Elective middle school class engages students with others around the world

When sixth grade teacher Laura Davies pitched the idea for a project and leadership elective class at Stikine Middle School, she had no idea what it would look like or what it would become. She only knows that it's keeping students engaged and learning.

The class doesn't necessarily focus on just one thing like music, language or art. Instead, it incorporates elements from several different categories, lets students be involved in the outcome of projects and uses interaction with students in other countries to think beyond Wrangell's borders.

"There's no class like this that I know," Davies said. "Really, it gives me the creativity to do whatever I think fits these kids."

Davies had the idea last year when teaching art. Since the middle school doesn't have a designated art teacher, she filled the role. But she realized that not all of the students cared for art class, or at least art class as it's traditionally taught.

"The problem is not all kids want to do art for a whole semester," she said. "And I'm limited on time I can invest in it. What if I can do a class that's more project-based group work with time for them to collaborate and be leaders but with art in it?"

Last semester, students started the class with an art project revolving around reclaimed and recycled materials. Kids were tasked with looking for materials that could be repurposed into three-dimensional art rather than painting, drawing or restricting them to one theme.

Students used things like sea glass, recycled aluminum cans, buttons, bottlecaps, fishing lures and black sand. Everett Meissner, who is still working on his salmon sculpture since Davies allows them to take it at their own pace, found many of his materials in Wrangell's backyard.

"(I got materials) from the Stikine River. I have black sand. It's heavier and it goes down below other sand," Meissner said. He is also using garnets he mined from Garnet Ledge and wood he gathered from up the river.

Arabella Nore, one of the students in the class, is still working on her project of making a wolverine of recycled materials. She and other classmates said the concept wasn't necessarily new to them.

"We knew about recycled materials (for making art), but we didn't acknowledge it," she said.

This semester, the class has moved into the world beyond their island home to learn about other cultures and customs straight from the students of other states and countries with the use of Microsoft Flip, a video editing and sharing program.

Yaritza Villalba, the educator innovation lead with Microsoft Flip, said she was asked by a New York City public school assistant principal if the program could be used to help her students explore cultures from around the world. According to Villalba, the city's School District No. 75 in the Bronx has the largest population of disabled students, and the use of Flip would allow them to explore the world through students in different places.

The program also uses closed-caption technology to automatically generate translated captions for the viewer in whatever language they speak.

"I tweeted out to members of my global network of educators and within 48 hours I had 34 classrooms representing five continents around the world who had registered to participate," Villalba said. Davies was one of those teachers.

Wrangell students have been able to learn about the daily lives and cultures of kids from India, Nigeria, Mexico, Russia, South Korea and Texas. There have been 130 videos submitted for the January program, totaling 90 hours of discussion material, according to Villalba. Videos are posted so classes can watch on them on their own schedules due to time zone difference. The program has been so popular that the program has been scheduled to run in March and beyond if demand keeps up.

"To date, we have 165 classrooms registered for the second experience," Villalba said. "From educators in Ghana, Uruguay, Alaska, Morocco, South Korea, Ecuador, New Zealand, Greece, Turkey, South Africa, Wales, Italy, Poland and the list goes on. ... Everyone is welcome. My hope is that in March we will have classes from all 195 countries."

Back in Wrangell, the students have been able to learn about the foods, dances and songs that kids in other countries have as part of their daily routines. In turn, they have created their own videos talking about eating things like crab, showing Tlingit dances and boating up the Stikine.

Students were also able to create a video giving facts about Mt. Dewey after Davies took them hiking up the trail.

"We went hiking up Mt. Dewey, which they always complain about at first," Davies said. "But then they're like, 'Oh, the weather is nice. Can we go for a hike?' The logic behind that is we have all these great places to get out and explore, but a lot of kids don't think of that. All of these group tasks and all of these projects lead to collaboration, cooperation. They break (out of) their friend groups because they're talking."

Davies said by learning about other cultures first-hand and sharing about their own lives and cultures, it not only teaches the students but it gets them invested in their own community. The more they know about things like Mt. Dewey, garnets or tender boats, the more they can impart to others.

"They're going to vote, take of their community, volunteer," she said. "I know it sounds like a stretch, but these are building blocks."


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