Posts Tagged Deb Christenson

“Shark Tank” Wildwood Style

The stakes are very high the day I visit Deb Christenson’s Modern U.S. History class. Seven groups of students will present ideas for a start-up to a panel of Wildwood teachers and administrators—including me. Judging each plan based on a presentation, we’ll decide which student-led start-up has the greatest potential for financial success. We’re also here to make money—risking our own wealth as potential investors in the next billion-dollar business idea.

Sounds like Shark Tank, the trending TV reality show. But, it’s really the culminating event in a project, combining a study of U.S. economic history, entrepreneurship, and design thinking. (So, while our wealth isn’t real, we ‘sharks’ are here to lend authenticity to the proceedings.)

Owen L. and Benji M. make their pitch for Pythagoras Computing

Owen L. and Benji M. make their pitch for Pythagoras Computing

Each student group pitches their idea for a novel product or service. Maddy G. and Abby L. unveil Equilibrus—a start-up that synthesizes the ‘buy one, give one’ model of Tom’s Shoes with an online book store, donating books to a local public school for every title purchased through their service. Sunscreen Sprayers is the brainchild of Georgie M. and Anna R. Their business builds and distributes mobile sunscreen application booths that beachgoers or amusement park visitors use for a small fee, paid for through a smartphone app. Other students promote their visions: an environmentally sustainable restaurant; a mobile phone app to book babysitters; and an urban garden design service, are among the contenders.

At Wildwood and in other U.S. History courses, studying American entrepreneurs is pretty much standard fare. But today at Wildwood, there’s also an emphasis on teaching entrepreneurship—an added value of guiding students in developing their own entrepreneurial skills, to help them learn and lead in our complex, evolving world.

Clementine C. and Thomas E. pitch their start-up, Bird Words

Clementine C. and Thomas E. pitch their start-up, Bird Words

This year, Deb added design thinking to the equation to create the “Shark Tank” project—something new to her own teaching repertoire. Inspired after hearing Stanford Design School professor Tina Selig speak at a conference, Deb became intrigued by the idea of applying Selig’s approach to her Wildwood classroom. Deb read some of Selig’s books, watched her TEDTalks, and synthesized design thinking into a project for her course’s final unit—on the development of the modern U.S. economy.

“I’ve always been interested in designing authentic, performance-based projects for my students,” Deb tells me. “And the “Shark Tank” idea seemed to bring together that interest and design thinking.” So when starting this project, Deb’s students follow the design thinking process—defining a problem that needs solving, considering and creating a variety of solutions, and refining them. To execute their start-up each group spells out some essentials— including a mission statement, along with plans to address marketing, finance, and management.

Some of my fellow 'sharks' listen to pitch presentations

Some of my fellow ‘sharks’ listen to pitch presentations

After the final presentation, my fellow ‘sharks’ and I head to the room next door to deliberate and choose the winning idea.

After a lively debate, we ‘sharks’ agree to award $50K in mock seed money to Benji M. and Owen L. Their start-up idea: Pythagoras Computing. It’s a service that allows scientific researchers to purchase computing power from individuals’ idle laptops and other personal electronic devices—power that would otherwise be wasted. In true Wildwood fashion, Benji and Owen’s classmates congratulate them on hearing the news, with applause and high-fives.

Shark Tank, the TV show, is all about innovation, ideas and investment—the principles of entrepreneurship that Wildwood embraces. What’s more, at Wildwood many student projects pass on the additional value of focusing on social and environmental goals. So welcome to the “Shark Tank” Wildwood-style: Collaboration is competitive.

~ By Steve Barrett, Director of Outreach, Teaching, and Learning



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The Power of Questions

This week’s blog is devoted to a different kind of classroom—the weekly Wildwood middle and upper school faculty development meeting—in which Wildwood teachers share ideas and expand their practice. Our teachers are proud to be learners, and meetings like this give everyone an opportunity to turn the tables and become students for the afternoon. Today Wildwood faculty were learning how to teach students to ask their own questions.

Based on the book, Make Just One Change: Teach Students to Ask Their Own Questions by Dan Rothstein and Luz Santana, the idea seemed simple: Instead of teachers coming up with questions to ask students, Wildwood faculty would learn to facilitate a structured protocol in which students respond to a teacher-generated prompt by coming up with their own questions. Rothstein and Santana call the process the Question Formulation Technique (QFT). In keeping with Wildwood’s progressive philosophy, the QFT is constructivist, which means the learners involved are allowed to construct meaning together that they use for a specific purpose.

In the classroom, students can use the questions they generate for any number of purposes that the teacher decides upon beforehand: as a way to craft topics for research projects and experiments, to construct questions for a Socratic seminar, or even to help their teachers assess what they know and what they don’t.

Middle and Upper School Director of Curriculum, Deb Christenson, and I facilitated the faculty’s practice with the Question Formulation Technique. The QFT typically begins with teachers presenting students with a statement, called a Question Focus, such as “Pollution affects Los Angeles residents” rather than a question, like “How does pollution affect the population of Los Angeles?”  By forming questions in response to the Question Focus, students are able to delve deeper into a subject and come out with a greater ownership of their own learning.

Some Wildwood teachers previously attended a workshop on the QFT and were eager to share their experiences in using the technique with the students. For example, 9th and 10th grade humanities teachers Annie Barnes and Ariane White told their colleagues how the QFT helped students frame their entire unit and project on the late 19th Century industrial period in the U.S.

At the end of the faculty development session, teachers were asked to fill out anonymous exit slips describing what they would take away from the QFT lesson. One teacher noted: “Encouraging students to ask questions generates genuine enthusiasm for a topic and the curiosity needed for further personal exploration.”  Said another, “While I try to get kids to think about how they think, [the QFT] is a handy format to do this in a structured and safe way.”

No doubt more Wildwood middle and upper school students will soon be using the QFT in their classes as one more way to deepen their learning. For in the words of one teacher, “Questions are the source of knowledge.”

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