Sunday Night Prep – Experience Week/Discovery Session

“Now I really want to _________.” Enter: start a debate team, make a guitar, go to UW-Madison, make calzones for my family, plan a vacation, learn more about community gardening, design video games, go out and buy an African drum.

This past week, was Experience Week at the school I teach at. Experience Week is common at many experiential or project-based learning (PBL) schools. Essentially, a few times throughout the year, the traditional school schedule is scrapped and alternate planned activities are “experienced” by students. These activities are planned by staff, and at some schools the students.  The purpose of Experience Week is to have students opened up to activities they otherwise would not encounter. The hope, is that Experience Week leads to richer future learning opportunities.

In order to make Experience Week possible, a few key elements are necessary. They are:
1.  Control over school calendar & school day – In order to have students out and about in the local community or anywhere within 500 miles, the first critical piece is to allow the folks running the school to control the school calendar and school day. Without those two critical elements, read no further, because Experience Week cannot exist.

2. A budget – Bringing in experts, traveling to new places, these activities obviously cost money. Many activities can be planned for no and low cost, but a budget is still necessary to pull off this week.

3. Passionate students – In my opinion, even if a staff has control over the calendar, school day, and budget, the next critical area is having students open to learning new things. The terms I’ve been using of late to describe students who have little to no interest in school are, “Turned off,” and “Asleep” as in, the lights are off and nobody is home. I believe all students can be awoken. And Experience Week can be a great way to light the fire in students. But if a student would rather do worksheets than engage in hands-on learning activities, then that student may struggle with going out into the community and geocaching in small groups or resist working a shift at the local soup kitchen. More than a budget, more than control over schedule, having students who want to learn and “be a part of” is critical.

4. Planning time – If best practices existed for Experience Weeks, I would have half of the staff leading the entire week, while the other half of the staff plans out the next Experience Week. I cannot stress enough how crucial planning is to a week full of activities, varied lunch schedules, bus pickups, etc. This is something I’d like to get to at my school. While three staff are leading one week, three other staff members are planning out the week at the end of the next project cycle. I love Experience Week, it is truly exhausting. After each Experience Week, I have greater respect for elementary school teachers. Now I know what it’s like to have students and be responsible for them 100% of every minute of every day.

This will probably be my last blog post until December rolls around. With #NaNoWriMo starting this week, I will be putting off Sunday Night Preps for awhile. In order to write 50,000 words in 30 days, I’ll need to push out 1,667 words each day (so will the other 300,000 people world wide who are on the same quest). Hopefully by December, I’ll have a complete design of what I’m calling Discovery Week. Over the last few years, Dan Pink, Sir Ken Robinson, and the scholars at GLS have dropped a ton of knowledge about the importance of play. In planning Experience Week activities, I’ve thought of including game design using ARIS or Gamestarmechanic, but these activities are more likely to lead to deeper learning if people had between a week to ten days to dive into them. My school that I’m teaching at has developed a connection with a local wildlife reserve. One of my colleagues and I were in a heated discussion about how students can become linked with the local wildlife reserve. “They need to get out there,” Master Lee said, “Sitting with their netbooks in their hand all day is not PBL.” The guy I’m referring to is truly wise. He’s twice my age. The statements that come out of his mouth usually take me about a day to process and grasp. A full day later, I said to the Master Lee, “What if we just send kids out to the wildlife reserve for a week or two? If they were there for at least 3-hours per day, and if we gave them a process to go through, they’d discover their next project idea.”

“That’s a great idea.” Said Master Lee.

That’s your idea from yesterday translated so an eight year old could grasp it, is what I thought. “Thanks.” Is what I said.

Here’s what I’m working on in my design journal, and what I hope to bring to life via Google Doc over the next six to eight weeks:

Academic School year = 40 weeks; 3 12-week sessions with the following Project Cycles:

12-week Project Cycle

6-week Project Cycle, 6-week Project Cycle

4-week Project Cycle, Discovery Session, 4-week Project Cycle

What if, there were three 12-week sessions in a school year. Within each of those three 12-week sessions there were three different project cycles for students to report out their  learning. At the end of the 12-week session, students would have an Experience Week. There would also be a week in the fall and a week in the spring for standardized testing. By chunking the standardized testing into week long blocks, fewer days would be consumed with awkward scheduling. The downside is that students would be taking multiple tests within the same week (WKCE & MAPs may not even have the same testing windows, in which case, this design would not be possible). The secondary goal of separating standardized testing from the 12-week sessions is to have a clear separation between learning and testing. I think this would be incredibly beneficial to the school culture.

Here’s a snapshot of a single 12-week session for the fall 2013-14 school year.

Week 1 – Orientation, passion workshops, project process overview, Proposal Meetings
Week 2 – Research & Design
Week 3 – Research & Design
Week 4 – School Wide Presentations for 4-week cycle; Assessment Meetings for 6-week cycle
Week 5 – Discovery Session 4-week cycle begins
Week 6 – School Wide Presentations for 6-week cycle; Assessment Meetings for 6-week cycle
Week 7 – Second 4-week cycle begins; Second 6-week cycle begins
Week 8 – Research & Design
Week 9 – Research & Design
Week 10 – School Wide Presentations for 12-week cycle; Assessment Meetings 4-week cycle
Week 11 – Assessment Week for all three project cycles; Product Deadline for all project cycles
Week 12 – Event Night (student’s display learning to entire community); Celebration of Learning; Student Led Conferences
Experience Week
State Testing Week
Fall Break Week

To clarify a few things…

Over the last three school years, I’ve been facilitating PBL in three very different settings, under three very different project cycles. Project-Based Learning is somewhat of a “catchall” and I want to try to codify the “catchall.” I know much of what I write is rough and loose, but I keep thinking of something I read from a fantastic blog last year:

“Additionally, project-based learning reinforces the artificial idea that meaningful impact can occur in a tremendously short time-frame – often as little as three or four weeks.” (

I believe outstanding projects can be completed in four weeks time. But I also believe it takes up to 12 weeks just to plan the design of some projects. Here’s two quick examples. A student can doing a project on the History of Nintendo can complete the entire project in just four weeks. In a 4-week period, that student could propose their project plan, carry out research on the company, and put together a product. The student could also report out their learning to the people they proposed their project to and to their school community. It’s a pretty straight forward 40 – 60 hour project. The student could probably earn credit/badge in History, Media Arts, English/Language Arts, and possibly Computer Science. The second example is a project I have seen proposed at two different schools. If a student wants to create a recording studio at the school, just the design could take up to 12-weeks. This is a 100-200 hour project involving nearly every academic discipline in which high schools record credits. In a multiage ability-diverse learning environment, I believe it’s important for learners to have multiple opportunities to share their learning and move on from one topic to another.

The trick will be in accomplishing everything without the adults having to perform as superhumans to pull off the work.

What’s best for learning? That’s the essential question.


About Michael

Do Work!
This entry was posted in Charter School, Radical School Design, Sunday Night Prep. Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Sunday Night Prep – Experience Week/Discovery Session

  1. Pingback: #KWEC13 Analysis, Takeaways, Takebacks, What’s Next – Part 2 | teach4aliving

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