Project Based Learning and Sparhawk’s Curricular Approach
By Yvonne Domings, Director of Sparhawk Upper School
Sparhawk has a long history of favoring hands-on learning. Hands-on learning becomes minds-on learning as children move from concrete to more abstract thinking. Minds-on learning at middle & high school, takes the shape of driving questions to be answered and problems to be solved.
I’m happy to say that I see the fruits of students’ labors every day as they transfer the skills they are gaining in PBL to other aspects of their lives, in the poise as they talk to adults, the confidence with which they carry themselves, the capacity for working through problems and the skillfulness as they propose and pitch new ideas. PBL is only one of the many facets of Sparhawk’s overall program that seeks to build critical and creative thinking skills in students who can also collaborate and communicate effectively.
At Sparhawk High School, Project Based Learning (PBL) is done in classes throughout the semester, but in addition, we dedicate a large portion of Friday afternoons to PBL with the sole purpose of developing 21st century workplace skills.
Faculty begin the development of “PBL’s” by developing a compelling driving question. Some PBL questions focus on the theme for the semester and others are problems of today or issues being discussed in the news. Since personal choice is the first step toward deep engagement (an important component of good learning), students choose one of those questions during course selection each semester.
Each week on Friday, high school faculty help students hone their 21st century skills as a means of answering the driving question. Students make decisions on the process, on the way it should be assessed and on the product to be developed. They work together, pitch ideas to peers and mentors, develop solutions, iterate products and end by communicating the results to an authentic audience of parents and community members.
As the director, my favorite days at Sparhawk are the days when we, as a school, get ready for the PBL Community Presentation Night. The halls are filled with engaged and active learners as they put the finishing touches on their projects. The afternoons are spent presenting and critiquing.
On November 29th, we held our Fall 2018 PBL Community Presentation Night. If you were in our audience, you saw some polished products, but you also saw and heard students reflect on the process they went through. We feel both are important. Since hindsight is 20/20, students learn as much, if not more, from reflecting on what worked and what didn’t work. So we applaud both successful products as well as good reflections. I’m proud to say that this semester’s PBL presentations were some of the best I have seen in the time I have been here. Below are the courses and driving questions students worked to answer during the fall semester:
Driving Question: How do professional authors craft meaningful children’s picture books?
In this PBL, students worked in small groups to storyboard and draft children’s books. Groups chose to teach, motivate, or expose children to bigger concepts and worked to craft their story with that goal in mind. After spending the semester creating their own books, they will take them to the Lower School to test them on young students.
Chad is Sad by Nate Elmer, Atticus Chiasson, and Joseph Shannon
The Problem with Ploos by Sabina McLaughlin, Lauren Rochford and Eunwon (Kiley) Huang
The Adventures of Tee and the Cavity King by Vincent Brogan, Guanshujin (Jarvis) Yang and Clementine Cashmore
Faculty mentor: Nate Velluto
Ancient Sailing and Seafarers
Driving question: How did geographical locations/problems influence advances in technology, navigation methods, and the way different societies solved problems common to water travel?
In this PBL, students looked at how and why seafaring peoples ventured onto the deep blue sea, for trade, adventure, and/or conquest. Teams of students looked at how environments and situations influenced technological advances, navigation methods and more. They considered how different societies solved problems common to water travel: stability, buoyancy, movement, and direction. They also examined the technology and physics of sailing while building their own sail cars that move upwind.
Phoenicia Ancient Sailing & Seafaring by Annika Ainsworth, Natalya, Rowan Brennan,and Yifei (Heidi) He
Ancient Chinese Vessels - Strummer Barr, Sam Dellea, Richard Lally, Chase Sweet and Jonah Smith
Hokulea the Great(Hawaii) by Nora Hickey,Samantha Jordan, Sivan Kotler-Berkowitz, Olivia Riley, and Madi Whitlock
Faculty mentors: Bob DeLibero and Jennifer Esty
Next Stop . . .
Driving question: Can television be an intellectual medium?
In this PBL, students watched the genre-bending classic The Twilight Zone and analyzed the show through both a cinematic and philosophical lens. They considered how to create compelling, watchable drama while also exploring vast and thorny ideas. Finally, students worked on teams to produce their own Twilight Zone episodes, either in homage or spoof of the source material.
Solitude- Jacob Adamsky, Sarah Cox, Richie Labritz, and Jonah Thompson
Live Without -Dyani Monclova, Charlotte Strovink, LiAm Wexelblat, and Lyupin (Sway) Xu
Where am I?- Ryan Brennan, Jackson Musial,Will Tessmer,, and Yuxuan (Kevin) Zhen
Faculty Mentors: Lee Ford and Casey Wright
Beauty of Acceptance
Driving Question: How has the idea of beauty in America changed over the last hundred years? How has it differed for different groups based on lines of race, gender, and class? Who has benefited from these ideals, and who has suffered?
Students will research the roots of Beauty that trace back to ancient Greece, and chart its evolution in American society through the last hundred years. They will apply a critical and intersectional lens to the concept of beauty in order to examine its impact on the individual and society. Students will produce a documentary film that they will present in two showings to a live audience that answers these questions and poses new ones.
Research and Project Team:
Yamilette Espada, Téa Flach, Yifei (Heidi) He, Lydia May-Broyles, Parker Rogers, Anayah Tejada, Anna Tessmer, Huiru (Sarah) Zhang and Yanan Zhang
Faculty mentor: Eric Schildge
Driving Question: Can we create a magazine that depicts the nature and history of the surrounding areas?
In this PBL, students spent the semester creating their own National Geographic-type online magazine of the surrounding areas. They picked topics and pitched them to the magazine executives. Once approved students became journalists, editors, photojournalists or designers. They worked on an "editorial team" to edit each other's articles and worked to formulate the final product: Sparhawk Geographic
Parker RiverWildlife Refuge by Kaiwen (Kevin) Chen, Tianshi (Tony) Li and Chloe Weiss-Curry
Sparhawk School History by Leticia Baptiste, Jacob Foti, and Lyndsay Morris
Arrowhead Farm by Matthew Lichtenberg, Maia Panthera-Allen, Maritza Ramirez
Faculty mentors: Joanna Tomah & Dana Nuenighoff
I’m happy to say that I see the fruits of students’ labors every day as they transfer the skills they are gaining in PBL to other aspects of their lives in the poise as they talk to adults, the confidence with which they carry themselves, the capacity for working through problems and the skillfulness as they propose and pitch new ideas. PBL is only one of the many facets of Sparhawk’s overall program that seeks to build critical and creative thinking skills in students who can also collaborate and communicate effectively.