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Monday, September 13, 2010

Lighting a Fire

I just finished reading Fires in the Mind: What Kids Can Tell Us About Motivation and Mastery by Kathleen Cushman and her students as a part of my graduate school work.  While I found the book interesting, I would like to point out one of the key pieces I am walking away from the book with.  For those of you who love project based learning, this is something to keep in mind.  [My apologies as I feel like I am cheating using a post for my graduate school blog as my Don't Just Put a Movie On blog, but oh well!]

There were many sections of this book that spoke to me as an educator, but one that I believe directly connects to my practice was the criteria for a first-rate project on page 144.  At High Tech High we talk a great deal about the six a's of project planning.  While I like to keep those in my mind when creating a project, I believe that this list should be added to every person's checklist when crafting a project.

1. We clearly state the central question that our project addresses.
Without a central question, a project cannot succeed.  Last year for our festival project, our students worked on an interdisciplinary biology and humanities project.  When you go back and look at the project, we did not satisfy the six a's; however, I believe that the project was still a success because the students created their own central questions, completed their own research, and then displayed their learning.  We had a clearly stated overarching question that each group had to answer, but then students created their own individual essential questions for their own work.  They were motivated to answer their questions because they created them and decided what they wanted to learn about a topic.

2. We collaborate on planning and carrying out the project.
Every good project allows for student input in the different stages of a project.  From the planning, the day-to-day of the project, and the reflection, students needs to have time to voice how they are doing with the project and their opinions of it.  When we sit in our classrooms and create projects without asking students what they think about it, we forget one of our most important audiences.

3. We gather evidence from several primary and secondary sources, including at least one interview with an expert in the field.
As a student with a history background, I live and breathe primary and secondary sources.  I always include them in my teaching because I think too often students are afraid of "really old" documents or language that they cannot understand.  The sense of accomplishment that comes from analyzing and spending time with this material, questioning it and getting it wrong, then going back and finally understanding and mastering it is indescribable.  I had a student who came to me with a question about James Baldwin's essay titled "Stranger in a Village." She stayed up a few hours past her bedtime not because the assignment was due the next day (because it wasn't) but because she did not want to go to bed until she had figured out what he was trying to say.  In our discussion on the essay after school, she realized she had it all wrong, but was even more excited to go back and find out what she could from the piece and master it.  This is why primary and secondary sources are important and not those dreaded textbooks.

4. We set deadlines for all project tasks and meet them.
I partly agree with this.  For one project I had students complete all the deadlines themselves, and it worked.  For another project, I created "check-ins" or "benchmarks" for students to follow.  They did not have to, but many of them did, and it worked as well.  As long as student choice in the deadlines is involved, whether they create them, or they can decide to meet them or not, then it will be successful.

5. We seek out critique along the way and revise our work as needed.

6. We deliver a product or performance that throughly addresses the project's central question.
A student asked me in class the other day, "How do you know you have an impact on your students?"  My response to him was that I don't know in the moment if I do, but I can see it when I look at interactions I have with my students.  I can also see it when they bring their parent or friend to school and show them what they worked on.  When they perform their product to their audience and they are excited about it.  That is always when I know I have had an impact on my students.

7. We give evidence that our project had a positive impact.
One of my professional goals this year is to work on this component.  This has always been a challenge for me because how do we measure whether this has happened or not.  If one outsider experienced the project, is that enough?  If a student has changed his/her ideas and has become a more knowledgeable citizen for it, is that enough?  This is an area that I am still exploring and trying to figure out.

8. We reflect on our process and our product.
I think this piece is important especially when as a teacher we care more about the process and less about the product.  I was working with a group of students and even with critique after critique and meetings with the instructors and others, they still had not produced a piece of beautiful work.  It was not a piece of beautiful work in the eyes of the instructor, but also in the eyes of the students.  They learned more from that experience than they would have if their piece had been exhibited.  This is why the process of a project is important and figuring out ways to assess that process is something we as educators must continuously work on.
I am reminded of a comment a colleague of mine made years ago at a meeting with a group of students. He was referencing Plato's Allegory of the Cave and was making the claim to our students that they are all the light atop of a candlestick.  If you walk too fast, you can easily be blown out.  If you walk too slow, you won't be able to light up the room.  You must find the pace for yourself in order to light up the world around you, and in doing so, you will ignite the fire in your mind.  As educators, that is what we must to with and for our students.

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