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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

School Of The Future

Grades 6-8 | New York City, NY

Thinking Big About Engagement

Even the smallest things, like the living cell, become big enough to grasp in Rob Olazagasti's middle school science class, where he enables students to learn by creating, remember by experiencing, and show what they know by teaching.

Thinking Big About Engagement (Transcript)

Rob Olazagasti: Having to learn about something so abstract and complicated as the cell, being the smallest unit of life, you know, I sorta wanted to make it larger than life. So we literally went big. We went really, really big in creating this giant cell model, just to obviously give them an experience to remember--

My name is Rob Olazagasti, sixth grade science teacher, School of the Future.

Student 1: How do you think the lysosomes digests like-- destroys bad bacteria, basically?

Rob Olazagasti: A big part of this project was having them act as a teacher and I wanted them to have a setting in which they could teach from. So, you know, we created this giant, plastic cube, which we modeled after a cell, with their different cell organo models in there. And it's something that they definitely never forget.

Student 1: Anybody else?

Dainy Tejada: It's awesome to have my class inside the giant cell, because it's a better understanding of the cell. Like it's actually an experiment. Like we get to be there. We don't just write and read about it. We get to experience that live giant cell.

Rob Olazagasti: You're right.

Stacy Goldstein: The artistic sense of the way that he approaches science is really unique, and kids really take to that. And Rob's definitely a great example of somebody who's had to-- he's always had creative projects, always had really hands on science.

Dainy Tejada: When you create something, you also learn.

Rob Olazagasti: The kids have been learning about the living cell. We started off our studies with an analogy, using something that's very common to them, something that they all obviously understand, New York City. Looking at how New York City can be structured as a cell. So they represented various organelles as metaphor, using different parts of the city. So for example, they have the subway system being representative of the rough endoplasm reticulum. The nucleus being City Hall and the Mayor. So they took the creative approach to learning about the cell parts. So taking the different working parts of New York City and applying them to a cell model allows them to understand the structures and the functions better. So as that project was sort of on its tail end, the kids then became experts on one specific part of the city, or one specific part of the cell itself and one specific organelle. So they researched, developed lesson plans and created models that they were to use to teach their students about the organelles that they had created. They were required to have sort of a structured lesson plan with a driving question and an objective, some sort of task that the students would be doing, and then some sort of assessment at the end.

And the jump start.

This project specifically, I tried taking a step back from, you know, sort of the teacher role and really helping my students develop their own voice as teachers.

Dainy Tejada: I kinda like it a lot, 'cause I like to teach people but it also feels amazing inside, like that you have experience to be a teacher.

Student 2: All right, so for the driving question, how do lysosomes protect the living cell? Daina?

Rob Olazagasti: They understand what it takes to be a teacher, and what it is like to plan a lesson, what it's like to execute a lesson. But also, I think, more importantly for them, it builds their confidence in the content. Having to know what you're doing before you teach it really makes a difference. So during their presentations, I was assessing their overall presentation, their confidence and their comfort with presenting the lesson, and then the content itself, how well they were hitting the facts that they needed to hit, how well they were expressing what we talked about in our individual conferences with those groups, how well they expressed that or presented that to their students. Also, their creativity and their effort. I was sort of keeping a running record throughout their lesson of things that they said, things that they did, and suggestions on how they could improve for the next time. So at the end of this, I'll have sort of a sit down with them again to talk to them about the different elements of their lesson, from my notes and from my experience with observing.

Stacy Goldstein: People love Rob and love his class. To have such an intellectual environment, he doesn't baby down science words. He uses sophisticated vocabulary in his class. He talks to them like scientists, talks to them very seriously.

Rob Olazagasti: So why did I go back and disagree that it would be in a plant cell?

When you can change it up, make it your own, you know, really make it personalized for the kids, it comes from the heart. It's no longer, you know, teaching curriculum from the book. It becomes, you know, curriculum from the heart.

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This installment of Schools That Work was produced in collaboration with The Digital Learning Group.

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Candace Hackett Shively's picture
Candace Hackett Shively
Lifelong teacher and ed tech person. Creativity is my passion.

MY favorite aspects of this:
1.The big analogy of New York as a cell-- an analogy they will not forget and that automatically pushes kids to abstract thinking through analogy.
2. The visual approach to building artistic models. It will draw in kids who may be more visual thinkers and who might not have otherwise become fired up about science.
3. "Show what you know." Half of my mantra as a teacher. The other half; "What do YOU think?"

I'd love to teach next door to this class!

Dylan Robertson's picture

Obviously kid engagement was really high, but a couple questions:

- Jigsaws (becoming an expert and then teaching the rest) always have to pass the test of whether each student developed a deep understanding of the whole and how the parts interact. Most of the time students learn a lot about one part, but since it is isolated knowledge it doesn't transfer to a deep understanding of the whole. Would like to see if that was addressed in some way, aside from the initial analogy.

- Did the kids get a deep understanding of the function of cells in the body? Understanding the specifics of cells without some basic understanding of cellular respiration (breaking up glucose to make energy) and the transport of glucose, O2 and Co2 by the blood is probably not creating coherent big picture understanding of how cells work in the body. I teach 6th grade science, body systems, and that is what we aim at getting to.

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