Power Lesson

Hydroelectricity? Sixth grade? English class?

Yes, indeed. In fact, before the day I observed her 6th grade class, my colleague, Melanie Quinlisk, had guided her students through the process of writing an argumentative paper about that very topic: Hydroelectricity.

Students had researched the subject and lined up their arguments, pro and con. They’d even learned how to acknowledge a counterclaim, some to concede a point.

The day I came to class, my colleague introduced thirty cardboard Virtual Reality Viewers encased in cellophane.  On cue, students took out their phones and accessed a 360 degree YouTube video produced by Hydro-Quebec.  Ms. Quinlisk showed them how to assemble the viewers and insert their phones into the cardboard holder.  A strap held the viewers tight. Once the video began, the students were oblivious to the world around them. They were mesmerized by the virtual tour of an enormous hydro-electricity generating station in the James Bay region of Quebec (Welcome to Hydro-Quebec).

For most students, this was the first look at a 360 degree video; a few experienced ones had brought their own viewers from home.  I was there to be hands-on support, to help students access the video on their phones, secure them in the viewer, and adjust the straps.  Naturally, there was a good deal of fumbling with the mechanism of the box, and the classroom was abuzz with excitement. The students’ reactions and exclamations were punctuated by the sound of Velcro fasteners and crinkling cellophane.

“Wow! That’s cool!”

“I didn’t think it would be so big!”

“So that’s what it looks like!”

But within seven minutes, it was all over, the boxes tucked away and the students focused on their teacher’s question: “Was your opinion changed by seeing the video?  Why or why not?”

It was the “Why or why not,” of course, that she wanted to hear. And students replied using the evidence they’d researched before—quotes from authorities, statistics, facts, even the counterclaims they’d heard.

“The video explains the cost-saving,” one boy said, “but hydroelectricity is still hard on wildlife.”

Clearly his priority was wildlife, not economics.

Priorities is where this remarkable lesson went next. Ms. Quinlisk distributed a handout that listed the amount of wattage various household appliances, large and small, consume per kilowatt hour. The students’ task was to select the appliances they’d choose to use if they could use only 1000 watts a day.

One boy went right to the heart of supply and demand and family dynamics: “Is this what it’s like to be a parent?” he asked.

The students’ priorities were cell phone chargers, TV, and air conditioning, though some were creative:

“I’d get three fans instead of air conditioning!”

“I’ll get a leaf blower instead of air conditioning.”

“Skip the stove. I’ll live on Cheetos and Cheese Whiz!”

One girl did say it might be good not to have access to so much wattage. “We might go outside more. It might be like camping.”

The students pondered their choices, added up their wattage, prioritized, made decisions, and practiced a bit of creative thinking. And then they were asked to take the worksheet home and talk with their parents, to see if their parents’ priorities were the same.  The students knew right away they wouldn’t be.

And all of this was prelude to reading City of Ember, the first book in a science fiction series by Jeanne DuPrau, a story about two young people frantically trying to save their crumbling subterranean city, powered for over two-hundred years by a hydroelectricity plant that is now breaking down.

Pretty high wattage interdisciplinary learning: math, science, argumentation, critical thinking, technology, collaboration, decision making, and reading— both fiction and non-fiction.

Electrifying, in fact.

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