Setting Off the “Light Bulbs:” A Collaborative Two-Week Mini-Mester

By Shannon Eagan, Langley Middle School Social Studies Teacher

When offered the opportunity to engage our eighth-graders in a two-week, cross-curricular program requiring working with my amazing colleagues and incorporating field trips, outside speakers, math, art, technology, engineering, writing, and my specific discipline, social studies, my answer was a resounding “yes!” In my four years at Langley, one of a multitude of favorite aspects about the community here is the connectedness between the faculty and our collaborative efforts. It is all in the tireless endeavor to have each student achieve that proverbial “light bulb” moment. These moments happen when their excitement about learning consumes their conversations at home, in the lunchroom, and at recess. It seems to occur suddenly and independently the moment that they make powerful and intricate connections between a To Kill a Mockingbird quote and the persecution of the Rohingya peoples. The moment when they connect the study of genetic mutations and the need for design thinking. It is both exhilarating and motivating to collaborate with colleagues who all have the same vision to “set off the light bulbs!”

So our mission was to develop a two-week “mini-mester” for our eighth-grade students. We discussed how to blend our disciplines, based on increasing academic skills, continuing forward advancement in the curriculum of each class, and using project-based learning to inspire every type of learner: visual, kinesthetic, and auditory.  

The theme for the mini-mester was genocide. Having just completed our study of World War II and the Holocaust, we asked students to consider other horrific acts of genocide, both historic and current. Their goal was then to create a physical 3-D memorial in remembrance of a specific genocide. We researched memorials and the role of symbolism. The students incorporated algebra and geometry skills through the use of scale, developing blueprints and designing stained-glass windows. They researched and wrote about these tragedies, as well as answered the question, “what is essential in a memorial?” We walked the monuments on the National Mall and participated in a simulation about refugees at the U.S. State Department. We even had a speaker from the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation, the federal agency that advises the President and Congress on national historic preservation policy.  

The final presentations brought literal chills, and in some cases even tears, from the adults and younger Middle School students who attended. Below are the reflections from several of our eighth-graders about participating in this two-week experience.


Our Monument Creation Process: From Contemplation to Masterpiece
By Katherine P., Langley Eighth-Grader

Syria Genocide MonumentThroughout the eighth-grade mini-mester, many aspects of art were incorporated. First, we read about and watched videos of famous structures in our world today. Through this, we were able to begin developing a sense of what we wanted our monument to look like and what aspects we wanted to incorporate into it. For example, we read about the symbolism incorporated into the Rose Window at Washington National Cathedral. Reading about this, we were able to contemplate whether or not we wanted to incorporate symbolism into our monument and how.

Another aspect of inspiration that we were given was the chance to visit the Hirshhorn Museum. There, we were able to admire beautiful pieces of art and symbolic sculptures to continue helping us through the process of what to include in our art piece. We also were able to explore what types of materials we wanted our monument to have. For example, some monuments use granite or stone, and so we needed to figure out which one would best connect to our genocide and also figure out a way to make our materials look like that material.

Lastly, we came to the part where we actually had to build the monuments. We were provided with many foam materials (foam balls, foam core, foam boards, etc.), hot glue guns, spray paint, regular paint, metal wires, plus anything else that we needed. We were given a few days to come up with an idea of what to build and then to build it. First, groups had to brainstorm what they wanted the monument to represent, whether it was the soldiers, the children, the teachers, etc. Then, groups had to ponder over what dimensions to make the monument, and then create a blueprint of it as part of the math component. We could use any materials provided to create a masterpiece that represented our assigned genocides. We were also given open-ended instructions on what to do, giving us freedom to basically create anything that we dreamed of. At some points it was definitely complete chaos. However, in the end, groups produced beautiful works of art that they had spent hours upon hours creating.

 

Teacher Collaboration and Innovation Sparks the “Light Bulb”
By Mark E., Langley Eighth-Grader

Republic of Congo GenocideIn my opinion, the eighth-grade teachers and people who organized the mini-mester knocked it out of the park. The mini-mester was unlike any project I have done in eighth grade at Langley. It was a mix of academic learning in different subjects and team-building.

During the mini-mester, we were asked to learn about a specific genocide, either historic or ongoing. The genocide assigned to my group took place in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Before this project, I had no idea about this genocide and thought it was going to be a struggle to find interesting details. It turned out to be the complete opposite. For instance, I had no idea that child soldiers, kids my own age and younger, were being recruited into armies. Also, I learned a lot about myself. I worked with my group to put together a presentation of our historical research, a math project using algebra to create a stained-glass representation, and a monument dedicated to the genocide. I surprised myself with how much confidence, knowledge, and empathy I gained during the mini-mester. In my opinion, the teachers and organizers of this year’s mini-mester did an amazing job and I will never forget this experience.

 

Unexpected Interdisciplinary Connections Spur Academic Growth
By Courtney W., Langley Eighth-Grader

Republic of Congo Genocide MonumentThe eighth-grade mini-mester was not only a perfect opportunity to expand our knowledge on certain subjects, but also to connect the curriculums of multiple classes. Over the course of the mini-mester, there were opportunities and activities, such as field trips, geared toward certain classes. For example, the Holocaust Museum directly related to social studies while the Hirshhorn Museum related to art. During the beginning of the two-week period, when we were going on field trips, it was hard to see how everything was related. However, during the second week of the mini-mester, our main overarching project was proposed. We were required to construct a memorial/monument in honor of a genocide that we were assigned. Then, everything fell into place and we were able to create projects that encompassed what we had learned in several different classes.

Before we were able to begin constructing the monuments, we needed to conduct background research on our genocides in order to get a better understanding. The genocide research was the social studies aspect of the project. Once we did the research, we needed to plan out our memorials. In order to create realistic model memorials, they would need to be proportionally correct to a full-scale model. To complete this, we used scale factors during the creation of the blueprints. To add to the later presentation boards, algebra students were required to create stained-glass pieces to represent their genocide using their knowledge of linear equations. The scale blueprint, along with the linear stained-glass pieces, was where math was incorporated into the project. To make the memorials, we used various materials. Spray paint, foam board, wire, and felt were just a few of the mediums used. The constructing and designing was the art-related portion of the project. Overall, the mini-mester allowed us to combine our skills in many areas to make informational, yet extremely creative, projects.

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