“I think, therefore I am,” or The Age of Independence

We’re going to make a pop star out of Rene Descartes.  Let me see if this makes sense.

I work at an Outward Bound Expeditionary Learning school, where we plan in grade-level teams in an effort to provide students with a unified interdisciplinary learning experience, called an Expedition.  We’ve informally deemed our school a kindergartener; after five years, a lot of the pieces are in place, and now we’ve got to refine their implementation.  On the 11th grade team, for which I am the math specialist (teacher), we don’t yet have an established Expedition that we revisit year after year.  This is my second year on the team, my three colleagues are moving in from other grade levels, and students will be taking Global History rather than U.S. like last year’s juniors, so we’re rethinking themes.

Yesterday was our first brainstorming session since June.  We each brought lots of curriculum ideas to the table, and were now confronted with the task of mining for connections.  Informed by a sprinkling of other concerns – Common Core Standards (another post.  soon.), a school-wide initiative to increase our culture of literacy, especially in expressing an supporting an argument, and awareness that the rubber really hits the road for juniors to think about getting into college – we spent a little while throwing ideas onto a nice summer-clean chalkboard.  Allow me to do a little synthesis.

Cast of characters: Tara (11th grade science), Erika (11th grade global history), Daniel (11th grade ELA)

Tara connected her water quality unit to Erika’s river valley civilizations theme to start the year.  Clean.  EL calls it an Investigation.  Daniel connected his idea for an opinion piece about the proposed lower-Manhattan Muslim community center to Erika’s next unit about belief systems, cultural and intellectual life.  I shared with Tara an interest in data representation (have you seen the David McCandless talk?).  Daniel and Tara pointed out their shared focus on discipline-specific argument-building, whether it’s a lab report, an opinion paper, or as Erika and I added, a historical perspective, a debate, or a mathematical proof.  Erika reiterated a point from June that we can look at how different civilizations contributed different mathematical ideas to human knowledge, and we all started talking about self-knowledge and independent thought and how this is a huge year for 11th graders.  Then someone blurted out our probably accurate English translation of “cogito ergo sum,” and we got to talking about Descartes.  My teammates were thrilled to find out the he invented the coordinate plane (hooray for the history of data visualization!), and next thing we knew, we were calling our Fall 2010 Expedition “I think, therefore I am: The Age of Independence,” and talking about how to make t-shirts that can bring sexy back to old philosophers.

And I guess that’s where we’re at.  I know I missed some things, but that’s the gist.  It’s a joy to engage in this creative process with coworkers and fill with anticipation for implementing it – from pie in the sky to daily plans to the conversations that I’ll be having with kids in just a few weeks!

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