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Prep Magazine: We're Talking About Practice

Prep Magazine: We're Talking About Practice

Top, l to r: Jacob Secatore learned to play “Carol of the Bells” on viola. Liam Freeman learned to speak Italian. Mason Baker learned to ice skate. Oskar Seltenrich learned to make pizza.

Center, l to r: Finn Arnold learned how to cook. Leighton Tare learned to play the piano. Chris Genzale learned to ride a bike.

Bottom, l to r: Will McCusker learned photography. Ben Piscitello learned to solve a Rubik’s Cube. Shahmir Zaheer learned to play the piano. Johnny Arnold created LEGO stop-motion videos.

A cross-disciplinary grade 6 unit that tapped into biology, the humanities, and the science of how we learn has become a highlight of the Middle School’s spring curriculum.

Appropriately named “Passion Projects,” the module asked students to document their journey as they pursued a new passion of their choosing for the duration of a six-week lesson plan.

The learning goal was to investigate brain plasticity, to test the role of repetition in skill development (independent of raw ability), and to explore the cognitive convergence of practice and natural talent. Importantly, students had to select an activity they had little to no experience doing.

“It’s an assignment that generated a lot of excitement and pride—and it’s got depth because it extends over six weeks,” says Rachel Fondell, a social studies and English teacher in the Middle School.

“The goal was to examine how we learn. Do they believe that we are capable of learning an entirely new skill in a finite time frame? What tools and resources can they leverage to get better at anything that they choose to pursue? Is pure talent a myth—is it all about practice?”

The breadth of student voice and choice within the assignment was boundless. Classes chased aptitude and even proficiency at avocations from free throw shooting to cooking to speed-solving a Rubik’s Cube, and much more.

“I chose pizza-making as my project because it’s something I can enjoy with my family,” says Oskar Seltenrich ’30. “I used hand- tossed dough and experimented with several variations. How I cooked the pizza was critical and metal pans couldn’t make the bottom crispy enough. The solution was a pizza stone heated at 500 degrees prior to cooking. Six weeks is a good duration of time to learn a new skill. I was able to break down the steps and improve my pizza with different techniques.”

Students chronicled their progress via the web-based learning management system Canvas. Using the Padlet app, they submitted photos and/or videos with accompanying text at regular intervals throughout the module. Teachers across the curriculum participated as well to model practical approaches to a progressive learning effort over a multi-week period.

For Fondell, a local gallery artist who often incorporates various visual-learning media into her classroom, her project documented a deep dive into her painting. Other teachers learned how to ski, took up yoga, and leaned into mountain biking.

“By making learning both tangible and accessible, this project prompts students to look for connections in all their academic endeavors and endows them with the traits of lifelong learners,” says Justina Zuckerman, social studies curriculum coordinator. “Through the simple focus on learning to prepare the perfect plate of pasta, for instance, a student can see the chemistry within cooking alongside the fractions of the measurements and the cultural and geographic significance within the sourcing of ingredients.

“Weekly conferences with their teachers to reflect on their progress reinforce the process of learning and gradual betterment rather than instant mastery,” she adds. “This encourages a growth mindset they will carry with them throughout their St. John’s Prep career.”

Building a Scaffold

Given the age group, the project required considerable structure to maximize student success. Prior to embarking on the pursuit of a new passion, students watched the Netflix documentary “Speed Cubers,” which recounts the inspiring journey of two cube-solving champions. Next, classes engaged in a variety of puzzle-solving and strategy-based activities to explore how experience and familiarity impacts performance.

Students also watched an animated film by author, educator, and artist Danny Gregory titled, “The Artist Who Couldn’t Draw.” The plot features a creative artist who never learned to draw. A little girl next door eventually gives him a “magic pen” that she promises will make him a better artist if he uses it every day until the next full moon.

“Of course, he gets better because he’s doing it every day, not because the pen is magic,” says Fondell. “It’s crucial to talk about the role of practice—actually repeatedly performing the skill you’re seeking to develop—in pursuit of a passion.”

Lastly, before embarking on their individual passion projects, sixth graders viewed a video that demonstrates the plasticity or elasticity of the brain by illustrating the gap between knowledge and understanding. In other words, how the brain can be trained and, over time, build new neural pathways to perform new tasks, even if it must override learned, habitual behavior patterns to do so.

Once a student’s chosen activity is approved by their family, the projects begin. This year’s pursuits included taking up still photography, mastering Yo-Yo tricks, creating stop-motion videos, and learning how to tune snow skis.

“One student worked on flexibility until he could touch his toes,” says Fondell. “Another learned a difficult song on the guitar and another took up archery. We had some very creative pursuits that required time and attention.”

The scope of student projects are broad and, this year, extended to pursuing conversational competence in a third language.

“For my project, I chose Italian,” says Liam Freeman ’30. “I’ve always wanted to learn an additional language [besides what I’ll study at the Prep], and I like the way the accent sounds. Although I’ve by no means become fluent, I’ve learned a lot. My goal was to be able to have a conversation, and I achieved that.”

The unit also delved into the disappointment students might experience if their growth falls short of their expectations. This was processed through journaling and discussions about shortfalls as stepping stones to success as well as the close association between commitment—i.e. practice time—and results.

“This unit allows students to become internally motivated to feel a sense of belonging, make progress, and have purpose and autonomy,” says Dr. Jason Larocque, associate principal for grades 6, 7, and 8. “The project promotes positive risk-taking in a safe environment, encourages students to take an interest in each other’s hobbies and passions, helps students collect, process, and implement feedback on their progress toward acquiring a skill, and it promotes metacognition and reflection through a window of learning and discovery.”

P.S. Read this article to learn about which Prep coach is currently on a state championship streak.

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