Cassie Plathan and Chloe Wiesenthal rented lovely deep-red period dresses for last week’s presentation of their project titled “Women in the Industrial Revolution” at Don Ross Secondary School (DRSS).
They also made bread and butter from scratch, in the style of the early 19th century, and put together message boards with historic photos of working women and information about working conditions, the wages of men vs. women during that era, fashion and the birth of the women’s rights movement.
“Before the Industrial Revolution, women were mostly housewives, and that’s when they wanted to start having jobs and be more equal,” Wiesenthal said. “However, they faced tough working conditions and got paid half as much as men.”
The two Grade 9 students’ project was one of dozens presented at an open house last Wednesday (Feb. 13) at the school. There were displays of scale-model wooden weaponry used during the Middle Ages, a fully scripted dramatic video presentation about child labour during the Industrial Revolution, message boards and photos dealing with medieval medicines and even a scale-sized diorama with a textile factory and coal mine, connected by a miniature railway meant to mimic the steam-powered behemoths of the day.
The projects were the end result of a week’s worth of work on the part of Grade 8 and 9 students at the school — the entire student body, in fact. During the week of Jan. 28 to Feb. 1, regular classes were suspended and the students were asked to form teams of one to four to work on their projects.
Since the B.C. social studies curriculum for Grade 8 includes a focus on the Middle Ages, that was chosen as the focus for the Grade 8 students’ projects. The Grade 9s’ focus was to be on the Industrial Revolution, Principal Nick Pascuzzi said.
Beyond that, it was up to the students to decide on their projects’ focus area, what sorts of media or materials to use in the presentation of their chosen topics and even which members of each group were to work on the various aspects of the project.
“The students prior to the week had to submit a project proposal that they’d work on during the week, and they had the option of working on their own or in a small group of three or four students,” Pascuzzi said.
“Throughout the day the faculty members are there in the various parts of the school and they can monitor and guide [the students] and help them access the materials that they need to get their projects completed.”
The week’s activities were a pilot project for the Sea to Sky School District’s new focus on “project-based” learning that aims to be more collaborative and less teacher-focussed than the traditional educational model, tapping into students’ individual interests to promote deeper understanding of the material and ultimately, better outcomes. District 48 is in the process of formulating a three- to five-year Strategic Plan that includes a focus on the “project-” or “inquiry-based” learning approach.
The DRSS initiative arose out of a conversation DRSS vice-principal Robyn Ross and fellow social studies teacher Dayle Rousseau had about three years ago. It started to coalesce during a teachers’ symposium last August in Whistler, and had been in the planning stages since the start of the school year.
All of the school’s 23 full-time and part-time teaching staff, along with support workers, were involved in the initiative’s planning and execution, Pazcuzzi said. While there have been similar collaborative work in individual classrooms at the school, this was DRSS’s first such initiative to go school-wide, he said.
“To do something of this broad a scope, it really takes a full team effort on the part of our staff,” he said.
Even though the subject-matter was part of the social studies curriculum, the initiative’s execution ran very much across disciplines, with elements of science, technology, arts and crafts and even vocational skills such as woodworking brought in by the different student groups, Ross said.
Teachers, who were each assigned to oversee a number of groups, served more as advisors and facilitators, helping students focus their topics and pull their projects together.
“I think it took [the students] a day to really believe that they got to choose and that they had control of how their day was going to look,” Ross said. “I don’t think they could fully comprehend how this was going to happen for them. But by the second day the school was just a buzz of activity — kids would be showing up with bags of things and bits of wood.
“Really, the whole thing was about cooperating, making connections, problem-solving. It was great.”
“The teachers’ biggest job was just to make sure we stayed on track,” said Grade 9 student Hayden McLellan, standing in front of the textile-factory/coal mining diorama created by he and teammates Leighton Tower, Liam Casey and Rajan Gill.
“It was a great learning curve for me and the other guys to be able to put it all together. It was fun.”
Pascuzzi said students and teachers will be surveyed for their input into how the weeklong initiative can be improved in the future.
“Research tells us clearly that students learn best when they’re motivated, and the key to motivation is to make the learning relevant to students. One key component of this is to have students have some input into the direction that the learning takes,” he said.
“Inquiry-based learning really gives us a framework to do that and for students to have some choice in the learning process.”