The sixth- and seventh-grade students in Ali McMahon and Andy Brown’s class don’t sit in rows facing a blackboard. They station themselves wherever they choose within the classroom, by themselves or with others, with a tablet, with headphones, or with good old-fashioned paper and pencils. During a Monday morning visit, the strings section from a John Williams composition sang out into the room, and a projector on “the dark side” of the ARCTIC Zone displayed a warning: Shark Tank is approaching.
Last year, 25 sixth-graders entered the Authentic Real-world Curriculum and Technology-Infused Classroom (the ARCTIC Zone) a pilot nontraditional learning environment at Northstar Middle School in Eau Claire. This program gives middle school students of varying academic and behavioral abilities the opportunity to pursue individualized, project-based, self-directed learning. Now in its second year, the program has 22 returning seventh graders, 28 new sixth graders, and a waiting list for next year’s enrollment.
Students spend their entire day, with the exception of a few courses such as music and physical education, in one of two classrooms dedicated to the program.
“I feel more like their guide, or facilitator of leaning,” Brown said. He teaches STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) blocks on Mondays and Wednesdays, and McMahon teaches humanities on Tuesdays and Thursdays. These class blocks begin with a more focused lecture and work toward a “gradual release” into independent learning and exploration.
A trip to the second-story classroom where the block classes are taught revealed boys and girls working together to program spherical robots to navigate obstacles. When they approach Brown with a question, often his response is “figure it out.” He explained that sometimes the process of finding the answer is more important than getting the answer right away. This teaches research skills and helps students develop patience and persistence.
One of the defining features of the ARCTIC Zone is that students are invited to become part of curriculum planning. McMahon and Brown conference with their pupils individually at the beginning of each quarter to establish educational goals ranging from improving focus or determining effective study habits to completing online courses. Reaching individual goals earns the kids prizes such as being first in line for lunch or getting to wear pajamas to school. Between the 50 students, the ARCTIC Zone is tracking 400 individual goals; if the students complete 300, they earn a trip to the bowling alley.
Each quarter, students are expected to propose and execute a “Passion Project,” which is the culmination of the personalized learning experience. Last year, Lydia, a seventh grader, worked together with other students to set up an in-classroom snack shop to raise money for charity. While learning about running a business, they raised $400 for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital.
“We’re trying to stretch their thinking beyond the walls of the classroom,” McMahon said. In practice, that means encouraging projects that deal with real-world problems. Most recently, the Passion Project theme was “Be the Solution.” Students were to devise remedies for problems they saw in the world. For example, Tom and Andrew aimed to prevent bird-related plane engine malfunctions. They wanted to print a prototype of a metal grate for an engine on a 3D printer for their presentation.
Students present their Passion Projects to a panel of four Northstar educators, school board members, and area professionals; this presentation is what they call the Shark Tank. This time around, the panel gave constructive feedback based on the creativity and presentation of the students’ solutions. They were also evaluated based on whether they successfully convinced the panel that their idea is worth investing in.
McMahon and Brown agree that inviting other teachers and community members to engage with the learning process is important to student success. Instead of just being “another classroom project,” the Passion Projects show students that their education is relevant outside of school grounds, encouraging engagement and excitement.
Students in this program are learning to be introspective and self-evaluating as well as good communicators and self-advocates. At the end of each quarter, they work with their teachers to determine what grades they earned based on their projects, progress, and personal development. Personal accountability is a big area of focus.
Although it’s too early in the program’s life to determine success using state and district test scores, McMahon believes self-directed learning has been beneficial to ARCTIC Zone students. She has seen students complete the entire Northstar science curriculum in just over a school year while others work more slowly to achieve mastery of subjects they would have continued to struggle with in a traditionally paced classroom.
It is unclear whether North High School will implement a continuation of the ARCTIC Zone for students who graduate from Northstar’s program, but McMahon is confident that the ARCTIC Zone is preparing students to excel in all environments. “Our students are going to leave this program knowing who they are (and) how they learn best,” McMahon said. “They are going to leave here even more prepared for that setting.”