One of the many roles a teacher performs can be likened to an expedition leader. Teachers lead their students on a journey of discovery that expands their understanding of the world around them and prepares them to be more knowledgeable, curious, maybe even more empathetic world citizens.
Seventh-grade social studies teachers Beth Stofflet and Larry Moberly wanted to take their 250 kids to dozens of African nations — but since that wasn’t possible, they took them there virtually with a Field Day tool called ARIS. Beth and Larry wanted their students to understand the complexity behind many social, ecological and economic issues impacting the African continent. They asked their students to investigate issues like gold mining, education, or the ivory trade. The goal, Larry said, was that the students would dig in deeper for solutions, beyond a “simplistic 12-year-old’s view of the world.”
Each team of students chose from a list of social issues in Africa, imagined a real person facing that issue, and then told that person’s story through ARIS. With ARIS, they created interactive stories that their classmates got to play.
Caleb discovered that children work in gold mines instead of attending school. “They use mercury with their bare hands. Some of them die from poisoning,” he said. “People have very poor working conditions, working twelve hour days and only making $4 a week.” In his ARIS story, you play a merchant, who needs to balance profitability with compassion for the miners.
“My favorite part was creating the conversations between the characters I created,” Caleb said. “This is the first story I’ve written!”
Another student put a face on HIV/AIDS in South Africa by telling the story of a child born with the virus. The narrator of her story is the child’s foster mother, who cared for the child’s mother on her deathbed.
This wasn’t the first year Beth and Larry had their students do research on Africa. Previously, both the topics and the resources were pre-selected by the teachers, and students created presentations to share what they learned. Larry and Beth created the emotional hooks to get the students invested in the issues. But this year, the students became invested all on their own as they dug into the issues. Larry and Beth introduced them to ARIS and storytelling as a new way to represent their research.
The project integrated a wide variety of skills. Students researched their issues, chose an angle to tell the story, searched for images, wrote the narration and dialog, and entered all of this into ARIS. Larry was pleased with the way students learned the goals set out for the unit. “We did a lot less leading their way down the path,” Larry said. “They dug into their topics and had multi-level conversations in their groups. They discussed their research, dissected data. They talked about how to tell a story in an interesting way and how to balance a limited number of words with a good picture.”
“Because the kids did the work, it resonates with them. What they learned will stick with them longer,” he said. “These are the kinds of projects and big issues we want twelve year olds dealing with. Parents shared with me that their kids were having ongoing conversations with them about the world.”
Instead of being tourists on a trail, the students themselves became expedition leaders. Not only were they in control of the direction of their project, but they also started seeing themselves as teachers. Their ARIS stories had to be ready for a real audience to experience and play them.
Caleb said he enjoyed using ARIS because “you get to teach AND learn. It’s a fun way to learn!”
Lexi liked comparing notes with her teammates. “It’s fun. You learn a lot more this way,” she said.
“You make a partnership and bounce ideas off each other,” said her teammate, Hailey.
Aysha couldn’t wait to share what she learned about malaria, a topic she became very passionate about. “I donated money to send a mosquito net to a family. I saved three lives!” she exclaimed.
Larry’s favorite moment was when the kids took control of the project. “They stopped asking me, ‘Is this good? Is this what you want?’ Instead, they showed me what they had finished, they were discussing things together, troubleshooting together. I just sat back and reminded them of due dates. They didn’t even need me!”
Beth also saw her students reaching out to help each other. “As experts [in using the ARIS software] emerged…, those students were more than willing to help their classmates and share what they learned.”
A couple students became known in their class as “girl coders.” One day, the two girls were sitting on their table with three groups of boys sitting around them. They were explaining how the boys could solve their coding problems.
“Virtually every kid and ability could latch on and bring what they have to the table,” Larry said. “It was obvious within a couple days that this tool would have a lot of cool implications for the classroom. In a way, it replaced a different method of teaching.”
Ninety-six percent of the 250 students recommended using ARIS for next year’s crop of seventh graders. And both Larry and Beth agree it helped them achieve their end goals, and would recommend other teachers try using ARIS for a class project.
“Design a project that allows enough time and challenge so the students have to figure it out,” Larry suggested. “Be able to dedicate about a month to the process. I know that’s gigantic, but we wouldn’t have seen the mastery, depth, and ownership of the project it it had only lasted two weeks.”
Beth noted how it was important to strike “the right balance of help and reassurance, while encouraging students to figure it out on their own.” This balance differed for each student. She said, “be prepared for some messy, chaotic, but genuine learning.”
And in the end, isn’t that what we want? — genuine learning!