Some of the most exciting and personal academic work at Moses Brown has emerged from the faculty cohort plan, a professional development and evaluation program. In a year of transformational study, a cohort of veteran teachers sets goals, serves as resources for one another’s evaluations and shares professional development plans at year’s end. At the heart of the program are cohort projects, each teacher’s big idea for personal research to be shared in the classroom. The benefit to students is clear: teachers continuously deepen their expertise, refine their curriculum, and bring the latest research back to the classroom to improve the learning experience.
When Moses Brown School visual art instructor Kristin Street learned she’d be part of the 2014-15 faculty cohort program, the 35-year veteran teacher confessed to “a bit of panic at being in the limelight… would I meet the expectations of my peers, my students, myself?” She realized it was also a golden opportunity to try a new approach. “I like to change things up,” Kristin says, “to experiment with new curricular ideas and gauge how the students will respond.”
Kristin is fascinated by the “maker” movement. “The maker approach is technological and creative,” she explains, “similar to both scientific research and creating art: asking questions that lead to more questions. Students need to identify and solve problems, flex their creative muscles, communicate effectively and think critically. Fortunately, the maker movement draws on the human inclination to learn by doing.”
For her cohort project, she put students at the center of the process. She introduced a new elective, Tinker, Tailor, Maker: “This course will focus on tinkering activities involving Arduino [an open-source electronics platform], electricity, magnetism, force and motion. If you want to take things apart and build art that’s part science, part technology, this is the course for you.”
Students began with cannibalizing toys and creating new ones with the components. The next big project launched from the driving question “How can we incorporate a safety feature into an accessory or garment, using a variety of technologies and materials?” Students chose everything: the product to create, whether to work individually or in teams, how time and work should be allocated, and rubrics to evaluate their progress and collaboration. Kristin says: “I wanted to build in time for failure, contemplation and reflection, with real evaluative touchstones along the way.” One team built a runner’s safety vest with an active signal to warn approaching drivers. They fine-tuned materials and triggers through several prototypes. Students graded themselves and each other collectively, using the rubric they’d created to evaluate teamwork, originality, time management and artistic merit. “I really kept quiet,” Kristin laughs, “and they were brutal in their expectations and assessments!”
And how did the students respond to the new approach? Kristin notes that while her older students were comfortable with the idea of iteration, younger students were frustrated that success didn’t come in the first round. Broadly speaking, she also felt that students with lots of arts experience were more willing to tinker than those who identify more with science and math. “Experimentation has always been an inherent part of working in an arts classroom,” Kristin says. “Trial and error is not a process that is comfortable for many of our students. We try to encourage them to embrace failure as valuable, even a requirement for success.”