Sag Harbor Students Try Out Experiential Learning

Ruth White-Dunn's seventh grade PLANT II class investigated a murder on Thursday. ELIZABETH VESPE

Ruth White-Dunne’s seventh-grade students entered a mock crime scene at Pierson Middle-High School last Thursday morning: Yellow tape was plastered around the classroom door and a skeleton lay across the floor, covered from head to toe in a blanket.

Before they entered, Ms. White-Dunne advised the students to be quiet and not touch the body.

To set the scene, whistling wind could be heard from the Smartboard’s speakers. Ms. White-Dunne told the students that the man had been found dead after hiking through a snowy mountain range.

It was the class’s job to figure out what had happened to the man, who appeared, in a slide of an X-ray that showed an arrow in his chest, to have been murdered.

“How did he die? Who killed him? Was it an accident? What was the murder weapon?” were among the first questions students shouted out as they got settled at their desks and Ms. White-Dunne wrote their questions on a large white board.

The murder mystery was a part of the school’s PLANT program, which is short for Preparing Learners for A New Tomorrow. PLANT takes students on a year-long exploration during which they employ inquiry- and project-based learning, and in which teachers guide students to a better understanding of their own learning style. The course provides students with an opportunity to hone their critical thinking, communication, social, self-management and research skills and become more self-directed learners.

Ruth White-Dunn’s seventh grade PLANT II class investigated a murder on Thursday. ELIZABETH VESPE

As the class neared the end, students asked dozens of questions, getting closer to solving the mystery. Ms. White-Dunne clicked through clues on a PowerPoint presentation, giving tips such as where the murder happened, the gender and size of the person who was killed, and possible murder weapons recovered from the scene. Evidence was gradually revealed so that students could narrow their questions, deductions and speculations. The lesson took place over three class periods.

Last year, members of the Sag Harbor School Board had asked administrators for alternate ways to integrate the educational model of the International Baccalaureate program, a progressive European education system that emphasizes learning through analysis and discussion, into the middle school curriculum. Pierson Middle School Principal Brittany Carriero explained on Monday that the middle school was a candidate for IB’s rigorous middle years program. However, Ms. Carriero said, the district wanted to scale back from IB in the middle school but still introduce the middle school students to a rigorous program.
Thus the PLANT program, including a renewed emphasis on STEAM — science, technology, engineering, art and mathematics — and a new course designed to prepare students for the IB curriculum available to them in high school, was added to the middle school curriculum last year.

Ms. Carriero said PLANT forces students to use creativity, collaboration, critical thinking and communication. In addition, the program aims to teach students about “digital citizenship,” or how to be mindful and appropriate on social media. Students are also taught how to cope with failure, work with others, and undertake research writing assignments.

“The kids are the leaders, while the teachers are the facilitators,” Ms. Carriero said of PLANT, which has separate levels for sixth- and seventh-graders. “The PLANT course is great because it gives all of the students an equal playing field,” she said. “Students are able to learn through a different perspective.”

So far this year, the sixth grade PLANT I class built paper airplanes they had to adapt to achieve the optimal design. The project focused on resilience and the process of failure and success.

Also this year, the sixth-graders partook in a goal-setting unit in which they were asked to learn a new skill, from computer coding to crochet, and teach it to their group.
“More teachers are wanting to put this type of thinking into their classes. The kids like it,”

Ms. Carriero said, adding that since last year, the district has had positive feedback from the families involved.

“I think it’s helpful for the students in getting to know who they are,” she said. “It’s balancing the academic rigor with their social [and] emotional well-being.”