A Matrix of Learning

By Brian Crawford

When was the last time you saw an English class depicted in a movie or on TV? The ones I can think of all feature pretty much the same scene: bored-looking students either listening to a teacher read from some book, or listening to another student trudge their way through Hamlet or A Separate Peace (I’m not counting Dead Poets’ Society here, as I do believe Mr. Keating did a better job--at least in the classroom--of getting his students to think for themselves).

While reading aloud or discussing what a book “means” does have a place in the English classroom, I have always believed that learning best occurs: 1) in a project-based way; 2) in a way that challenges students to think not just linguistically and verbally, but also visually, spatially, kinesthetically, musically, and mathematically; and 3) in a way in which students have a choice of which projects they choose.

Recently, 9th graders read two graphic novels, American Born Chinese and Persepolis. Both of these fit into our exploration of identity and coming-of-age that we began with short stories and a novella. To support this unit, we welcomed professional children’s book illustrator Ellie Peterson to lead a workshop focusing on how illustrations support story.

But rather than culminate the unit with an exam or an essay, students chose seven projects to complete in a group. They chose the projects from a matrix derived from the intersection of Gardner’s Multiple Intelligences and Bloom’s Taxonomy--two teacher codes that basically mean the projects had to both increase in complexity, and they had to each be expressed differently: as art, as a debate, as a role-play, as code, as recipes, as Lego structures, as dolls, as chord progressions, or as raps. To name a few.

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The students then presented their work to the entire school community as a gallery walk. Their goal was to teach other students--even the sophomores, most of whom have not read these books--concepts that both revealed a multilayered understanding of the books, all the while giving the audience a new insight into different modes of expression.

While the students’ engagement in the projects was focused and energetic, and while the entire school was engaged in the gallery walk, I was truly impressed when I assessed the work. For in looking at the variety of projects, I saw levels of understanding that surpassed my expectations. Not only had students grasped the main themes of both works, but they demonstrated a firm grasp of Iranian culture, Chinese literary archetypes, illustration, storytelling, poetry, and music.

In a word: I was blown away. And I was so motivated by the possibilities that lie before us, as well as our students’ abilities to think creatively and critically, collaborate, learn how to learn, and communicate effectively as 21st-century problem-solvers.