Research and Design Lab
The Upper Arlington High School Research and Design lab is a conceptual space to explore, prototype and design innovative approaches to teaching and learning. We began conceptualizing the lab during the 2015-2016 school year and due to a very generous donation from a local family and support from both the Upper Arlington Education Foundation and the Upper Arlington High School PTO, we have been able to invest time and resources into its development during the 2016-2017 school year.
RESEARCH AND DESIGN LAB BLOG
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“My daughter hasn’t stopped talking about this speech for three days.”
On a rainy Sunday evening, when you’re stepping away from your family to “go to work,” as my three-year old son likes to put it, this is the sort of comment that makes your night. When that comment is followed up with “their group met for six hours yesterday to practice,” and “do you want to see the business cards we made?” and “we rushed to get here from a lacrosse tournament in Annapolis,” your teacher-heart tends to skip one, or two, or maybe thirty-five beats.
Thanks to sponsorships from the Krauss Family Fund at the Upper Arlington Community Foundation and the 4J Fund at the Upper Arlington Education Foundation (UA+ED), and soup donations from Sweet Carrot, and Two Caters, 14 Upper Arlington students and 6 Columbus Alternative students had the opportunity to compete in Columbus SOUP’s 15th SOUP, and first ever “teen edition” this past Sunday evening at the Amelita Mirolo Barn in Sunny 95 Park.
Columbus SOUP is a non-profit organization run by 7 volunteers who hold daytime jobs in everything from development director at the Arthritis Foundation, to social media customer service and marketing VP at Chase, to designer at Net Jets, to other marketing, social media or operations management positions at places like Nurtur, The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center and Pursuit. Inspired several years ago by Detroit SOUP, which was, in turn, inspired by Sunday SOUP, a national grassroots effort to crowdfund ideas to solve community problems, this group came together to bring the fun, “scrappy,” community-driven concept to Central Ohio.
Four times a year, they travel around Columbus to a variety of venues, and hold a crowdfunding event where idea ambassadors can present project ideas and gain support. The venue is donated or paid for by a separate sponsor, the food is donated, the raffle items are donated, and the time it takes to organize and put on such an event is donated too.
That means every single dollar goes to the people presenting ideas.
Presenters have tables where they can pass out business cards or pamphlets, where they can collect names and email addresses, where they can network, answer questions and swap ideas, and then, following a few bowls of soup, and 4-5 presentations, attendees, or “SOUPERS” as they are affectionately called, get the chance to walk their green voting spoons (different spoons from the ones they use to eat) over to the voting bins, and choose the idea they like the most. Those spoons are tallied, raffle prizes are drawn, and by the end of the evening, all of the groups find out where they stand.
While Columbus SOUP has had teen presenters before, this is the first SOUP exclusively focused on teen ideas. The timeline for pulling together ideas was the same as it was for other SOUPs, but in the realm of revamping plans and determining how to execute it in the classroom, it felt exceptionally short. Several of us, however, were up for the challenge, and despite being newbies to process, we made every effort to bring ideas to life.
To prepare, public speaking and communications teacher Amanda Fountain, librarian Judy Deal and I worked with Alice Finley from UA+ED to research “problems,” inspire ideas, determine solutions and pull together presentations. Then, we organized a UA SOUP on October 25. There, five student groups had the chance to present their ideas before my public speaking class and two of Mrs. Fountain’s, as well as Mrs. Finley, Mrs. Deal, Mrs. Fountain, a few administrators and myself. We provided feedback, asked questions and voted (with card catalogue cards rather than spoons), and groups had the chance to evaluate their direction, shift their content and make adjustments.
In the end, the two projects that captured the fancy of students (and one of them by a large margin), ended up not being selected by Columbus SOUP to participate in their evening. This led to an interesting discussion about audience. While Columbus SOUP was drawn more to issues like addressing prejudice, promoting life skill development, and supporting mentorship programs, the UA students in attendance took to ideas that addressed our student parking lot challenges and a forum where teens could review and discuss local businesses. Those ideas certainly had merit and the students who presented them did a fantastic job coming up with solutions, but the Columbus SOUP team felt their event was not the right fit for funding those types of endeavors.
This experience gave students an authentic opportunity to evaluate audience and purpose. Sometimes it doesn’t matter how well-researched, well-written, well-thought out or well-presented an idea is. In the real world, being aware of your audience and understanding how your message does or does not fit can make all of the difference in the world. Similarly, if an idea isn’t supported, that doesn’t mean it isn’t good. It might just mean you need to find a different audience for it.
For the students who were selected by Columbus SOUP, but not by their peers, the experience gave them the chance to reevaluate their approach, their execution and their delivery. Then, when they went down to Spark Space to meet with SOUP coaches to learn how to tailor their presentation to the SOUP audience, they had the chance to refine their speech even further, from the way they made their “sell” to the way they chose to dress. Earlier that day students asked what to wear and I said to dress nicely; however, when they posed that question to the coaches, they were told to dress comfortably because SOUP was not a stuffy, formal gathering. Dressing too nicely might work against them; what mattered most to the audience was passion and personality, two things that very well could get dampened if someone comes wearing clothes that make them appear “stiff."
Looking back over the experience, I can see a thousand ways to have made the process smoother, and a thousand more things I could have taught, or taught better; however, given the short timeline, every time I say the words, “I wish I had,” I keep coming back to a question one of my students asked three days before the event at the Barn.
They had been in the hall trying to iron out logistics, and one of the members stopped and looked over at me.
“Wait a second,” she said, taken back by the thought that unexpectedly popped into her head. “How are we going to be graded?”
I considered for a moment, admittedly uncertain how to answer. We were already three weeks into the unit. I had given them a scoring guide and an assignment sheet at the beginning. I had laid out the expectations and I had provided feedback along the way, but we had also drifted off the course I had initially imagined. Their work had gone further than I expected. Ideas had spiraled and blossomed. Their presentation had changed a dozen different times and the rules about the number of speakers had to shift as well. Research moved away from books or online articles and turned into phone calls, price comparisons, and interviews.
What they had done far exceeded my initial expectations: their extensive commitment to refine their idea until it was just right, their attendance and active participation in the voluntary coaching session in downtown Columbus from 6-7:30pm on a rainy Wednesday evening, the level of critical thinking involved in evaluating each potential solution, and their SOUP presentation itself, which spanned from 5:15-8:00 on a Sunday night.
“I don’t know,” I said, honestly, turning to Alice Finley who had come into my class to help me support the three vastly different endeavors unfolding all at once (admittedly an uncomfortable predicament for a type A planner). And I didn’t. In truth, I had been so caught up in helping them achieve their goal--developing an idea with merit and persuading an audience to support it--that I had not thought about their grades.
But when I did, I couldn’t help but see they were learning.
Or that they were driven.
Or that they would be taking away far more than some of my previous students who were presenting arguments to their classmates.
“Don’t worry about it,” I finally told her, smiling. “Just keep doing what you’re doing. This project has changed so much from where it started. I told you we would figure it out together, that we had to trust the process if it was going to be authentic. Your grades are going to be fine.”
She got back to work, and I got back to thinking about what I truly wanted from them, what I wanted them to demonstrate when it came to learning. And I realized my hopes and desires went beyond that scoring guide. Sure, they needed to have effective visuals, an enticing open, a clear “ask,” logical arguments supported with evidence, good volume, vocal variety and a powerful close, but it was more than that. What I really wanted was for them to walk away understanding how their voice could be a vehicle for change.
On the night of their presentation, I sat in the front of the room, and I beamed as they took the stage. They had all worked so hard and some of them hardly knew one another before the class began. But that night, they were laughing and interacting, meeting students from Columbus Alternative, networking with attendees, standing before an audience of adults, adults who were city council members, school board members, former members of the Ohio Senate, their Superintendant, their principal, their parents and droves of business people, professors, and others who live all the way across town. They stood before them with conviction and passion and direction, and instead of being in the position of listening to those individuals tell them what to do or what to believe, our students were telling the adults what they wanted to do and what they believed.
And they did it with composure and grace.
When it was all said and done, after the spoons were counted, and the team from Columbus Alternative was awarded the biggest grant, I was worried about how my students would take the results, but when I approached them, I couldn’t help but see their maturity. They didn’t sulk; they were smiling. They recognized that the group who won “was amazing.” They were eager to take pictures. They talked about what they would have done if they could have done it all again. They chatted about what would happen next, how they would use the second and third place funding that they got to make their ideas come to life.
They reflected even though I didn’t ask them to, even though I hadn’t given them an official reflection prompt or assignment or discussion question.
They reflected because they cared.
And as I was basking in the murmur of all of this, that question--that dreaded question about grades--popped up again. Snapped from the spell of jubilation, one of my students started to panic.
“Wait, so how is this going to work? How are we going to be graded?”
Her question punctured the energy like scissors through a balloon, and I started to panic too because I didn’t want the air of good ideas to seep out; I didn’t want everything to fall flat, to feel rote, to lose momentum.
“You all get an A,” I said nudging her back to the moment, and her shoulders relaxed and her face lifted, and she returned to the conversation.
I eventually left, and as I walked back to my car, I couldn’t help but wonder how to do it all again. I couldn’t help but wonder how to create moments where students get so lost they lose track of grades until the end. Or even better, where they get so lost in learning, they lose track of grades all together.
As a teacher, the logistics, the inflexibility of the timeline, and the unknowns of authentic situations make planning a challenge, but as a human being, the results are all kinds of beautiful. When I asked my students if I should do it again, one of them said, “I really enjoyed it...It was an experience I won’t forget.”
And I have to say, without a doubt, it’s one I won’t forget either.
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