Of Mounds, Odyssies, Dominancies, and NECAPs

This was a big week here at LiHigh School LTI. If you’re not familiar, the structure of our school day sees the students participating in a Socratic Seminar each morning, followed by several hours of independent-work time, when the students split off to make progress on the individual projects they’ve conceived over the past several weeks. We’re currently focusing the Socratic Seminars on the subject of the Americas before Columbus.

Which means, for the past ten days or so, the students have been reading selections from 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus, by Charles C. Mann, and watching episodes of 500 Nations, an eight-part series produced by the Discovery Channel and hosted by Kevin Costner (the series aired around the release of Costner’s award-winning film, Dances with Wolves).

Along with reading and watching, the students had to complete research on four major “cities” created hundreds (or sometimes thousands) of years before the arrival of Columbus. On Monday, the students presented the results of their research, and it was fascinating to watch as the veil of misinformation propagated by the mainstream media’s mythology of Indians fell away from their eyes.

Monk’s Mound

One of the “cities” the students presented on was the Cahokia Mounds in Illinois, the largest earthen-construction site north of the Rio Grande. On Wednesday, the students focused on the largest example of the Cahokia Mounds, a site called Monk’s Mound, which has a base comparable to the Great Pyramid of Giza and which was built by basket-carried soil and clay. With the knowledge that the mound took roughly 200 years to complete, the students had to estimate how many work hours the Mississippian Culture probably invested in the site, and then compare those hours to the modern cost of labor (using Vermont’s minimum wage) to estimate the civics-work project in today’s dollars.

Strangely enough, the students seemed jazzed about the problem, and while it took a while for them to figure out the formulas they wanted to work with, the energy in our classroom was off the charts!

One of the reasons for all the excitement was that, earlier in the week, we presented the students with the option of participating in Odyssey of the Mind, which will help develop their Quantitative and Empirical Reasoning skills. Odyssey of the Mind is a team-based, problem-solving competition, and one of the rules of the competition is that the adult coaches cannot actively help the students solve their particular problems. So for the Mound problem described above, I presented it to them, then stepped back and let them work. If the co-operation they displayed on Wednesday is any clue, they’ll do great in the Odyssey competition.

On Thursdays, the Socratic Seminar is “Book Club” day, when all of the students meet to discuss the various books they’re reading. Because this week was a transition from the completion of their first book (each student had to read a biography, autobiography, or memoir) to the selection of their second book (a work of historical fiction), we co-opted the majority of the Book Club time to investigate each student’s “dominancies.”

In a workshop led by our Co-Director, Zohara Zarfati, the students learned about their various learning styles by testing their dominancies: is one hand preferred over the other, one leg over the other, one eye over the other, one ear over the other, and one hemisphere of their brain over the other? Using me as a guinea pig, the students learned the various tests for each aspect, then worked together to discover their own set of dominancies.

The result of the testing provided each student with a specific profile that offers a description of how they learn and how they react to stress, along with some coping mechanisms to help them alleviate that stress. One benefit of the testing is that the students now understand how they learn, and when they become frustrated or stressed about working on a particular lesson, they’ll now have the skills to help them overcome those obstacles, including the ability to tell me how to help them through the situation.

And they learned these things not a whit too soon! Because for the rest of the day on Thursday, the students completed their second session of the state’s NECAP testing. NECAP stands for the New England Common Assessment Program, and it’s an assessment program developed by Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, and Rhode Island to help the states meet the requirements of the No Child Left Behind Act. The NECAP took place over six 90-minute sessions (two Thursdays at LiHigh School LTI), with two sessions each for Writing, Reading, and Mathematics.

While few students actually enjoy the NECAPs, it’s probably safe to say that the student body of LiHigh School LTI responds to standardized testing with more stress than the usual student, especially when you consider that our students have decided to come to a school where testing (in the traditional sense) is non-existent. But the NECAPs are required for all junior-level students, no matter how alternative their schooling, and so, like good citizens of Vermont’s educational community, our students completed it as well.

To make matters even more frustrating, two of our students also completed the PSATs last Saturday, which means that they endured three different days of standardized testing over the past week — no fun for anyone.

But the standardized testing stood in stark contrast to the last thing that each student completed this week, namely their project proposals for their independent projects. The students had to write formal proposals of the projects they’d like to work on for the next several weeks, connecting their projects to each of the school’s learning goals, summarizing the resources they’ll use to complete the project, determining the quality standard by which the projects should be assessed, and setting deadlines for the various stages of the project. If there’s anything to help them overcome the dreariness of filling in bubbles in an “answer booklet,” it’s organizing and preparing a project that speaks directly to your passions.

And with those proposals now in the books, the students can hit the ground running! Next week, they’ll start making forward motion on each of those projects. They’ll also begin the process of setting up their first internship of the year…which is something I’ll talk more about next week.

Until then, thanks for checking in with us, and hopefully we’ll hear from you soon!