The Challenge Based Classroom: Using Curriculum to Serve the Community

By Addie Albano on October 11, 2011
  • Grades: 6–8

Last year I came to a crossroads in my teaching. During my annual review, I found myself agonizing over my goals for this upcoming school year. I was completely stuck. I browsed through our district's professional development opportunities with a sense of “been there, done that.” It surprised me that so early in my career I would feel this way. My classroom certainly kept me on my toes, but I was missing that spark that ignited my planning each year. An offer to explore curriculum development made me even more confused. Was I really ready to leave the classroom? I needed a teaching makeover!

As if on cue, two amazing things happened that would transform my teaching: the opportunity to be a teacher advisor here and the discovery of Apple’s Challenge Based Learning. The journey outside of my comfort zone had begun.

Challenge Based Learning: An Overview

Challenge Based Learning is a collaborative learning experience in which teachers and students work together to learn about compelling issues, propose solutions to real problems, and take action. The approach asks students to reflect on their learning and on the impact of their actions and to publish their solutions for a worldwide audience.

Believing that students have become complacent within the standards-based curriculum, Apple created Challenge Based Learning to curb student disengagement by offering them a chance to use their knowledge to solve real-world problems in their community.

While amazing in theory, the idea of incorporating this idea into my teaching felt overwhelming. Where would I even begin? Since I teach all four core subject areas, I decided to whip out my curriculum maps and look for common threads. It seemed that the best approach would be to create a theme-based unit each month and use it to drive my instruction.

September marked the inception of Challenge Based Learning in my classroom, and I expected there to be many pitfalls and many days wondering, "What did I get myself into?" I couldn’t have been more wrong.

There are six key points for setting up a challenge based classroom. Below you'll see how I implemented each of them in my classroom.

The Big Idea

To begin, I created a theme board on our classroom whiteboard that outlined the details of our project and served as a visual reminder of what we were trying to accomplish. Our theme for September was “A Man’s House Is His Castle.” This theme was the perfect cross-curricular fit since in ELA we were reading Crispin: The Cross of Lead by Avi, which is set in a castle in medieval times, and in social studies we were beginning our Native American settlement unit. Ultimately, we discussed the importance of home, no matter what it looks like.

Essential Question: How Does Our Theme Meet a Community Need?

This got me thinking about an organization that has always been on my mind, Habitat for Humanity. At that point, everything just fell into place. Since there are many families without adequate housing in my district, this was a wonderful chance for my students to help with a problem they see every day.

The Challenge: A Real World Solution

Since volunteers must be 16 to work on a building site, we had to find alternative ways to help. We began by brainstorming a list of all the things that make a house a home and came up with several possible projects that were within reach of my students.

Guiding Questions and Activities

I thought a fun way to simulate construction would be to have the students create candy castles. A PowerPoint detailing medieval housing served as a guide, and the castles provided wonderful — and yummy — inspiration!

 

 

Guiding Resources

I was honored to have two amazing guests, Dave and Marilyn Kurzawa, speak on behalf of Habitat for Humanity. My students hung on every word, and were engrossed by the posters illustrating the work of this vital organization. After hearing about the needs of current building project, we discussed how our class could best serve the family being honored with this new home.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Solutions, Implementation, and Reflections

It was unanimous that our contributions would include collecting money from dress down day on staff Fridays, creating a banner for the welcome day, and designing artwork for the cover of the thank-you cards to volunteers and donors. As part of an assessment of our project, students were required to write a letter describing their feelings about the project and how it impacted them personally. I am anxiously awaiting the culmination of this activity in late fall, when the building project is due to conclude. In addition, my students have been eagerly anticipating October's topic: “Behind Every Invention Is a Great Story,” which will serve as the basis for future posts. I hope you’ll join me on the adventure!

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