science

Design Thinking in Middle School: A Human-Centered Approach to 21st Century Learning Vision

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Students exploring

Technology advances at a rapid pace.  So fast that it often outpaces advancements in education policy and practice. Students are often way ahead of the curve while teachers who learned pedagogical methods in days when there were many less avenues for incorporating technology into classrooms lag far behind them in terms of technological facility. This is compounded by the fact that every student learns in a different way, and with more and more options, it gets increasingly difficult to cater to the individual needs of students. This is what makes the Design Thinking in Middle School: A Human-Centered Approach to 21st Century Learning Vision project really stand out. They aim to bolster the technological aptitude of their educators while designing more individualized curriculum for their students. In pursuit of this vision for student learning, a team of teachers at Southeast Middle School applied with their Board of Education to open a magnet center on campus. The focus of this magnet center is to bring a three “I” –  Interest, Impact, and Innovation- driven approach to teaching and learning.

Goals

 In order to better understand where they find themselves as of their last progress report, it’s important to understand the goals they set out to accomplish.

Students will work on collaborative, cross-curricular projects that center on design thinking, a powerful learning tool that teaches students to use empathy and critical thinking to tackle problems of any kind from a human-centered point of view. In their model, the teacher’s role is to provide opportunities for discovery and to guide students to understanding through their innovation projects. The transition from a teacher-centered, depository learning framework to a student-centered, design-based learning approach requires teachers to work in a highly collaborative environment to develop cross-curricular and student-centered projects.

So, in their first year, how did they go about doing this?

Before they could start they had to answer a few key questions for themselves, and anyone looking to replicate this program would do well to do the same.

  1. What resources are currently available and/or necessary to obtain in order to successfully realize their stated vision?
  2. How might the concepts learned in the theme-based professional development activities be applied to their specific school context?
  3. What effect(s) might a design thinking approach to teaching and learning have on school performance, as measured by five instructional pillars (teaching) and the ISTE 21st century skill standards (learning)?

These questions guided their approach and the following methods were applied.

  1. Conduct a needs assessment and establish a teacher growth plan,
  2. Plan and implement teacher developed lessons tailored to the classroom context, and
  3. Evaluate the impact of the project on student learning and extract teacher learning through reflective practices.
Students collaborating on their projects

Their first year found its focus in the first two milestones. One of their priorities this year was to help the new magnet teachers build a theoretical grounding in the foundations of design thinking in K-12 education. They found early on in the project that this looked different for every teacher, based on their subject area, experience level, and their personal interests in areas of growth. Because of these disparate levels of experience, as a team, they decided that more experienced teachers would take on a more robust menu of learning opportunities that were designed to fill in gaps in theoretical and clinical knowledge and to prepare themselves to be teacher leaders in the new school. Their primary learning focus as a teacher leader team was to increase their capacity to understand and teach in alignment with a program theme of design thinking through project-based learning.

So, a year in, where are they?

Their collection of professional development opportunities during Year One has helped teachers develop a greater capacity for executing the magnet program’s vision of developing a human-centered approach to 21st century learning. Teacher leaders are using their learnings from model school visits, workshop and trainings, and collaborative planning sessions, to develop a comprehensive instructional technology plan, to plan and implement theme-based lessons tailored to their classroom contexts, and to develop a comprehensive introductory professional development plan for novice teachers. This included the teacher leaders themselves sharing their learnings through professional development sessions that they curated from their experiences in Year One of the project.

Students were able to develop their skills as digital citizens, innovative designers, knowledge constructors, creative communicators, empowered learners, and global collaborators through design-based, project-based learning tasks throughout the school year. Additionally, they were able to showcase their learning at multiple community events at their school site and within the larger learning community of South Gate. News and pictures of the events were shared on the school website at <http://southeastms-lausdca.schoolloop.com/&gt;. Teacher-leaders are currently designing their digital portfolios to showcase their student projects on the magnet program website <www.dreamsmagnet.org>.

But no project is without challenges. What were some that they faced?

The biggest thing they had to contend with was finding substitute teachers within the budget. This allowed the participating educators to take time off from class for professional development. This is being solved in the second year by reallocating some of the grant money to pay for that.

It’s never too late to educate yourself on the latest technology. Even though chances are, by the time you’ve mastered it there will be something new. But that shouldn’t stop us from trying to narrow the technology gap between students and educators, and this project sounds like one way to do it.

Further reading

Full STEAM Ahead with Project Based Learning

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All aboard and Full STEAM Ahead!

Project Photo, Full Steam Ahead
Project Photo, Full Steam Ahead

The educators over at Bates Middle School in Sumter, South Carolina have been working hard laying tracks for the past year in order to bring their exciting project to fruition. By combining Project Based Learning (PBL) and a curriculum focus on Science, Technology, Engineering, the Arts and Mathematics (STEAM) and working with local businesses they are hoping to create a new generation of students who are prepared to be in an agile and competitive work force. One of the brilliant concepts behind this project is that nothing exists in a vacuum. You can’t well understand engineering if you don’t have a good handle on physics. You can’t code a videogame without understanding the underlying code. And you certainly can’t have music without math.

The Full STEAM Ahead project aims to remove the traditional isolation of subjects through the use of the “Critical C’s” of Collaboration, Cooperation and Communication which are emphasized with project based learning through interdisciplinary activities.

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Now that they are a year in, let’s see what has transpired. 

Bates teachers, led by the Transforming Learning Together (TLT)

Project Photo, Full Steam Ahead
Project Photo, Full Steam Ahead

mentor teachers, in the first stage of this initiative begun by identifying large-scale student learning goals for the year. They then researched new teaching approaches in order to integrate STEAM and Project Based Learning to help them achieve their goals, along with developing “action plans” for each year’s practice. The belief was that art can spark creativity in young scientists and engineers, develop observational abilities, and strengthen collaborative skills. One of the guiding questions for this project is ” How can we improve instruction, pedagogy, and student learning across the curriculum through the use of STEAM and PBL?”

Project Photo, Full Steam Ahead
Project Photo, Full Steam Ahead

So how do they propose to do this?

They began by having their trainers and the TLT team attend a PBL and STEAM workshop that spaned six sessions. This team returned to Bates to lead the entire staff through a STEAM Project Based Learning activity in order to familiarize everyone with the methods. Teachers investigated and utilized critical inquiry to work through this challenge. The thinking was that teachers will experience everything that the students do, giving them the tools to help elevate the projects as well as answer previously unanticipated questions. Teachers then guided students through one PBL unit in the first year of implementation.

 

A year in… where are they now?

They started off by providing professional development to their teachers during the first semester of the school year. STEAM lessons were developed to be a part of the regular curricula as well as embedded in Project Based Learning. The second semester brought about school-wide PBL units. Then on March 24th, there was a school-wide PBL Kickoff to begin the grade level units.  This is where things really began to take off. For this initial thrust into the unknown they gave each year a different subject field to dig into. Sixth graders explored the guiding question: “Are animals placed in captivity at an advantage or disadvantage than those in their natural habit? Why/ Why not?”

Project Photo, Full Steam Ahead
Project Photo, Full Steam Ahead

The kick-off was a field trip to the Riverbanks Zoo. The 6th graders researched the question and created suitable habitats for animals of their choice. The 7th graders explored the guiding question: “How can we be prepared for the unexpected?” Dealing with the preparedness for natural or man-made disasters was the focal point. The Red Cross, Fire Department, EMS, Disaster Management, Police Department, Shaw AFB and Salvation Army each set up a station to explain their role in disasters and how the community can prepare for disasters in the future. Students researched a disaster and prepared community service presentations on disaster preparedness. Eighth graders explored the, very relevant, guiding question: “Can separate be equal?” This question dealt with the Civil Rights movements of 1960 -1990. Guest speakers, Nathaniel Briggs (Briggs vs. Elliot) and Artrell Benbow (civil rights activist in Summerton and Sumter) spoke to the students of their personal experiences. This culminated with the 8th grade Drama class presenting a skit about the infamous Orangeburg Massacre. Students then rotated rooms to watch films about civil rights, explored civil rights virtual museums, and participated in gallery walks. Students researched the civil rights eras of 1960’s through the 1990’s and created projects to address the guiding question. The PBL classes occurred every Tuesday and Thursday beginning March 28th and ended in a PBL Excellence Fair held on May 4th at 6:00 pm at BMS to showcase student work and presentations.

 

What are some challenges facing STEAM/PBL learning?

Project Photo, Full Steam Ahead
Project Photo, Full Steam Ahead

For as exciting as this method of PBL learning is, and it’s clear that it’s starting to work; students and teachers on the whole are more engaged in their study areas… it’s not without it’s challenges.  One of the biggest cited in the report is that not all of the teachers have bought into the STEAM /PBL concept. This makes communicating those ideas to students that much harder.  Further professional development is needed in order to ensure more participation by teachers. They have also had some difficulty setting up model classrooms so we are hoping teachers observing other teachers will assist in this. But as more teachers undergo professional development and find the merit in this method of teaching the easier it will get.  And year two has some exciting things in store for the students.  One word: Robots. We look forward to hearing about their experiences with Robots.

How might Robots, cross-cultural references and civil rights intersect?

Project Photo, Full Steam Ahead
Project Photo, Full Steam Ahead

Let’s mix up that engineering and art a bit, shall we? The term “robot” came from a Czech play called Rossums Universal Robots and is derived from the word “robotnik” which means slave. It’s about a robot who is forced to work for a shady company that then rebels and leads to the extinction of the human race.  It’s bleak, but not without hope.  But it’s a good lesson and a challenge for students on how we should be thinking about a newly created servant class.  Just some food for thought.

 

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Aquaponics: Growing Our Own Food Sustainably

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Learning how to grow food engages culinary students and harvests real-world science in this featured project.

In an age of environmental unpredictability and rising cost of living one thing not being discussed enough is self-sustainability.  Understanding how to grow and prepare one’s own food is an incredible life skill to develop, regardless of one’s chosen profession.  This is something that Michael Kosko and the educators at  Al Raby School for Community and Environment, Chicago, IL are taking on right now through their program “Aquaponics: Growing Our Own Food Sustainably.”  By teaching students how to grow their own herbs and vegetables, alongside certain types of fish they are hoping to create a program that produces students mindful about their environment and who can also cook up a decent, healthy filet of fish.  This program will also provide students with the opportunity to explore issues of food justice and food deserts which many students experience within their communities.

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Recipe for Success

This project is unique to the Chicago area. While there are many culinary and horticulture/agriculture programs in the city, Al Raby will be the first to combine these two types of programs into one. The Office of CTE (career and technical education) Programs provided equipment for the culinary lab.  In the grow lab, students will grow salad greens, kale, and various herbs while taking care of tilapia and koi. Eventually, this program is looking to partner with local businesses to sell the student harvest. In the classroom, students will study the life cycles of plants and fish and the optimal way to grow both. Since this class will be heavily rooted in the scientific method and student inquiry, students will also study how different variables affect plant growth including temperature, light intensity, nutrient/chemical levels, water quality, diseases, and aquatic pests. And since no pesticides or synthetic fertilizers are used, all produce grown in the lab is classified as organic according to the USDA National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) definition.

Building a Grow Lab and Disseminating Learning

Ultimately, the goal of the project was to build out a grow lab in the school to support their preexisting culinary/food science career and technical education (CTE) program when those classes began in September 2016.  Accomplishing that meant getting the grow lab up and running, which they did, leading to a bountiful harvest in May. Students who took the vegetables home came back with rave reviews from family and friends.  

Currently they are working with the Garfield Park Conservatory, to create a teen docent program made up exclusively of Al Raby culinary students. Fifteen of their freshmen students interviewed for ten spots on the inaugural docent team. During the summer, these students work to create educational experiences for area elementary students and during the school year they will be released from their culinary classes once a month to lead tours for second and third graders.

Along with those benefits, this past summer the selected students ran experiments in the grow lab with Akilah Henderson, the Student Engagement Coordinator at the Conservatory. Under Akilah’s guidance the students will tracked the growth of crops on the conservatory’s farm and in the lab, building on the Botany students’ work from the past semester.

Meeting Challenges and Planning for the Future

They were not without difficulties.  Unfortunately they discovered too late that the district requires schools to obtain special permission to raise fish.  Because of this, the first round in the lab had to do without the fish.  But David Blackmon, the program coordinator for all the culinary CTE programs throughout the district, toured the lab earlier in the month and is working with central office to obtain permission for Al Raby to start raising tilapia and koi next school year. Fortuitously, fish can easily be added to the current units in the lab with no modifications once permission is obtained.

Regardless of the fish-hiccups it sounds like the students and educators at Al Raby are off to a great start.  It sounds like before long they’ll be swimming in so much fish and so many vegetables they’ll have have trouble giving them away!

Plans for a dinner for district leaders and community stakeholders are in the works to share the success and help others savor the impact of the project.

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Lesson Study Improves Science Instruction

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Members of 6th grade lesson study team plan research lesson
Members of 6th grade lesson study team plan research lesson

It’s no secret that Lesson Study works.

There are many, well documented success stories and it has been used to great effect in Japan.

There’s a reason Japanese students consistently score in the top ten in the Organization for Economic Operation and Development’s Programme for Student Assessment. But today’s blog isn’t about Japan, it’s about improving the quality of elementary level science instruction and how the educators at Long Branch Elementary in Liverpool, New York are doing it.

What is lesson study?

For those that may not know, Lesson Study is a widely utilized collaborative professional development practice (2015, Wikipedia).  Lesson Study starts with a group of educators that pick a content focus with the express purpose of preparing a research lesson. That group will convene regularly to share research, discuss national, state and local education policies and standards correlating to the subject at hand.  This enables teachers from a wide variety of subjects and disciplines to cross-pollinate their ideas and research with one another in a directed and focused environment.  By observing and critiquing each other’s lessons and delivery these educators are able to elevate each other’s abilities and knowledge base.  And by the transitive property, the students are exposed to a well-constructed lesson plan.

Members of 4th grade lesson study team planning research lesson
Members of 4th grade lesson study team planning research lesson

How are the teachers at Long Branch Elementary using lesson study?

These educators decided to focus their lesson study efforts on the sciences, including studying a national framework for science education and how they could adopt it to fit their specific needs.

According to their proposal, they wanted to be guided by the following three questions:

Pat Guida (foreground)  teaches research lesson as numerous  educators observe and collect data on student thinking  11/14/14
Pat Guida (foreground) teaches research lesson as numerous educators observe and collect data on student thinking 11/14/14
  • How do we design science instruction that makes students’ thinking visible?
  • How can we meet our students’ needs and simultaneously address the new science framework?
  • How will evidence of students’ learning be used to help us revise our original lesson?

What did they learn?

The project at Long Branch Elementary has been so successful that their program and teaching tools have spread to two other schools in the region, with educators from those schools now participating in the lesson study program.  In addition, at the time of their report, they had three out of the four research cycles completed and implemented, with the final research team in the midst of their own cycle and well on their way to completion.

The educators participating expanded their knowledge base about claims/evidence, science content knowledge, and constructivist methods for teaching elementary science.  The teachers also expressed “self-efficacy and confidence in regards to teaching claims and evidence, using inquiry-based instruction and teaching with student science notebooks.”

Dr. Sharon Dotger facilitates a post lesson discussion at Long Branch Elementary School in Liverpool, NY.
Dr. Sharon Dotger facilitates a post lesson discussion at Long Branch Elementary School in Liverpool, NY.

Teachers weren’t the only ones to benefit.  Students had the opportunity to collect data, engage in scientific experimentation and increased the level of science knowledge throughout the course of the cycle.

How did Lesson Study support improved science instruction?

Understandings gleaned from the Lesson Study were used to inform instruction. For example, educators learned that it can be difficult to facilitate discussions with students with varying levels of comfort with the subject matter.  Teachers report that teaching students to make claims based on evidence has been a bit of a pedagogical challenge, as the students tend to confuse evidence with claims. They also found that without visual aids, such as graphs and charts, the difficulty in communicating these ideas increased exponentially. These valuable understandings of what wasn’t working in the science research lessons provided educators with specific modifications they could make in their lessons to make student learning more effective.

What did they learn about implementing Lesson Study?

The structure of their school is not very supportive of lesson study which has forced them to start their meetings during the summer.  They found they cast too wide a net when it came to getting the research groups started and think that scaling down the research lessons will improve the speed in which they can be implemented.

Open Research Lessons at Huntington Hall Commons,  Syracuse University
Open Research Lessons at Huntington Hall Commons, Syracuse University

How can you make this work at your school?

Research and texts on lesson study are not hard to come by.  The biggest challenge you can face is that your school does not have the time or resources to implement the necessary bits and pieces at study inception, however, once the process gets going the road gets easier as the work invested makes future studies easier.  Bottom line? Lesson study works.  Make it work for you.

Learn more about Lesson Study

Inquiry, Relevance, and Citizen Science: A Roadmap to Successful Science Projects

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When students tackle science hands on, they can save the world!

If inquiry is meaningful, real world practices improve student understanding.

Students research water quality with samples they collected.
Students research water quality with samples they collected. Photo from Linda Weber, Project Awardee.

Memorizing the periodic table, a formula to determine the circumference of an atom, or the genus of a frog can be important, but let’s face it… you’re looking at an uphill battle when you are staring down the barrel of sixty drooping eyelids trying to explain why it is important that the student retain this information.

There is ample evidence that students retain very little from lectures in science classes.  There is a reason for this – when you are given lists of equations, tables, or dozens of names to memorize it can be difficult to see where this makes an impact in the real world.

So how do we change this?

Simple.  We help students impact the real world using practical inquiry into local and global science.  Or better yet, take the classroom to the science! Whether students are contributing data to global honey bee research or graphing the skies, citizen science allows students to participate in global scientific inquiry. As explained here, integrating inquiry based science meaningfully in the real world is a tall order for any educator. In this post, we will share with you an example project and supporting resources to inspire this integration in your classroom.

How do educators integrate scientific inquiry and real world relevance?

The Water Quality Project:  A Map to Understanding was reported by Linda Weber of Natick High School in Natick, Massachusetts. The goal of this project at is to let students “do” science like real scientists by observing, questioning, and ultimately coming up with a solution to a problem that can be shared with the larger community.  In the short term, participation allows students to see and experience the process of scientific inquiry first hand, rather than having someone dictate it to them.  In the long term, students who participated would see how the decisions they were making now would impact their lives in the future. According to the National Science Teachers Association’s position statement:

“Scientific inquiry reflects how scientists come to understand the natural world, and it is at the heart of how students learn. From a very early age, children interact with their environment, ask questions, and seek ways to answer those questions. Understanding science content is significantly enhanced when ideas are anchored to inquiry experiences. “

What strategies can be used to increase the real world relevance of the inquiry process?

PBS' Poisoned Waters is available along with an accompanying teacher's guide at pbs.org.
PBS’ Poisoned Waters is available along with an accompanying teacher’s guide at pbs.org.

One of the long term goals of this project included helping students see how the decisions they make today influences their future.  This ambitious goal required teachers to frontload curriculum earlier in the year and to engage students with relevant narratives (like PBS’ Poisoned Waters) and a guest speaker assembly including local and regional water quality scientists.

All of this preparation helped students prepare for real world and hands on activities for the project. These included:

  • Helping out their community
    For the annual Charles River Watershed Association’s clean-up day, students and teachers removed a variety of trash, from traditional cigarette butts and paper to more unusual things like television sets. For the nearly 50 students that participated (on a school vacation weekend, mind you) the experience was insightful. Class discussions about and concern for their environment lingered into the following weeks in class. These shared experiences became the “reason” to investigate water quality in the community rather than the “just the wrap up activity” of the project.
  • Environmental Science and Robotics classes at collection sites test and launch robots, then collect water samples to be analyzed at the site and in class. Photo from Linda Weber, Project Awardee.
    Environmental Science and Robotics classes at collection sites test and launch robots, then collect water samples to be analyzed at the site and in class. Photo from Linda Weber, Project Awardee.

    Collecting local data
    After the students had returned to the area to collect water samples. They used collection robots they built during their classroom time to reach water samples they couldn’t normally get to.  Using technologies like wikis, blogs, and Google Maps they were able to share their results instantly with their classmates.

  • Contributing to global datasets
    The project also included research for the testing parameters of The World Monitoring Day Organization or World Water Monitoring DayThe Water Quality Project isn’t the only program in the United States doing this.  Many other schools (in over 24 countries) are participating in The World Water Monitoring Challenge.  It charges its members to educate and engage students and citizens in the protection of international water resources.
  • Presenting the results
    When all the research was said and done there was a “massive poster presentation” where every student was required to present his or her findings and share ideas for how to improve the water conditions in their community.

Why does it work?

When learning is meaningful, the impact is tangible.

When students have the opportunity to showcase their skills to a larger audience than their teachers or peers it helps to internalize the lessons they learn in the classroom.  This benefit accumulates when the students can see themselves using inquiry-based science to make a real difference in their communities.

Learn more about the resources used in Water Quality: A Roadmap to Understanding
Learn more about Citizen Science

Learn more about integrating Citizen Science in education

Integrated Studies: Placing Learning in the Real World

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How do visual arts, science and literature come together for student engagement and success?

Journaling This month’s blog presents Valuing Place: A study of human impact on the American West an 8th grade integrated studies project that explores the impact of human activity on the American West’s ecosystems.
Ben studies the map of the Great Basin Region in the Visitors Center at Antelope Island State Park.
What is integrated studies?

Integrated studies connects two or more disciplines, showing ideas in context and giving students a more realistic view of how one works in the real world.

Teaching this way promotes:

  • collaboration
  • critical thinking
  • an in-depth understanding of the areas being studied

For support developing an integrated studies approach visit the Edutopia website.

What can integrated studies look like for 8th grade students?

The project Valuing Place is a collaboration between science, humanities and visual arts teachers at the Salt Lake Arts Academy.

Image 2

Through this project teachers have designed a cohesive curriculum that unifies the facts, skills, goals, and knowledge found within their core standards.

By designing a collaborative unit the teachers have created a powerful learning model for future integrated curriculum.

These powerful learning activities included standards-based connections to each content area:

  • In the humanities, students read works of fiction and non-fiction, including primary sources about the settlement of the American West and Utah.
  • In science, the standards addressed the theme of “change” and students were asked to analyze the influence humans have had on the environment. Students studied the geological forces that created the geography of the American West and its natural resources and eco-systems. Through experiments and fieldwork students studied how human activity, along the Wasatch front, positively or negatively impacted the local eco-systems.
  • In visual arts, students were taught photography, basic drawing and watercolor techniques. Additionally they analyzed old photographs and artwork of the American West and Utah.

Emmaline's mantis

Students created original products that showed a deep understanding of the complex issues as a result of western expansion and how those issues remain relevant to the present as well as to the future way of life for Utah.

The Valuing Place project helped students demonstrate:

  • increased proficiency in narrative, expository and informational writing
  • targeted visual arts techniques
  • multiple perspectives about how human activity has impacted their local eco-systems over time.
The Salt Lake Arts Academy has an award-winning leadership program that invites their 8th graders to identify an area that needs improvement and the actions they must initiate to make these improvements a reality. They used this leadership program with the Valuing Place project.
Fieldwork Provides Opportunities For Integrating The Disciplines
How can an integrated studies project evolve?

During Year One of McCarthey Dressman funding, students looked into the changes in the past 150 years to the Wasatch front, and the impact of mining on local eco-systems.

In Year Two of the project, the students looked into the water and the impact of expanding development in the 20th century, the Central Utah Project and reliance on the Colorado River system.

In Year Three the issues and costs of future expansion, green building guidelines, alternative energy sources and conservation were studied.

What is the impact of integrated studies?

Jeni and Jason

In closing, this is an excellent example of how education should work, now and in the future. Instead of learning in discreet, separate subjects, the disciplines are taught in a more integrated manner. Students are studying real problems, understanding the content at a deep level, working in teams and producing products they can be proud of and that are shared with a larger audience.

Next Month’s Topic

BOOM Magazine – an after school program that helps kids of all abilities, from extremely talented to inexperienced writers, express themselves, improve writing abilities, and gain confidence and life skills.