A few years back, I decided to try my hand at home winemaking. I watched videos online, and I joined a few groups on Facebook and read through different threads. I found blogs and articles about the art and science of making wine. I picked up a book on wine tasting and ordered a couple other books of recipes and instructions for building and using home winery equipment. I talked with winemakers at local wineries, asked lots of questions, and even toured some of the production and storage facilities. When I finally built up the nerve, I ordered a home winemaking kit. It came with all of the basic equipment I would need to make my first batch of wine. When it arrived, I pulled everything out and looked at it. I had more to learn. I went online and searched for instructions on how to use a hydrometer properly. I watched a couple videos showing people using racking canes. I put everything back in the box because I was really intimidated. I watched more videos, read more, and asked more questions. Finally, I visited a home brew store, and I purchased an ingredients kit. It came with juice, yeast, all of the other additives I’d need, and most importantly, it had detailed instructions. The old Italian woman who owned the store pulled the instructions out of the box and pointed out a couple of things, and she told me where to deviate from the instructions to get better results. Within a few days, the airlock on my bucket was bubbling away, and my house smelled like a winery. Within a couple of months, we were sipping on homemade green apple Riesling.
After I’d been through the process once, I was off and running. I started buying juice, juice concentrates, and fresh fruit from grocery stores and local farms. Today, I can throw some water, sugar, fruit, pectic enzyme, potassium metabisulphite, yeast nutrient, and a few other things in a bucket, adjust the sugar level to reach an appropriate specific gravity, pour a packet of EC-1118 on top, and I’ll have an active fermentation within a day or two. After about 8-10 days, I’ve got wine. There are other steps between the finished fermentation and the wine glass, but you get the idea. I could go home today, take ingredients that I have in my freezer and pantry, and have 30-35 bottles of wine within 6 or 8 weeks. To be fair, I have nearly 40 gallons of wine in different stages of the aging process at home right now. These days I like to let wine age for a year or so before I put it in bottles; it creates a much smoother finish. I make 30-35 bottle batches for about $2 per bottle, and some of my wines, in my personal opinion, are better than the ones that I can buy locally.
What exactly did I do here? I spent time gathering background information, learning the process, and identifying areas where I may run into obstacles. Next, I used pre-measured ingredients and instructions to practice the process with support. From there, I went off on my own, and started making my own wine based on my own tastes and preferences, and I continued tweaking my methods as I went. After making a few batches, I started to wonder what it would take to make wine commercially. I started doing research on the permits and processes that are required to produce and sell wine. I figured out how much it might cost to get the proper permits and worked to determine if it would even be feasible to pursue this as a side job or second career. More reading. More asking questions. More thinking.
This all started because my wife and I once spent a weekend away, and we stopped into a winery for lack of better things to do. We enjoyed it, and since then we’ve made it a point to check out wineries every chance we get. At one particular location, the owner showed me where he made his wine, and told me that it had just been a hobby of his until he was laid off from his factory job.
Think of your own example. What did you learn? What was your process? How did you learn, practice, and improve your skills? Why did you want to learn that particular thing? What motivated you when you faced obstacles or challenges? How did you know when you’d finally learned it?
Now, think back to a time when you were a student in a classroom. Were you interested in what you were learning? Were you inspired by someone to learn about Trans-Saharan trade in the 1300s? Were you able to explore course content in a way that worked best for you and your learning style? Did you practice the skill or concept and then go off and do it on your own in the real world? Did you connect with what you were learning?
I currently work in an alternative high school. Our students have all been in some sort of trouble before they were sent to us, and they’ve dealt with a lot of obstacles outside of school. All of the things they warn teachers about students facing outside of school are present and accounted for here. We deal with drugs, trauma, poverty, race-related issues, hunger, homelessness, abuse, gun violence, gang affiliation, foster care, addiction, teen pregnancy, fighting, childhood cancer, alcohol abuse, underage drinking, academic underachievement, and overall feelings of hopelessness.
When I started teaching in this district, one of the first things I found in the high school English curriculum was something about having students read selected works of William Shakespeare to help them understand adversity. I was floored that anyone could think that Shakespeare could teach these kids about adversity. They live it every single day of their lives. Why wouldn’t we be using their experiences and their interests to engage them in learning that truly matters to them? Maybe you’re thinking about curriculum, and standards, and assessments now. If we really think about standards; though, in most cases they describe skills and concepts more than content. They can be deconstructed into specific learning targets that can be laid out as simply as what a student needs to know, and what a student needs to be able to do. The whole purpose is for students to build skills and understanding so that they can then apply those skills and their understanding in situations that they face in the future and hopefully in the real-world outside of the classroom.
Let’s circle back to my winemaking adventure. Obviously, high school students can’t be fermenting wine in the back of a classroom, but it’s my example, and I’m running with it. From start to finish, while learning to make wine, what skills and concepts did I potentially master or at least gain some knowledge and experience with?
I analyzed a complex set of ideas or sequence of events; determined the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in a text, including figurative, connotative, and technical meanings; integrated and evaluated multiple sources of information presented in different print and non-print formats in order to address a question or solve a problem; conducted research projects to answer a question (including a self-generated question) or solve a problem; narrowed or broadened the inquiry when appropriate; synthesized multiple sources on the subject, demonstrating understanding of the subject under investigation; gathered relevant information from multiple authoritative print and digital sources, using advanced searches effectively; assessed the strengths and limitations of each source in terms of the task and purpose; and I determined or clarified the meaning of unknown and multiple-meaning words and phrases.
I worked with the volumes of a variety of differently shaped containers and used them to solve real-world problems.
Through fermentation, I modeled cellular respiration as a chemical process whereby the bonds of food molecules and oxygen molecules are broken, and the bonds in new compounds are formed resulting in a net transfer of energy, and I evaluated the evidence supporting claims that changes in environmental conditions may result in the extinction of a species. Did you know that when yeast use oxygen and consume sugar, the by-products are alcohol and carbon dioxide? Eventually, when the alcohol level reaches a certain point, the yeast die. They literally pollute their environment until they can no longer survive.
In learning about regulations and the feasibility of opening and operating a commercial winery, I analyzed ways in which competition and government regulation influence what is produced and allocated in an economy, and I performed cost-benefit analysis on a real-world situation, using economic thinking to describe the marginal costs and benefits of a particular situation.
While naming different varieties of wines and creating bottle labels, I generated and conceptualized artistic ideas and work; refined and completed artistic work; and organized and developed artistic ideas and work.
Finally, through the whole process, I used a decision-making process to develop solutions to real world problems; modeled flexibility and willingness to try new things; outlined and examined goals and priorities necessary to complete tasks; evaluated failure as a learning opportunity; demonstrated and evaluated personal responsibility and pride in assigned work (e.g., asking clarifying questions, self-directed learning, self-initiated learning, quality of work); applied important concepts in reading, mathematics, science, and technology to solve real-world problems; explored various options related to a chosen career cluster; and evaluated a career, including educational requirements, skills necessary to perform the job, potential earnings and job outlook in a geographical area.
All of these actions are in some way, and on some level, Kentucky academic standards, or parts of standards in English, Math, Science, Social Studies, Art, and Career studies. Everything from studying before I started to make my own wine, creating a live fermentation, understanding how some yeast has higher alcohol tolerances, figuring out how many bottles I’d need per batch of wine, to researching commercial winery requirements, accidentally letting a Cabernet Sauvignon get too warm, and designing wine labels, is a demonstration of learning and growth that is aligned with standards.
If school is intended to prepare students for the real world, then why do we insist on seat-time, teacher-created lessons and assessments, worksheets, meaningless tasks, and tests? Why wouldn’t we allow students to explore our world, let them generate evidence of their own learning and mastery, help them align their work with academic standards, provide them with feedback, and then assess them on their growth and progress toward their personal goals and mastery of standards? Truly personalized learning places students at the center of their own learning. It puts them in the driver’s seat, and changes the teacher’s role to act as guardrails, keeping students on the path of learning. Students can pursue their interests, passions, and aspirations. Imagine the academic possibilities if a student wanted to explore the physics behind car crashes; the chemistry behind internal combustion engines; the math and economics behind the stock exchange; the art of persuasion in marketing and sales communications; the work required to be an entrepreneur; or the math involved in accounting. Students could gain real-world experience, build personal and professional networks, and explore the world while using their talents and experiences to carve out a path to their own vision of success. Personalized learning is not just student voice and choice. It’s not just self-paced. It’s not digital curriculum, or a menu of teacher-created options; personalized learning is personal, individualized, and student-centered. Personalized learning means something different for every student.