Rik and Marcin, 7th-graders, seem positively jazzed about showing me the product of their programing efforts.
We're in Karine Laidley's computer-science class at Advanced Math and Science Academy Charter School (AMSA). Today is the last day students can put finishing touches on their final projects of a 4-week assignment.
The boys are so excited, they talk over one another. I glean that they've been asked to program an illustration of a lesson from any of their other academic subjects. They've been learning Alice, visualization software whose results look like primitive computer-game graphics. The video's words are limited to printed text, labels, and comic-book-like dialogue for characters' conversation.
AMSA requires computer-science courses, grades 6-11. Programming is never a subject unto itself, but a set of skills that serve projects, research and experiments in other subjects.
So, to motivate her sometimes-reluctant learners, Laidley asked the other 7th-grade teachers to agree to give students extra credit for creating a video about what they're learning in an academic class. By doing a bang-up programming job for Laidley, students can also beef up a weak science or history grade. She says, "This assignment gave us all a little more leverage to get them going." Clever. Motivating modern students to work harder is no small feat.
Rik and Marcin chose to work on a history project, specifically a video to illustrate a particularly grim moment in the career of the ancient warrior Hannibal.
Hannibal and his troops had made the deadly journey across the Alps, hoping that his brother Hasdrubal has managed to bring fresh troops. But a Roman General had already defeated Hasdrubal's army. At the meet, the General unceremoniously tosses Hasdrubal's severed head to Hannibal, and brandishes a deliciously over-sized and bloody knife.
Just the sort of gory detail middle-school boys would love. And however much those boys may find history dull, that historical moment will be forever sealed on their memories.
Actually, Laidley hadn't seen the boys' first version, and was mildly chagrined that I did. She insisted they tone it down to be school-appropriate. Good call, of course, but how fun for the boys to experience their power to make cyber-mayhem.
Another pair, Madison and Allie, dramatized the effects of lighting ethanol on fire, a factoid from science class. Their video shows the experiment's setup, the big boom, and the teacher's shock. Like the boys, they were into it.
Actually, all courses, not just computer science, exist at least in part to serve the others. One of AMSA's best features is that teachers plan together so kids study the same topic through the different lenses of each class.
When studying Hellenic Greece, students go to the Boston Museum of Fine Arts to see Greek art. They read Plato, Homer and Sophocles in Literature class. AMSA teaches geography as a separate subject, so they also understand Greece's land, climate and location. Instead of covering a bunch of topics on their own, each subject is connected to others, so kids go into topics deeply and from different angles.
AMSA divides academics into two clusters: those that are math-related – including physics, chemistry and math – and the humanities – literature, English language mechanics, history and the arts. Within each cluster, teachers plan together to feed the kids' depth of knowledge.
Focusing on the same topic eases the difficulty of a piece of classical literature – or of chemistry, for that matter. Students retain more information because they've handled it in various ways. In effect, each academic discipline leverages the efforts of the others. Then, a subject or skill that grabs a kid's attention can become the dynamo that pushes her to learn related skills from less-loved classes.
For example, engineering is a field having trouble attracting students. Engineering is about making something or making it work, like bridges, new medical devices, or gene therapy. But kids no longer play at making forts or doll clothes, and have little experience or love for creating material things.
One of Laidley's hardest challenges is getting the kids into the hardware and physical engineering of computers. Her students uninstall the software and then dismantle old, donated computers, recording their observations as they would a scientific observation. Most students resist the lesson mightily, but they get hands-on experience of the innards of the electronic wonders whose engineering they take for granted. Most importantly, the lesson always unearths those students who have a knack for working with their hands and are turned on by wires-and-pliers challenges.
AMSA approaches core academics from so many angles, teachers can root out and nourish any personal passions or talents that will help a kid persist in his learning. The topic strategy allows the school to be highly rigorous because kids can see a whole landscape of a historical period at once, or the interdependence of software and hardware.
As such, AMSA works well with an incredibly diverse student body. The hotshots have plenty of challenge – which is increasingly rare in public education these days. But even more impressive is how AMSA successfully ramps up to "Proficient" and "Advanced" those students who came to them with abominable 6th and 7th-grade MCAS scores.
AMSA's strategy isn't for everyone, but this school needs to be cloned – soon and often.
Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist whose work also regularly appears at GoLocalProv.com. She is the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, a restorative-practices initiative, currently building a demonstration project in Central Falls, Rhode Island. She consults for schools and government initiatives, including regular work for The Providence Plan for whom she analyzes data. For more detail, see juliasteiny.com or contact her at [email protected] or c/o GoLocalProv, 44 Weybosset Street, Providence, RI 02903.