Applying our knowledge

As we round the circle at the end of our Constitution unit the room is buzzing with energy. Students are out of their seats, holding their laptops like busy waiters during dinner service while chatting away to their peers on zoom, and pulling through the junk drawer of creative supplies.

The time to put all of their knowledge is now and they are exploding with ideas.

This unit was about exploring the Constitution. Although I am always crazed with energy and excitement to jump into primary sources, my 8th grade students lack the same feelings.

As outlined in this post students created self-organizing teams that competed against each other to sketch-note the U.S. Constitution. Their goal was to understand the functioning of the Constitution enough to create a game based on our founding document. Along the way they had to brainstorm game ideas, learning how to prototype, test and collect data. They also had to explore the meaning of every article, section and clause. This was a Herculean task, but one they readily jumped into.

Once all of the sketch noting was completed, the competitions were tallied, and the group discussions clarified the difficult parts and learning was done the application process was finally ready to begin. Throughout the process students were brainstorming game ideas, bouncing ideas off one another and building on games that they thought would be engaging. Their brains are buzzing with creativity and invention.

Students are creating online games, field games and board games. Some are playing through the process of how cases make their way to the Supreme Court, while others explore the impeachment process. Currently students are testing their idea of pairing musical chairs with getting bills through committee. The ideas are endless, and as they prototype and test they are bringing their ideas into the real world.

These are not just normal games though. The design process is pushed by their Celebration criteria and rubric. While there are normal categories of game design that they must keep track of like design, goal, engagement, and components students must be make sure they are showing mastering of knowledge. Their games must show two of the six big ideas that were taught in the beginning of the unit. They must also show at least one government system within their game. These are their non-negotiables. The real meat of the unit. Competition is engaging, game design is building usable skill, deeply understanding how your government functions is a necessity.

Although the students had to read and sketch note the entire U.S. Constitution it is not important to me that they can recite Article 1 Section 2, Clause 3. This is easily googleable and not relatable to their current lives. Knowing how your government actually functions is the important part.

Memorization is a waste of our time. Application is what matters.

If students can understand how systems work together and the driving ideas behind the functions of the government it will be easier for them to apply their knowledge to real world events and that is the ultimate goal. Can students read the news and understand what is going on? Do they know when a president is overstepping their authority? The powers of Congress and the role of the Supreme Court? Do they understand the process of nominating a Supreme Court Justice, or how budgets are created?

These are the real issues that sadly most adults cannot discuss in detail. While no one expects middle school students to be Constitutional scholar, I am not one myself, it is not unreasonable to expect that they can apply the knowledge they have learned in this class to the events in the news.

This brings us back to game design. By making the main point of the assessment systems and big ideas students are forced out the grind of superficial learning and forced to dig into the ideas. They have to really understand how the government functions to break it down into steps, make it engaging and interesting to players. They cannot excel in this project while googling trivia questions, or playing shoots and ladders with basic quizlet questions. Superficial learning is not welcome here and will not be demonstrated through their sprint.

Understanding that government is a series of systems working together to distribute tasks and power is essential. The Six Big Ideas; Federalism, Limited Government, Republicanism, Separation of Power, Checks and Balances, and Popular Sovereignty are the driving ideas behind the Constitution. These are my fundamental learning goals of this unit. While students complete traditional school tasks to gain foundational learning, students must break down and apply their knowledge. Our competition days ensured that all students could synthesize the information from the original text to a completely unexpected medium. We held large and small group discussions clarifying the difficult to understand language and concepts. Why and How questions were formulated and thoughtfully answered. They are not just creating a game but exploring the foundations of the government driven by their own inquiry.

Game day is soon approaching. The students are finalizing decisions and tweaking their games based on their prototype data. It is an exciting time in this 8th grade middle school hybrid classroom. All students are collaborating, communicating and buzzing. Real learning is happening.

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