The Child as Unit of Consideration: World Cultures--Many Paths to Learning

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From the Fall 2009 Caller

By Paul Monheimer

“I’d like to build a trebuchet,” emailed my student Will. This was after we talked about what project students might do for the medieval portion of 7th grade World Cultures class. A trebuchet—a type of catapult—was pretty ambitious. So I had to ask him: “How big will it be? What materials will you use? How should I assess your final product?” “I found some plans online. It will be around 7 ft. tall. Assessment will be on how authentic it is,” he replied. “How authentic? Are you sure? How about assessment on if it fires, how far it fires, and its accuracy?” I tried to help him refine his thinking.
Will did think all this through—and he built a terrific trebuchet that fired its shot clear across the Paddock and into the Fir Grove, surprising everyone. In this class we use long-term projects like the trebuchet to help students become individual learners. They gain the ability to plan and creatively complete their work, and demonstrate what they have learned, no matter what their other classmates are doing or what their own learning style might be.
My approach has been to allow kids absolute freedom to create and explore, respect their choices, and help them achieve their goals. Brain and learning research has shown that students learn more when we allow and encourage them to explore topics of interest. Over the years, World Cultures students have been treated to juggling lessons, medieval banquets, Japanese tea ceremonies, and art history lessons. They have learned to sing Gregorian chants, fight with swords, and do a medieval dance or two.
My mentor Ron Cummings taught me that “Middle school students will learn anything, as long as it includes both play and drama.” That is the driving philosophy behind ERIC (or RICE, as it is known in some years).
I developed ERIC—Egypt, Rome, India, and China— just for Catlin Gabel. Many middle schools teach ancient cultures, but few do four cultures at the same time. The presentations the students develop and lead are far more creative and compelling than anything I could ever dream up on my own. The bonds created during ERIC last a long time—all Upper School students can tell you which of the four civilizations they worked on. Audience responses are always encouraging, and, although everybody is exhausted at the end, their smiles usually convince me that it has been a productive and worthwhile learning experience.
Do all of these creative attempts turn out perfectly? Of course not! One student attempting to antique his Latin papers used too much lemon juice and burned a huge hole in his project. He still received full credit even though I could only see about 20 percent of the result. He had completed his research, he was passionate about learning about ancient texts, and he was being as creative as possible. What more could I have asked?
World Cultures is all about helping students learn about today’s world by examining past events and civilizations. Each project allows students independence in choosing what they will study during a particular unit. The tapestry of learning created by the entire 7th grade studying areas of their choosing mirrors the tapestry of modern global culture. Giving students room to choose their area of study helps them find a comfortable place in that tapestry and keeps learning fun and exciting as they go through thousands of years together.
Paul Monheimer has been at Catlin Gabel since 1995.