The Phoenix Project at the International School of Beijing (ISB) is an annual six-week interdisciplinary assignment where grade 7 students must rebuild a society.
The alarm sounds. A newscast appears on the screens. There’s been an earthquake. People have been evacuated.
Just over 100 grade 7 students at ISB are now refugees. Their task: Find a way to rebuild their decimated society.
The alarm has signaled the kick-off of the Phoenix Project—an annual six-week highly interdisciplinary assignment where grade 7 students are presented with a disaster scenario and must rebuild.
The project—an intricate exercise in developing leadership, innovation, and creativity skills — wrapped up its fourth iteration on December 13.
“The Phoenix Project gives [the students] a way to see how all the disciplines are intertwined in very valuable life skills and how they work in the real world,” says Aaron Mar, the faculty leader of the project and humanities teacher at ISB. “The ability to come together as a team in a short amount of time and create a project that is well-researched—they’re learning a skill set that’s extremely valuable.”
As the grade 7 students are ushered into the school’s stadium on that first day in mid-October, they discover large tents erected with various stations where they can find roles and responsibilities to assume. Teachers and staff from across disciplines are there for support, such as counselors and nurses.
First come the empathy exercises where the students must carry water around the track to simulate the distance they would need to do this in a real disaster situation.
“They begin to realize that water isn’t an easily accessible resource,” says Mar. “It’s heavy and they have to find a way to filter it.”
Once these initial activities take place, the students then check in to different stations and receive new identities that will help them rebuild their civilization.
A lesson in the interdisciplinary
Each subject’s curriculum from mid-October to mid-December is developed around the Phoenix Project.
“All the grade 7 students do it in their classes,” says Mar. “In developing the curriculum, we took the standards we wanted to hit, and found the best way to put the project together in a way that would be engaging.”
Science class, for example, means examining the needs of the human body, as well as, the ecological surroundings of their new society. Recognizing the importance of water, students in this class developed a water purification system using household items. They also studied tectonics, looking at numbers, and extracting what these numbers mean.
Math builds upon these numbers, integrates geometry, and teaches how numbers and statistics can be used to make informed decisions.
Humanities class takes this scientific evidence to examine the needs of a society, how to form a government that serves these needs, and how to create convincing arguments when differing views are at play. During these classes, the students also learn about different types of government systems.
A team-building exercise for both students and teachers
Not only are all the students working together, but the Phoenix Project also means the grade 7 faculty must work together to develop a largely interdisciplinary program for at least six weeks of the year.
“It keeps the teachers fresh,” says Mar. “We have to work together and be more engaged than we would in a normal project. There’s more opportunity to delve into where the kids are at in other subjects and use what they’re learning at the time in our own classes.
“For example, in humanities, knowing math and statistics makes our argumentative papers better. They see how they can use a number to support an argument.”
The Phoenix Project culminates in six different town halls where the students debate the next steps for the new society they spent weeks creating. Parents attend as engaged and voting citizens.
The day before the town hall, the grade 7s are broken into groups of six and told they are either defending a decision to move back to the city where the earthquake occurred and rebuild, or a wish to move to another city and start fresh.
Each side is given three blocks of class time to prepare their arguments before presenting them to the citizens (the parents) for a vote at the town hall. This year, the return to their home city was chosen—by a slim margin.
“The ability to work as a team is the number one skill,” says Mar. “At first, the kids always struggle with the idea that they have to get this done with minimal adult influence from here on out. It’s a scary thing, but they get through it…with minimal tears.
“They keep building upon what they learn from class to class. It’s amazing to see the engagement you get because they’re all so into it. It brings out some amazing things in the kids you wouldn’t normally see during a regular lesson.”