In an effort to provide our students with an exciting day of learning, our middle school team here has created what we call “Discovery Days,” in which we choose an overarching theme and then create a rotating station-based approach to allow students to learn about the issue in a multi-disciplinary style. We have chosen to deliver these lessons during our half-days (eight per year) because they provide students a refreshing break from the routine and give teachers an opportunity to design innovative and imaginative experiences for our students.
In planning Discovery Day, our 65 middle school students are first divided into four or five groups. One of the four middle school teachers chooses the overarching topic and takes the lead in designing various stations that tackle the theme from many angles. We meet as a team to discuss the plans and iron out the details.
When Discovery Day arrives, the lead teacher roams as a supervisor while the others operate the stations. We also enlist the assistance of our specialist teachers (art, music, and learning support) since they don’t have class on our half days. Activities always begin in the auditorium, where students are briefed about the topic; this is also a great opportunity to show introductory videos or conduct interviews with outside sources.
Our recent Discovery Day was entitled “The Water Cycle”; students took a hands-on approach to water issues by visiting the following stations:
1. New Tech Solutions: students learn about different technologies then decide which of them is most effective in improving access to clean water.
2. How to Filter Water: participants create and test a homemade water filter.
3. Groundwater Awareness: students learn that water-related concerns exist everywhere, in developed countries as in the developing world, and focus on the public health crisis caused by lead-laced water in Flint, Michigan (U.S.).
4. Hauling Water: students simulate the experience of hauling water as so many kids in the developing world must do daily. They then use ratios of time:distance to figure out how long it would take them to carry their water from a well to their house.
5. Reports From the Field: students watch a Skype interview with a professional humanitarian worker to learn about her experiences in India and Ethiopia.
There is no limit to potential themes for Discovery Days; schools could design them around current events (e.g., the war in Syria), natural phenomena (e.g., hurricanes), historical events (e.g., World War II), cultural themes (e.g., jazz music or street art). Our team even focused on forensics in our “C.S.I. Schutz” Discovery Day, wherein students used their newly acquired skills of fingerprint analysis, chromatography, and hand-writing analysis to solve a hypothetical crime in which one of the faculty members had stolen some library books. Spoiler: it was our teaching assistant!
There are several reasons this model offers such deep learning potential. First of all, it provides students with a much-needed break from routine, allowing them to experience a new learning format. They get excited knowing that they won’t need to haul their backpack to school and will be able to learn outside of the confines of the traditional classroom. You can see their enthusiasm from the video link posted below. Secondly, this model exemplifies a multidisciplinary approach to knowledge that is such an effective educational strategy.
Though our school does not yet have a fully integrated multidisciplinary curriculum, these Discovery Days give us an opportunity to develop our abilities as teachers to design and implement such lessons. This approach also allows us to capitalize on each teacher’s strengths; for example, if the topic is climate change, the science teacher can explain the science behind greenhouse gases, the social studies teacher can consider the international response, and the language arts teacher can guide students in writing letters to their congressmen, etc. There is also an opportunity to integrate digital tools into this model.
Working off of the same climate change theme, the math teacher could help students analyze climate statistics and guide them in creating infographics to summarize their findings.
Based on the enthusiasm of our students, as well as positive feedback from parents and administrators, we are pushing forward with our Discovery Days. Our next event will feature a Live-Action Role Play (LARP) wherein students will be taking part in kind of a live-action video game based on fantasy world themes of magic, castles, and dragons. Our principals are also hoping to expand the model to the elementary school and high school next year, as teachers and students have become excited about the possibilities after hearing our middle school students rave.
As we as educators look for innovative ways to create meaningful learning experiences for our students, multi-disciplinary approaches such as Discovery Days offer us an excellent opportunity to inject fun into our curricula.
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