How to Build a School Green Zone

How to Build a School Green Zone

     This summer, I attended the best education conference I’ve ever been to. There were about 1,600 educators at the New Tech Annual Conference for a week of training in Orlando, Florida.

     Napa’s New Technology High School (NTHS), which totally failed the first year, was the New Tech Project of the Year.

     Napa’s presentation began with the question many students ask, and which teachers hear over and over again: “Why do we need to learn this?”

     Napa’s students are challenged and engaged by projects that are relevant to their lives and interests. They talked about a student working with a local winery on soil composition, another designing an interactive game exhibit for a museum, and another creating documentaries about combat veterans’ experiences.

     Since 1996, Napa has used NTN’s project-based learning formula because they believe project-based learning is effective in preparing students for their future careers — no matter the path they take.

     Napa staff members also said that what makes their school different is its culture, which is founded on principles of trust, respect, responsibility, and professionalism. 

     For the record, this will be PAHS’s 4th year working with NTN. But, as I learned at this conference, NTN didn’t take off like a rocket anywhere else either! The bottom line is you can’t parachute into a school with NTN, as we, and other schools tried to do.

     Many shared stories of their poor NTN implementation processes.

     I talked to San Jose’s James Lick High School Principal, Marco Menendez.  He said they had had huge staff turnovers — five principals in five years! This year would be their fifth NTN year, but they’re actually in year one.

     Others told me about totally failing in their first years of NTN implementation because of lack of community buy in, low levels of parent involvement, not enough adult mentors, and not really developing personal relationships with students first.

     In workshops, I heard teachers say how they had to try to force their NTN projects on students. There were relationship barriers and breakdowns.

 Teacher after teacher said, “Top down doesn’t work!”

     The schools that succeeded trained mentors and engaged community members to help with NTN. And, they developed cooperative personal relations with students prior to implementing NTN, besides giving teachers needed collaboration time.

     The conference keynote speaker was Dr. Tina Payne Bryson. She researches interpersonal neurobiology, which investigates how human minds are developed and shaped by relationships.

     She spoke about how to use social-emotional learning in our teaching strategies. The techniques she discussed included mindfulness, understanding the whole-brain child, and understanding we all have issues.

     Most important to us, she talked about how students must feel safe to be successful. If they don’t feel safe, they will fail.

     She described three zones we all occupy, depending on our social situation and emotional state: a Green, a Red, and a Blue zone. 

     When in the Green Zone, the student’s relaxed. Keeping students in the Green Zone is foundational for their academic success. Their brains are in a receptive state. They’re learning!

     When they become nervous or angry, they enter the Red Zone. They become reactive and may act out with defiant and aggressive behavior. In the Blue Zone, students collapse, becoming withdrawn and shutting down.

     Students in the Red or Blue zones don’t hear much of what their teachers are saying. They’re not ready to learn.

     Again, Green Zone is the key. It’s where students listen and learn. The larger the Green Zone, the greater the possibility for learning. The larger the Green Zone at school, the better the culture. Our goal is to build the Green Zone at all of our schools.

     Back to personal relationships. Dr. Bryson said, it’s about understanding all individuals have issues. Understanding we all have issues is how we’re going to build the Green Zone here.

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Project-based Learning at PAHS

     Starting slowly, with the intention of building trust, and enlarging the Green Zone, we’ve implemented an NTN period at the end of the day. It’s a 70-minute block period for all students to work on a project. Eventually, with community support, all students will work with a community partner.

     So far, I’ve heard of a student who wants to learn how to resurface PAHS’s basketball court. He’s partnering with a concrete contractor. Another wants to build a surfboard, and another a musical instrument. I know of other kids who are doing automotive projects and one who wants to be a vet intern.

     I asked PAHS Social Studies teacher, Shawn McMahon, who accompanied us to the conference, to share his insight on NTN project-based learning. In future columns, I’ll follow his students and their NTN projects.

What drew you to Point Arena High School?

I grew up in a small coastal town near Half Moon Bay, and I've always wanted to teach and raise my family in a similar community: one where folks know and care about each other. I love the North Coast, the redwoods, and the ocean, so the fit seems natural.

What do you like about NTN?

I believe that project-based learning can act as an engagement point for a variety of learners.

What did you learn at the NTN conference?

I learned about the complexity of creating engaging projects and how it can differ from other pedagogical methods.

What are the NTN project goals, from your perspective?

The goal of implementing NTN projects at PAHS is to help students develop agency, resiliency, and a passion for life-long learning. Students can become active in their learning through the connection between academic content and their personal lives and interests.

When are the NTN projects due?

Due dates depend on the complexity of the projects. Some projects will last less than a semester, others will last a full year.

How will you grade them?

Students will be graded according to standards-based grading rubrics.

Will there be a community mentor for each student eventually?

Students are required to meet with a mentor.

Can parents help students with their projects?

To the best of their ability, parents/guardians should support their children by providing them with a suitable space to work and teaching them how to manage their time.


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