of a quote is listed as "unknown" or "anonymous."

In reflective mode, Tara and I both recognized a need for even more purposeful time spent adding to commonplace boxes - with more frequency and deliberateness. If something is important, you carve time for it. This is important. We wanted these boxes to become a treasured object for our students and were dismayed by how many students destroyed their allegedly indestructible boxes, and how many ended up in the recycling bin at the end of the year. Perhaps more deliberate time spent on them would increase the likelihood our students would treat them like the priceless collection we know they could become.

In the last two and half weeks of school, we focused in on our boxes, and undertook a simplified design process that helped our students pull meaning from the quotes they'd been collecting throughout the year. Our end goal was two personal manifestos: the first, a personal essay, in the style of ever-impactful "This I Believe." The second was a visual or audiovisual version, inspired by the Holstee Manifesto's print and video versions, as well as other examples of meaningful personal manifestos, which can be found in our slidedeck. Each day that we worked on the project, we started by listening to a "This I Believe" essay and also looking at an example of a visual or audio-visual example, drawing on them as mentor texts for our work. Students annotated a printed copy of the "This I Believe" and we discussed what stood out to them about how they author communicated his or her message in a short amount of airtime. We also discussed the visual or audio-visual examples. The rest of the double block was for the students to work through the scaffolded approach below, which had them curating their commonplace boxes for the quotes that held the most meaning for them, and to really reflect on what's important to them.





The results were phenomenal, especially in the second part, the visual versions. If they didn't cherish their commonplace boxes, I sure hope they cherish these manifestos in years to come. What an incredible gift for young teenagers to really articulate the wisdom they possess and the wisdom around them. One of the shared texts we read this year was The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupery, and one of the themes my students really latched onto was the idea that children possess such wisdom and creativity that the structures and demands of adulthood sometimes eat away. This project was sure proof of that. Have a look at a few examples my students created below.






They were so good that I decided to print their manifesto and frame it for them as a year-end gift.



As a final curatorial act, I asked each of them for their best line, and we created a class manifesto. I think I'll print them out big and put them in my classroom as advice for my next year's group of grade 8s. Here are the class manifestos for each of my groups:



A recap of the resources shared: