John Derian

Meet John Derian

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CIRCL perspectives offer a window into the different worlds of various stakeholders in the cyberlearning community — what drives their work, what they need to be successful, and what they think the community should be doing. Share your perspective.

John Derian

John Derian is a science teacher at The Brooklyn International High School, teaching 9th/10th grade Living Environment and Physical Science. BIHS is a public high school whose student body is comprised entirely of recently arrived immigrants to New York City. In his classroom alone, he has over eight languages represented. John develops curriculum that is mostly interdisciplinary, project-based inquiry science, and shares it through his Project Based Science Curriculum web site.

How did you get started in cyberlearning?

I was a buddy at the Cyberlearning 2016 (CL16) conference. I was nominated by Joy Nolan, whom I work with through the Mastery Collaborative group that works with the NYC Department of Education. Joy works with a lot of public schools. I accompanied Lauren Goldenberg to CL16, where I got involved with the project driven learning workshop group. I’m really excited to be a part of that working group, and the prospect of connecting researchers and practitioners in the classroom and how we can both learn from each other.

What would you like people to know about you?

My philosophy of teaching is that project based curriculum design that is really focused on skill development creates an environment where students have fun learning and are interested in what they’re learning. I found that when students are having fun, they’re more engaged with the curriculum, and it feels like the learning is a lot more rich. This philosophy comes from the students really. At Brooklyn International High School, all of my students are recently arrived immigrants to New York City. In my classroom I have around 14 different countries represented, and eight to nine different languages. They come from all sorts of backgrounds, culturally and regarding their education. I have found the best way to support this diverse group of learners is project based curriculum with a focus on skill development. It creates a camaraderie amongst the people in the group, and it also makes the learning very purposeful: what they’re learning is being immediately used in the application of projects. Project based curriculum is also part of the culture of our school. Most of our teachers design their own curriculum. As our students go to the higher grades, they become very accustomed to this type of learning environment.

I’ve been teaching for about eight years now, focusing on two types of projects. The first is where students are building something and going through the design process. The second is associated with performance: for example, a debate, creating a podcast, creating a green screen news report, or conducting a trial where they’re collecting forensic evidence for looking at a crime scene. When it comes to podcasts and TV news reports, something that I have noticed in the past year–and something I’ve been really interested in developing more–is using media technology, whether it’s voice or video, to support my English language learners. Usually for those types of performance projects, I design it so that it develops their research skills and they have to come up with some questions connected to a certain topic. For instance, for astronomy, each group will create a podcast about their planet. Individually they’re responsible for different aspects of the project–so one of them is an expert in the orbit of Mars, and the other is an expert in the composition of Mars. Based on those areas of expertise, they develop some focus questions that they research, and once they’ve gone through the research process, they use that to write a script for their podcast. They’re using the evidence they collect and figuring out how to use this evidence to tell a story about their area of expertise–and through that, learning about broadcast journalism and how to organize information, as well as how to present information in a way that is interesting and entertaining for the listener.

What I’ve found to be really interesting is that when they record their voice and then hear themselves, there’s this error recognition that happens. It’s not just errors connected to their grammar, its errors connected to their research and the evidence that they found. I’ve had students come up to me and say “John can I go back to my computer? I need to do some more research” and when I ask why they say, ”Well when I was listening to myself, I found that the evidence that I used wasn’t connected to the cause, it was actually an example of effects. I need to find more evidence for cause.” So there’s error recognition–but the best part is that they’re self motivated to to make that change, to make that revision. There’s something about the nature of recording your voice and hearing your voice and then knowing that it’s going to be published that is a real motivating factor for students to go back and revise without me urging them to do so.

What are you struggling with now?

I’m struggling right now with how to communicate with other teachers who are approaching project based curriculum for the first time–how to communicate the “why?” and “hHow?” of project based curriculum design. I’ve found that often teachers look at curriculum that is a project and they immediately think it’s great, but then they think about the realities of their high school, and those realities don’t allow for project based curriculum or it’s too intimidating to design. So I struggle with how to communicate with other educators about how to design their own project based curriculum. The most useful approach I think is to start with what you have, start small, and repeat experiences. The more you design projects, the more it gives you a sense of the nature of them. The more you do it, the better you begin to understand all the details that go into designing and facilitating project based curriculum. Even just having a project that’s already created, and just going through the experience of facilitating a project, gives a better understanding of how it works.

If I walked into a learning environment that was using your curriculum, what would be different/what would that look like?

You’d see the different systems that are in place to support students moving through curriculum. You might see a student group planner that they’re working on at the beginning of class trying to figure out what they need to do for the day, or identifying their goals and the scaffolds for the different parts of the project and how to use those scaffolds to support individual work within a group collaborative project. When a project is going well, students know what they need to do next: they finish one thing and immediately begin working on the next thing. That’s something that I look for. Sometimes students will come in at the beginning of class and I won’t say anything; I just see how they get started with class. Do they just begin working on the project? Usually that happens towards the middle of a project once everything is flowing and students are familiar with what they need to do with the project. Sometimes we won’t have a formal beginning to the class. I find that it can help the class flow better if I can touch base with the class 10 minutes into the beginning. It’s nice to get it started like that.

What should the cyberlearning community be doing? What kinds of help or support would you like from cyberlearning community?

Going to the Cyberlearning conference was my first time interacting with the cyberlearning community, and what stood out to me was how little communication occurs between researchers and teachers. I think the cyberlearning community could help bridge that gap. I found that it’s already started to. I’m a part of a working group talking and working with researchers, and work and communication has helped me to better understand my practice. Specifically, it’s helped me to understand different types of project based curriculum and levels of it. There’s the most basic level for teachers who are approaching PBL for the first time; they’d like a framework to approach it with. One framework is where students learn content and then use that content to complete some kind of project. A different type of project based curriculum design is that the content is learned through the completion of the project. There’s always student choice, but in the right environment–such as a makerspace–there’s a lot of freedom and exploration for students to drive their own learning. I don’t know what kind of structure could or should be placed on that. but there is a freedom of learning that is associated with project based curriculum. The working group has also made me think about how to design my curriculum and how to communicate with other educators. The cyberlearning community could really bridge the gap between teachers in the classroom and researchers. I feel like we both have much to learn from each other.