The entire concept of this project began with an idea to supplement other projects using aerial photography. How can the fifth-graders, the leaders of our school, support other classes and promote the unique learning that goes on in every grade on campus? This quickly morphed into high altitude photography and ultimately high altitude ballooning and a standalone project involving researching and launching a weather balloon.
"I'll Learn With You."
As the project was introduced, the educator at the helm had to let go of much of the control we all hold so dear. Instead, he committed to learning with his students, thus creating an atmosphere of ownership among the children and a culture of partnership in the classroom. This, however, made planning all but impossible, and the project quickly became an onion, with each layer exposing more necessary research, budgetary, or legal issues in need of solutions.
Reframing the Why.
Determining launch day is a project unto itself. Weather patterns and jet stream forecasts take even more control away from the teacher and ideal conditions become less than predictable as launch windows are limited to roughly two days. As the first class waited for their window, tragedy struck. Arguably the most innovative and inventive student died suddenly, and his parents requested the balloon be launched following his funeral. This project, the onion with all its layers, suddenly became something much more significant. The name was changed to JoJo I (after Josiah), and a successful launch became a way to focus our energy and support each other. It also poised his class to actively grieve. This focus and example, set by those in which we support every day, changed the way we look at our students. No longer were we doing all of this for them, we were standing in awe of them.
JoJo II, III, IV, V...
Each year the project has taken on new aspects. We've expanded from basic research and engineering to implement teams and connect with our community through sponsorships and launch day events. Our recovery team students now track and chase the balloon in real time, spotting the payload and handling something just returned from the edge of space. It is project-based learning in the truest sense, as students conceptualize goals prior to beginning research, design experiments prior to building prototypes, create safety plans prior to releasing the balloon, and market the entire project prior to welcoming the public for launch day festivities. It is all encompassing and an experience worthy of the risk. Further, this project has given our school a chance to address difficult topics like loss and social-emotional learning, helping students identify their emotions and embrace the inevitable flow of feelings throughout days and life. The risk of failure is ever-present and students learn to embrace this risk and turn anxiety into excitement. As one student put it while waiting for a break in unpredicted thunderstorms this year, 'We've never launched in the rain before, but we are today. It might go wrong but we might see something totally new, so let's see what happens!' This is a day we look up, all of us, and focus our thoughts and energy on a single target. It is an incredible mindfulness opportunity and one of the signature days on our school calendar.
Creating a Culture
A supportive culture of possibility is at the core of all innovative teaching and learning. For any program to take root and achieve its full potential, the soil must be rich. Otherwise, innovative lessons are left at the door of an individual classroom.
Such a purposeful school culture allows students and teachers to experiment and explore in an effort to fail forward, where mistakes and missteps are inevitable but reflection and upcycling of an idea is expected. A teacher evolves into a mentor, facilitator and fellow learner with the autonomy to create engaging and resonant learning experiences.
Creating such an environment requires leaders to think differently about student and teacher learning. "If you believe that all kids are capable, then you would build environments that really worked hard to sustain engagement and nurture potential," suggests Todd Rose, author of The End of Average. To nurture this environment the school leader also becomes a mentor and fellow learner.
Always curious to learn more and do better, the school leadership must be willing to ask a few simple questions... why? ... couldn't we at least...? how can I support you?
It is this culture that led to this project, and one that has allowed the spread of such practices to each classroom within the school. Now our third graders partner with our local zoo to enhance animal habitats, our fourth graders develop interpretive dances to capture the emotions of the Underground Railroad, and our preschoolers visit the world virtually to learn of cultures far from their own.