What is a dichotomy? What dichotomies do we see around us? How do maps convey meaning and perspective? These were among the many interdisciplinary questions considered by seventh graders in this project that examined the social and physical landscape of their city, San Diego.
The central idea of this project was to use the city itself as a text, specifically, a three-day, 23-mile journey on foot from the Mexican border to the Cabrillo National Monument very close to the school (where the explorers/conquistadors first landed in California).
Students captured the details of the journey through photography and journaling, later to be synthesized into a book focused on dichotomies that students chose to highlight.
To add to their reflections on the journey, students also interviewed community members and organizations to explore the dichotomies in their lives.
This project was featured in the 2021 book Changing the Subject: Twenty Years of Projects from High Tech High. You can learn more about the book and the projects within by visiting the official website.
The teachers planned for the walking journey itself to take place in the middle of the project, around the fifth week. Leading up to the three-day event, students researched themes or dichotomies they might want to focus on through readings, visits to community organizations, and visits from guest speakers. During the weeks after the walk, students culled through journals, photography, and observations to create books on particular themes. For example, one book, entitled Surviving and Thriving, focused on wealth and poverty among different communities and displayed graphic representations of demographic and income data in neighborhoods that make up the San Diego region. Another focused on high crime vs. low crime neighborhoods.
Students worked in groups to create books on the themes they had chosen. Each book contained original writing, photography, and graphic representations of data gathered. In order to pull all these pieces into a final product, each group member had a specific role, including managing editor, map guru, art director, and hunter-gatherer (research director).
At the same time, the team was also investigating cartography and topographical maps, and how various kinds of maps can convey meaning or distort reality. In their Makers class, small teams each took on a segment of the San Diego map, and created a giant laser cut map of the city.
Students created this 3D installation using information found on free topographic maps made by the United States Geological Survey (USGS). They used this information to create a file in 3D modeling software (Rhino 3D) which in turn was read by a computer-controlled laser cutter to engrave and cut thin plywood. Working in groups of 3 to 5 students per square, they used small spring clamps and glue to physically assemble the pieces together. Students needed to learn how to read the real USGS maps in order to assemble their wooden one correctly, which took considerable time and skill.
Accessibility was an important building block of this project from the start. The concept of grounding it in students’ own close observations of the city during the walk, and enabling every group to choose their own theme made it open to all levels of academic preparedness. The education specialist for the grade joined in the summer planning, and the whole team walked a portion of the journey to anticipate the students’ experience. Thinking maps and individual support for making claims and supporting them with evidence helped to support the writing in the project.
The exhibition took place at the San Diego History Museum, where the topographical map was installed and on display for several weeks. On the day of the exhibition, students also displayed their books, and documentation of their process, including the long journey.
The teaching team used a form of self-assessment adapted from Ron Berger’s Leaders of Their Own Learning. Students reflected on and assessed their own learning on specific learning targets in humanities, math, and collaboration, leadership, and perseverance. Teachers offered their own assessments in a written dialogue with each student.