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Issue 13, Spring 2015
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Logs From San Diego Bay,
   Tom Fehrenbacher
Knowing Why,
   Joanne Sith
My Education at the Met,
   Luis Del Rosario
Rigor Reconsidered,
   Rob Riordan
10 Principles to Move Your School Toward Distributive Leadership,
   Nicole Assisi & Shelli Kurth
Inside a Successful School Project: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly,
   Scott Swaaley
Getting More Students Into College: A Foray Into Improvement Science,
   Isaac Jones, Ryan Gallagher,
   Ben Daley & Stacey Caillier
After a Progressive K-12 Education...Then What? First Gen Voices on the Transition to College,
   Jean Kluver & Heather Lattimer

1: Who Am I?
2: Subatomic Black Hole Soup:
    A Graphic Novel Project

3: Run Like A Girl: Don’t Judge Me
4: Response-ABILITY: Empathy in Action
5: 2084: Junk Puppet Theatre
6: Once Upon A Prime
7: Town Squares:
    A San Diego Neighborhoods Project

8: A New Life
9: The Upcycle Project
10: What is your Everest?
11: Project IDEATE
12: Choose Your Own Adventure
      Through U.S. History

13: Apocalypto

HTH GSE » UnBoxed » Issue 13 » reflection

laser cut wood project pieces
Photo courtesy of Scott Swaaley

a Successful School Project: The Good,
the Bad,
and the Ugly

In January I was invited to attend the Sundance Film Festival for the premiere of Most Likely to Succeed, a film that featured High Tech High and one of my class projects. My students, my colleague Mike Strong and I appeared larger than life on the big screen as we worked on our 2012 Physics and Humanities collaboration we called Apocalypto. While I enjoyed the movie and am extremely grateful for the overall experience, the Hollywood version couldn’t capture it all— the struggle, the doubt, the failure, and the multitude of other realities we went through that year—each of which taught us many lessons for the future. So, here’s a behind-the-scenes look at our project. What you’re about to read are excerpts of blog posts and reflections that I wrote back in 2013 as my first year of teaching started to wind down.

What We Pitched to Students

“Human history is punctuated by the prolific rise and inevitable collapse of civilization after civilization. In this project, you will formulate hypotheses for these fluctuations, compare their hypotheses with historical evidence, map quantitative changes throughout history, then create a narrative and mechanical representation of your findings. You will then exhibit your work on the eve of the Mayan Apocalypse.”

It all started on a sunny summer day at Luna Grill. My new teaching partner Mike and I were finally sitting down to talk about projects and after brainstorming for a while we had narrowed our focus to one core concept—cycles. My partner, as a humanities teacher, was excited about exploring the cyclic nature of civilizations while I was excited to explore the cyclic nature of our physical world (harmonics, gears, waves, etc.). We even started to draw a picture on a napkin of what our exhibition would look like: concentric circles of tables, each addressing a different take on cycles. In the initial plan, each student would exhibit their own individual work.

Sometime later a teacher from one of HTH’s the middle schools emailed me asking for help with a project. He had seen my previous work with gear projects and wanted to pick my brain about the best ways to manufacture them. Around the same time, someone had emailed me an article about the Antikythera Mechanism and the mechanical Mayan Calendar. One day during our prep period, my partner and I started chatting about exhibition dates. He mentioned, jokingly, that we could have our exhibition on the night of the Mayan Apocalypse. I then started talking about these cool emails I’d been getting about ancient mechanisms and voila—we were going to make a Mayan calendar and exhibit it on the eve of the Mayan apocalypse.

Doing the Project First

At this point, we had no idea if it was possible or how we would do it. With the venerable Jeff Robin (HTH art teacher and project-based learning pedagogue) on my shoulder I decided to “do the project first.” While I knew I wouldn’t be able to achieve the scale of the final project, I wanted to create something that could give us hope that it would be possible. We also wanted a hands-on example that we could show our students when describing the project. It just so happened that our school had recently received a significant donation and I had pushed hard for a laser cutter and then had helped to install and tinker with this new piece of equipment over summer break. We used it to create a small model of the Mayan Calendar.


At HTH, we use a protocol for “tuning” projects with our colleagues. I went through this process several times and it helped me to finalize both the project scope and the stages of scaffolding that I would need to implement. I underwent a total of three project-tuning protocols for this project (not including casual conversations and advice). The most significant feedback I received was related to scaffolding and accessibility for students. We were going to be working with fourteen year olds and the project required multiple levels of abstraction, lots of innovation, and the use of lots of new skills. (For those interested in the scheduling, assignments, and deliverables we created for students, see the website referenced at the end of this article.)


My teaching partner and I have spent a great deal of time talking about what went right and what went wrong with the Apocalypto Project. We’ve also spent a great deal of time talking with our students (casually and through a seminar) and they expressed significant frustrations, many of which are described below.

At our exhibition, Apocalypto was far from complete. Five of the fourteen mechanisms were in some state of incompleteness (not counting those that broke during exhibition) and many tears were shed that night. Does this mean that the project was too difficult? Or is failure just evidence of an authentic challenge? I don’t know that answer. What I do know is that after exhibition, after grades were in, and while we had moved onto other things, students were still working on completing their mechanisms. Two have since finished and mounted their mechanism. Six months past the finale, at his insistence, one student spent his first two days of summer working on his mechanism with me in the classroom.

The Trials and Tribulations of Group Work

As is typical in a project, some of our biggest student complaints were centered around group selection. At the start of the project each student submitted an index card listing their perceived strengths/weaknesses, a few people they would prefer to work with, and a few people they absolutely did not want to work with. From there, my teaching partner and I deliberately arranged groups that were a balance of student choice, common sense, and individual abilities. However, I place very little blame on the process of group selection. I believe that many of the frustrations students experienced (and expressed) about their partners were a result of how we divided up responsibilities within the group—not in the groups themselves.

Division of Labor in Student Groups

In my mind, there are two very different schools of thought when it comes to organizing a project -based classroom. The first is specialization of labor where each student chooses (or is assigned) a unique task that in some way contributes to the greater project. This specialization can be organized at a group or whole-class level. My favorite example of this kind of specialization is a classroom organizing a play. Individual students may be building a set, writing a script, making a costume, or acting. Each student has a fundamentally different responsibility and thus a fundamentally different experience and learning outcome. Some teachers try to mitigate this outcome by having each student complete a more comprehensive (but much smaller) simulation of the project before the more authentic collaboration begins. Nevertheless, the final exhibited piece is a product of specialists.

The competing view is that students should experience a project in a substantially similar way. This may mean that each element of the project is collaborative (they all contribute to the script, the set, and the acting) or that they create things individually or even some hybrid of the two. All students emerge from the project having shared in responsibilities and having similar learning outcomes. One significant advantage of this method is that students begin their next experience (be it the next project or next grade) with a more equitable footing. It would be very easy, under the former model, for a student that is ‘good with their hands’ to end up in a specialization where they continue to hone what they’re good at but emerge lacking in some other skill (like writing).

This is part of a much larger conversation about student learning (and perhaps even about economic/political systems) and is something that I think about a lot when planning projects. I suspect that it’s also closely tied to the type of project being developed. A project with a single shared product or outcome (i.e. Apocalypto or a class play) may require specialization of labor where more individualized projects may be more flexible.

As can be seen in the Apocalypto project description, we chose a hybrid of specialized labor. Our students did preliminary work as individuals but the final exhibited work was done within these assigned roles (in which all activities and assessment were based):
  • Master Machinist (manages and modifies mechanism file, in charge of construction)
  • Master Graphic Artist (poster, glyphs, image processing, converting physics manifesto)
  • Master of Humanities (research paper abstracts)
  • Master of Physics (performs calculations, makes the physics manifesto)
  • Master Journalist (documents the process and markets the exhibition) [only present in groups of 5]

The work groups did in this final stage of the project dwarfed that which was done individually and the workload was not divided evenly between groups. The machinists shouldered the majority of the workload and were completely overwhelmed by both the technical difficulty of the project and the sheer workload. Many of the machinists stayed regularly until 6pm, came in on weekends, and even came in during Thanksgiving break to work. While other roles had the potential to be somewhat challenging (should a student be so motivated) they were much less dominant in our classroom culture. Our culture quickly became immersed and obsessed with the success of the mechanisms and this only added to the stress tolerated by our machinists. Many of the students not directly responsible for the mechanism became less engaged as the project went on and when we tried to spread the workload out more evenly we found that the technical skills our machinists had acquired thus far had set them apart from their peers. So much so that work on the mechanisms became, in all practical aspects, inaccessible to a significant portion of our students. This was a problematic learning environment and we were worried that it would create hostility within groups.

More Than Tinkering

Each student group was responsible for designing and fabricating a mechanism but that is just a piece of the overall finished product. The infrastructure to support the mechanisms also needed to be designed and fabricated. The initial intent was to identify students needing additional challenge and to involve them with this design. However, as the enormity of the project set in, it quickly became inaccessible to those students. The precision and scale required for the infrastructure was significant and it turned out that I had to design and fabricate that infrastructure in my free time. As an engineer, carpenter, and lifelong tinkerer—this was an extreme challenge for me. I spent well over 100 hours outside of school designing, sourcing parts, and fabricating this several hundred pound behemoth. These were hours that were NOT spent bettering my instruction for the next day, following-up with struggling students, or resting. And while a part of me enjoys these obsessive spurts of innovation, it was not an ideal environment for great teaching. In the end I hope that the infrastructure I produced was merely the stage for student work and that I did not turn it into a ‘dad did my project’ type scenario.

Document, Document, Document

Going into the project we knew that we were not good at documenting process. Our projects tend to be ever-changing and neither of us are the type to stop mid-day to document what happened or take a picture. Our intent with creating the ‘Journalist’ role in groups was to circumvent our shortcomings, but the best thing we did was to institute project binders. Students were required to keep all documentation in a formal binder and this helped tremendously in both student organization and our ability to look back at what we did. Now we just need to get better at our own documentation (I’m writing this 6 months after the completion of the project—long after I’ve forgotten the most meaningful insights).

When Collaboration Works…

While my partner and I are ultimately responsible for our own content, a great deal of our innovation stemmed from working together. We are lucky to both have the ability to cross the curriculum divide. I am a pretty good writer, editor, and I enjoy writing. He is a competent builder and has a good eye for aesthetics. Because of this overlap, we are interested in and able to help shape and innovate the other’s curriculum. For example, my work in deconstructing student theories helped students to iron out inconsistencies and improve their abstracts while Mike’s builder’s instinct led him to be the leader in laser engraving images at our school and to spur the innovation of the wedges found throughout the wheel. This project evolved a great deal from its initial conception and a significant portion of those evolutions took place through casual conversations between my teaching partner and me.

No Right Answers

This project did not have a right answer. Each and every mechanism was one of a kind, as was each and every theory of civilization. My most common answers to student questions were things like: “seems reasonable, try it,” “I have no idea,” or “I’ve never done this before.” The beauty was that we didn’t know the answers – we were solving everything together. The fact that Mike and I were equally willing to experiment, fail, and try again created a culture of persistence and innovation that we are extremely proud of.

Lessons Learned

After this experience we went into our next project with a few things in mind:
  • Although individual responsibilities should be clear (to avoid the ‘group grade’ mentality) students need to be involved in the whole process. We cannot have one student responsible for engineering and another responsible for writing.
  • For our own sanity (as well as the kids) we need to think a bit smaller and let the students that struggled on Apocalypto have some chances for more success. We also need to better anticipate any pieces of the project that may fall on the teachers’ shoulders (to make sure we don’t end up single!).
  • We REALLY want to try to recreate the authentic collaboration between disciplines where they are completely reliant one upon another for project completion.
  • We want to reach out to our community and pull in some adult world connections in the form of expert speakers.

Testing Limits

Although we tested (and maybe even exceeded) student limits on this project, each and every student has fond memories of what we accomplished together. In the end, students bound together to create something that is receiving national recognition and they are extremely proud of what they accomplished. Even students that openly hated the project while it was underway reflect back on it as a significant period of personal growth. Parents have remarked that their children are significantly different people having gone through that project— more confident, more persistent, and less willing to back down when facing adversity.

More information and media about the project, students, and teachers is available online at GRITLab’s website:

For a short video about “doing the project first” visit: