Friday, September 21, 2012

Flexibility is KEY

This is a follow-up to "So what if it's a project?"

I never did come up with a better project idea. I had the edges of something but I couldn't make it resolve. So I picked two of the more school-y but somewhat authentic projects (newspaper, conversation photostory) and let them pick. Before starting, though, we spent half an hour on a review warm-up (bellringer) that I planned as a quick thing. I saw with my first block class how much time they were taking to do it, but not in a "those kids are slacking" way - they were thinking hard about it and trying to do it without looking at their notes, and I decided that my planned 10 minutes of review at the beginning of class could be half an hour of letting them struggle with this. They struggled and then we discussed it. I asked them who was the easiest and then it just went from there.

What's the point? The point is flexibility. The point is the lesson plan is only the introduction to the story. I'm not always good at remembering that, but when I do, I am in that moment seeing what is happening for the students and willing to change around based on what I see on their faces and hear in their voices, those are some of my best moments as a teacher. This simple warm up was not something I expected to be a powerful learning experience - but something about it challenged them and they rose to that challenge and were willing to push through and work on it. I had kids who are not my 'hand-always-up' types coming up to me as I circulated and just let them work, and struggle, and say "Martin Luther was from Germany, right?" and the excitement in their voice at knowing this, at remembering without looking at their notes, got me excited.

After that it was time to introduce the projects. I went over the two options, they got in their groups and picked one, I handed out directions and spent the rest of class just circulating and helping out. I both love and hate those classes. I love it because I feel the most engaged with the students but I hate it because there's 26 kids in the room who all want a conversation with me to resolve their concerns so I'm worn out by the end of the period.

What happened with the projects? Out of 3 classes, only 4 groups are doing a photostory because a newspaper is easier. One group, however, took the two ideas and ran, asking if they could basically do a newscast. Some groups got into their newspapers, making it sound authentic. Some are basically rewriting the notes into their own words and calling it an article while others asked for textbooks and resources to look up additional information. Two kids called me out on details I remembered wrong. Although very few students did not get engaged and work hard, there were those few I didn't reach.

I don't know how to judge this in terms of success. Success at helping them grapple with the content? Some already got it and are just flying, others did have to go back and review and ask questions and seem to have learned from it, others seem not to be learning much from it, just completing the requirements. Success as a (somewhat) authentic project? Assuming the role of a newscaster or newspaper writer seems to have had an appeal to some students, but I'm not going to make big assertions about authenticity.

Overall I'm glad I went forward with the projects even if I couldn't make a grander idea resolve. Last week there was a lot of lecture in my regular World History classes, and to be honest, I got bored. If I'm bored, you KNOW the students are. Even if this wasn't the perfect implementation of project-based learning, it was a step in the right direction with a unit that I have previously struggled very hard with teaching. There's other topics where this is easy for me - the Industrial Revolution, for example, is incredibly easy to create simulations and stimulating activities for - but the Reformation has always been a struggle to teach well. For the first time in years I feel like I made progress on that.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

So what if it's a project?

So today's dilemma is about World History II. I'm home planning with a little leisure time for once because we all got sent home after work and after school meetings were cancelled due to severe weather warnings. The plan was to slightly modify a skit project that one of my colleagues has his kids do on the Protestant Reformation. So I sat here and read through it again, thought about other project ideas, and then started to think some more.

The problem with this is that now I'm doubting my whole plan. If I weren't doubting it I could just make a few tweaks and be done and get up early to make the copies I would've made this afternoon. Given time to reflect, I start to doubt the entire premise.

See, history teachers like to do projects that are "somewhat authentic" - we're taught in college that this a better way to assess history knowledge and get kids interested in a subject than just lecture/notes and tests. The idea has been popularized by the History Alive! folks. Don't get me wrong - I like a lot of what they do. I'm just so skeptical anymore about standard history teacher projects.

As a new teacher I jumped into these ideas, following what I was taught.  I've had some success but over the years I've come to be skeptical of projects like have the students write a newspaper on the Reformation or make skits or interview historical figures. Do the kids really learn more from doing this or do they focus on the product and not retain the information? Plus, how engaging are they, really? The kids who already come to my class with some motivation will find a hook, but those are the same kids that gave me gorgeously detailed artwork for an assignment on finding pictures related to each religion we studied in Unit 1. What about everybody else? Why should they care more about writing a fake newspaper about the Reformation than notes?

I know a lot of people's answer to this is audience. Despite some initial ideas I never really jumped into the idea of having kids blog or otherwise post schoolwork online. Honestly it doesn't seem that much better - it's just another form of the same old phony project. Like how webquests were going to be so awesome (I had to make one in college for my class on social studies specific pedagogies) but turned out to be just another form of making kids do research projects, except now there's a computer. I do not believe that adding a computer/the internet suddenly makes it better. Sorry.

Unfortunately all of this has left me with lots of questions and no answers. I have time in my schedule (for once) to do more than go over the basics of the Reformation and I already told the kids we're doing a group project starting tomorrow and I want to throw my existing plan out the window and it's 7pm.

So yeah, that's my dilemma right nw.