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Independent Projects & Digital Literacy

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The Meaning of a 'Project'

‘Project’ is one of those words with a meaning that hinges on whether it is used inside or outside of a classroom. In school, its meaning is often limited: a project is an assignment, a task, a piece of work given by a teacher to assess how students apply, illustrate, or supplement their lessons. But when the noun is extracurricular, out-and-about, a project names all kinds of different human undertakings, from constructing a skyscraper to composing a song. It’s how we describe both the raising of a garden in our backyards or balconies - and the raising of awareness in the world that lies beyond. It echoes its etymology - ‘to throw forth’ - and the different ways we use it as a verb: to predict, to send something out into space, to display an image on a screen, to make your voice carry across an audience. When you start a project, you cast an idea into the work of your future. You plan the idea’s trajectory from figment to fact. You dream of where you want it to land. You hope it reaches.

How do young people learn how to take on projects of their own? How do they learn to trust their impulses to imagine and devise - and follow through on these notions? School can play a role - it can give them the building blocks, show them how to play with others, encourage them to try their best. But when we always ask them to work on that writing, that research, that experiment, that problem - students learn to let go of all the other possible pursuits that bubble and burst in their heads while they try to follow our instructions and assignments.

The Exploratory Program

At Sabot at Stony Point - an independent school in Richmond, VA - we designed a program to see what middle schoolers can discover and accomplish when they are given the time and space in school for independent, autonomous, open-swim projects. For several hours each week, students work on something entirely of their own creation and execution. There are art projects, building projects, performance projects, sports projects, research projects, community projects - and projects that either combine so many of these different types or elude all of them so that they are impossible to classify.

We call this program ‘Exploratory’ - or ‘Explo,’ for short - and as educators, we try to make it our weekly time to take a break from leading our subjects and units and classrooms and try to become better "followers" - honing our skills of observation, empathy, and curiosity as we watch our students' projects unfold.

Writing, Technology, and Investigation

Exploratory is not a program specifically designed to incorporate technology. Indeed, it's a fine place for students to emerge from digital immersion and spend hours each week in the woods, the courts, the studio, the easel, the drawing table. Nor is it a program which has the central goal of teaching writing. So why is this a valuable resource for Digital Is?

Because students do use technology in pursuing their independent projects - a lot, and in different ways than we might expect or anticipate when we're at the helm. And they write - in ways that show us the link between writing and independent learning. This resource is a window into how Sabot at Stony Point uses Explo to provide the time and space for students to use digital tools tools in order to design and pursue their projects. It also seeks to show how writing about one's project and learning through digital media supports students in their endeavors. It provides a rare opportunity to see how our students use technology and writing in a space that is neither extracurricular nor the teacher-led classroom.

To learn more about our small school for big change, visit sabotatstonypoint.org.

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