It’s the winter of 2006 and High Tech High International has gone from being a high school to a crime scene within a matter of hours. The scene is gruesome. Bodies lie at odd angles on the stage and under the stairwell in the central commons. Blood is spattered everywhere. The atmosphere is grim, eerie even, as the would-be jurors are led in through the main doors. This isn’t the traditional procedure for a trial, but then, this was no traditional crime.
Dark footprints lead the way up the stairs and back through the dimly-lit corridors of the building. One by one, the jurors enter the room. There is talking, but it is soft, hushed. No one in attendance knows what to expect upon entering the makeshift courtroom.
“Welcome, ladies and gentlemen,” the lawyer for the prosecution begins, striding forward confidently and making eye contact with the jury. She’s young and self-assured, but the people watching from the audience look unsure of how to react to her composedness. Hasn’t she seen the bodies downstairs? “I want to thank you for coming this evening. Tonight justice will be in your hands, and I trust you will come to agree with me as I prove that the murders that took place downstairs were orchestrated by the man sitting at the table across from me. The man known…as Macbeth!”
No, this is not a real trial. The bodies in the front of the school are made of cloth and stuffing, the jury is composed of parents, and the judges, lawyers, witnesses, and defendants are all students. This play, “The Law & Order Project,” in which both the actors and the audience get to participate, is an exhibition of class work that spanned over several months.
The Law and Order project was the creation of one of HTHI’s tenth grade teaching teams: Ross Roemer and Teresa Chin. The two chose to combine their disciplines of humanities and science for one of the larger, in-depth projects that took place in the 2006-2007 academic year. Projects like these are one of the main cornerstones of High Tech High’s teaching philosophy of project-based learning. In my time at High Tech High International, I have found projects to be some of the most thought-provoking occasions of learning.
What I liked about the Law and Order project was that it was very hands-on, because I learn more when I can literally “grasp” a concept. Forensics, for example, which Teresa taught our class about in preparation for the project, was a science that I understood better by putting into practice. Our class did a chromatography lab to determine which pen out of a selection produced the “mystery ink” on a piece of paper. Having hands-on components to the lesson helped me understand the content and prepared me for my role as a forensic scientist in the play.
Ross was able to take an often tedious task and make it into something engaging. For some students who do not like literature analysis and book reports, having the opportunity to write plays was a refreshing alternative. It allowed for creativity within the bounds of having to still think about what we read.
As a team, Ross and Teresa’s work together for this project was just as important as their work apart. The fact that they laid out the groundwork before starting the project definitely had an impact on its direction and overall success. Students were given a rubric with a list of each component of the project and its due date, assigned individual roles with descriptions of exactly what they entailed, and had specific times set aside to work on the project in class. Ross said it best when I interviewed him about the project: “Set specific deadlines for the students. Don’t just say: You’ve got a project due in three months, go!”
One aspect of the project that I appreciated in particular was how Ross and Teresa handled group work. Group projects are often the most difficult for students who have not had previous experience with them, especially in the ninth and tenth grade years. Our teachers set up the Law and Order project so that it had both individual and group assignments. Individual work included writing the plays, making note cards, reviewing the literature, and memorizing lines. Group work was comfortable in that it was low-key; the labs were done in groups, but labs only took a few days to complete and were not high-pressure but rather investigatory. For the tasks involved with set production, we were split into small, specialized groups based on interest, such as sewing, painting, and building. Because the project was structured in this way, there was less pressure on the individual, making the atmosphere more cooperative than constrained.
The culmination of our work came on exhibition night, at which the scene I described earlier took place. This was when our classes came together to put on our mock trials, presenting what we had learned about forensics, law, and government. We set up crime scenes, presented our arguments, and had the audiences decide the outcome.
When I began to explore what project-based learning meant to me, I sought out the opinions of several teachers for some alternative perspectives. Several of the HTHI teachers I spoke with put strong emphasis on the student “hook” or “buy-in,” stressing student interest as a key ingredient in a project’s success. As Rachel Ching, a tenth grade geometry/chemistry teacher, put it, “I want something where the connection to content is real and authentic. Also something where—maybe not for all the students, but hopefully for some of them—there’s a hook to it. So it could be that they get to work in a dark room, or they get to dunk their head in a bucket. Whatever it is, as long at there’s some hook that’ll get them into the content.”
What was the Law and Order project’s hook? There was something for everyone, but for me it was a “sandwich board.” As a greeter at our culminating event, I wore a large sign around my neck with the words “Ask Me about Macbeth” painted across the front and back. These signs had a bit of a rapport with the class, whose reaction to Ross’ original board (“Ask Me about Ender’s Game”) was a mixture of fascination and amusement. At any other school, wearing a large sign in front of other students might be seen as un-cool, but students were actually asking Ross if they could wear them around campus during lunch. No one seemed to mind having to talk about books; in fact, many of my classmates, myself included, loved having people come up to us and asking questions. It was a hook that kept hooking, getting more people interested in the project as it progressed.
These days, it seems that schools sacrifice student interest for other, seemingly more important priorities. But without any kind of “buy-in,” it seems hardly reasonable to expect a student to learn anything. John Santos, the eleventh grade biology teacher at HTHI, explains this in detail: “It’s a matter of trying to look at how you create a project so that students learn to understand the concept, but also connect that to something bigger. Because if there’s no connection to something bigger, it’s not applicable, and I don’t think there’s that buy-in you want to see with the kids.” He adds, “You look at teaching anybody anything; you’re going to teach the person by involving them. I don’t know why in school we would treat it any other way.”