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Making Time to Create: Ignite Weeks in Futures Academy

By Kelsey Giroux
Making Time to Create:  Ignite Weeks in Futures Academy

Build, design, create. Passion projects. Tinker Time. 20% Time. iTime… These are no longer the exception but part of the modern teacher’s daily lexicon of desired outcomes. However, the question of how to best structure time for these pursuits persists. Over the past few years, the International School of Beijing’s Futures Academy (ISB’s FA), a program that emphasizes integrated, project-based learning in middle school, has continued to experiment with how to best structure time and support in order to allow students to pursue their interests. Initially, a “Passion Project” block was offered once per six-day cycle. However, after two years of implementation, a consistent set of challenges presented themselves: • Students lost momentum on their projects due to the infrequency of scheduled time. • Students rarely pursued new or challenging areas of passion, but stayed within their comfort zone, while others struggled to identify an area of passion. • A large number of students completing different projects, at different times, made it challenging to connect them to people with expertise. Based on these challenges, FA teachers (Facilitators) began to inquire about the goals, purpose, and structure of Passion Project time. In the inquiry process, they wondered: • How could all students be encouraged and empowered to try something new? • How could we bring more expertise into the classroom? • How could we leverage our own passions and interests? • How could we use this as an opportunity to build community across our Grade 7 and Grade 8 program? Inspired by professional development with NuVu Studio, an idea to offer a studio-style design week was sparked. Dubbed “Ignite Weeks,” these substantial blocks are off-schedule experiences that occur at three different points in the year. Each week has a basic theme to help focus the experience. Make It week features projects related to creating and building. Express It week emphasizes projects connected to communication, storytelling, and performance. Personalize It week allows students to focus on projects that are independently selected. For Make It and Express It blocks, facilitators offer a range of different project choices and students sign up according to their interests. Examples of past Make It projects include options such: Upcycled Fashion (sewing), Make a Moment (videography), Create a Fidget Device (3D printer), and Make a Children’s Book (Illustrator). The design process is embedded within each project option, providing students with pathways to define, inquire, plan, prototype, iterate, and exhibit. For example, students in Upcycled Fashion had voice and choice to design and create their own unique upcycled outfit while also gaining sewing skills. For the FA student, the risk to try something new is mitigated by facilitator expertise, resourcing of materials, and time allotted to this singular focus over one week. FA Facilitators have found that by narrowing the range of possibilities, they have broadened each student’s capacity. Working with sizable chunks of time has other benefits. Involving outside experts and parents becomes more manageable in the scope of a week, as it narrows the scheduling window. Field trips held during Ignite Weeks are also easier to schedule for the same reason. For instance, in a previous Express It project (photography), students spent a day visiting an arts district to take photos. Dedicated off-schedule weeks also allow for grade levels to be mixed, increasing the connection between Grade 7 and 8 students within Futures Academy. Implementation of Ignite Weeks have revealed new lines of inquiry for the teaching team. Should the Ignite Weeks continue be themed by skill, for example, or should concept be emphasized (e.g., “Impact”)? One ongoing subject of debate is the degree of facilitator guidance in the project offerings; to what extent should students have space to pursue interests versus scaffolded skill building? Shifting to a week-long experience format has allowed Futures Academy students to design their own projects, discover new interests, and level up in a skill area. Educators grappling with similar challenges in delivering passion project time should consider the idea of chunking time as a potential solution. Kelsey Giroux is the Program Coordinator for The International School of Beijing’s Futures Academy.

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