X-Block at Nanjing International School is the equivalent of a genius hour or a ‘creative new undertakings’ hour. Students are given 5 hours per 8 day cycle to work on any passion that is feasible during a school day. For some kids, this means woodworking, Visual Arts, or computer animation. For a lot of kids, this means jamming in the music room and doing some really exciting stuff.  Their hard work accumulates into a sharing class called X-Fest, in which their parents are invited in to see their work. 

How is it structured?

Students come together in a large group room and are given reminders about the Global Contexts and how to structure their learning. There’s a focus on the depth of learning rather than shallow overviews. 

Each student must present a ‘pitch’ for their self-taught unit to a supervisor whom they think would be the best fit. This pitch includes what information they hope to learn, which Global Context will be most suitable, what possible product might arise, and what their purpose will be (e.g. they might want to learn computer programming, which is Science & Tech, so they can write a computer program that will help people translate street signs). 

How Does it Work?

Each student – or student group – gets approved by a mentor and then goes to work in their classroom. As you might have guessed, the Music room is always busy and always has the most number of kids. Last semester, I had:

– a group of four re-writing lyrics for popular music, who then split into pairs and composed their own music for piano and guitar
– a pair producing their own DJ tracks
– a pair learning how to play drums and bass guitar on the same song
– a large group presenting a short piece of music theatre
– a group creating a rock band
– a group merging drumming styles from Africa, Korea, China and America into one performance
– a group making an animated music video in the style of Japanimation
– a cellist and a piano accompanist putting together a Baroque piece
– a pianist putting together a PowerPoint explaining Baroque, Classical, and Romantic music in which she also inserted a video of her performing in each period.

I used to run around like a chicken with my head cut off. I had kids in every room and not enough resources. Meanwhile, we need to have a conference with the kids at least once a week. Happily, the school assigned another teacher. This means that she walks around and gets the kids writing reflections and evaluations, and then has a conference with each group about their progress.  I get the leads, help with the bass riffs, offer feedback on the skits, etc. It’s a great collaboration between all of us.

How Is It Assessed?

1. The students reflect on their progress and have regular reflection meetings with their mentor teachers.

2. At the end of each cycle, there is an X-Fest day of sharing in which the students show their parents and teachers what they have accomplished thus far.

3. The students write their own report card comments and assess their own ATL skills. This works very well. I found that the students were tougher on themselves than I would be! One student, in particular, was really fantastic. She was consistently on-task and focused with excellent self-management and communication skills.  There was a difficult member of her group who caused problems, but the first student was patient and worked towards compromises. Imagine my surprise when she gave herself “sometimes meets expectations” on her ATL skills. I asked her why this happened and she said it’s not possible to have a perfect report card because nobody is perfect, and that there were problems in her group. We sat down and had a conference about what she experienced and what I saw, and what the standards for the ATLs were. In the end, I moved her up to all ‘meeting expectations’ and gave her one ‘exceeds expectations.’  

Some Fun Pictures from xFest

This was a music theatre skit entitled, “Day in the Operation Room.” 

He had very basic bass skills, but wanted to learn how to do complicated riffs, so he taught himself two songs using YouTube tutorials with tabs.

He had never touched a drum set before, but by the end, he was keeping a good rock beat that included fills!

Final Evaluation Questions for Students

White Hat: FACTS: Tell me about your xBlock project. Who was in your group? What was each person’s role? What was your research? What was your final product?

Yellow Hat: POSITIVES: What was your most effective part of the creative cycle? (Planning, Researching, Practicing, or Performing?). What are the best parts of your product?

Black Hat: NEGATIVES: In which part of the creative cycle did you not work as effectively? (Planning, Researching, Practicing, or Performing?). What parts of your product could have been improved? What would you have done differently if you did it again?

Green Hat: CREATIVITY: How did you make your product cool and musical? 

Blue Hat: STRATEGY/THINKING: How did you work together as a group? What strategies did you use to keep each other on task? How did this help you to understand your Global Context better? In which ATLs did you improve the most? What was the most interesting thing you learned about your topic?

Red Hat: EMOTIONS: How do you feel about your last xBlock project?