Tuesday, February 7, 2017

I Might Be Projecting

There are many benefits to having a student teacher. The biggest of which, and I've written about this at length, is that it forces me to be a reflective educator. I'm constantly thinking about what I'm doing and justifying the choices I'm making, both to myself and to the student trying to learn to be a teacher from me.

But there are other benefits, especially if you have good student teachers, and I do. A student teacher brings energy to a classroom. New ideas, a willingness to try things, to see how ideas they have work in the real world. I should pause here to add the caveat- If you, as the mentor teacher/cooperating teacher allow and encourage that, and why wouldn't you, don't you want them to be prepared and excited about teaching? One thing that's happening more in my classroom than has happened in the last few years is the Big Research Project. These would be happening without Veronica (my primary student teacher). I got some great ideas at ISTE over the summer and had a list of things I wanted to do with my class when I started this year. But I always have a List of Things To Do. A list that grows and lives and changes throughout the year. It's just that some years I'm better at getting to those things than others.

Here's a secret about me that's probably not much of a secret- I rarely do the same thing the same way more than once in the classroom. I try to evolve lessons and projects. Something didn't work? I take it apart and make it work. Something works? I pick at it to find the loose threads and cut them loose. I like that, but it also makes teaching harder than it needs to be because I don't have a file of Things I Do Every Year that I can reach into with ease. It also doesn't help much that in my eleven years of teaching I've taught 3rd, 4th, 5th, and 6th grade in three states and four schools. Makes it tough to cut-and-paste projects if you want to be responsive at all, and I do. Not to mention I'm constantly getting better with technology and finding new, better ways to do old things. Projects must evolve with that growth as well.

With Veronica's help, my class is in the midst of their third Big Project of the school year. We started with the Hobby Project, then moved to an Animal Project, and our current project is a Scientist Project. And there's one thing Veronica and I are learning together- Building good projects is difficult.

I have a list of Do's and Don't's (that looks wrong) for these things, which I outline for Veronica before we start planning.

  • I DO want student choice. 
  • I DO want a presentation. 
  • I DON'T want a slideshow (slideshows are good for three kids, and I have 36 and that makes you want to take a Sharpie to the eye, not to mention no one actually likes slideshows). 
  • I DO want opportunities for creativity. 
  • I DON'T want surface level, wiki research. 
  • I DO want us to find an interesting angle for the project before giving it to the kids.

Do you know what's nice about a list of constraints like that? They force you to be creative. Never forget the lessons of JAWS. The shark never worked, and because of that we got the best monster movie ever made (I will fight you). Spielberg was forced to work around his constraints and that made the movie better.

But there are other sneaky things we need to think about when designing projects.

  • What skills are actually being assessed with this project on top of the Big Skill?
  • What kind of time commitment are we talking here?
  • How much class time will be given for this project?

Yes, I want them to learn a hobby, but what other skills are stacked on top of that, and how can we be sure to capitalize on skills the student is already good at while being sure to improve those skills as well as the places they are weak? A tri-fold bulletin board doesn't do that very well. I don't make those part of project expectations. I don't like them. What's funny is kids will bring them in anyway. In our first project I didn't explicitly say "Don't Do Tri-Fold Boards" and kids did them. Why? Experience in other classes? Their parents read "Project" and heard "Tri-Fold Board" because that's what school was for them? Either way, I need to be aware of the subskills that are built in to projects, which I may or may not intend.

I don't like giving a lot of time for projects. In general, in my experience, the kids who finish with five minutes to spare would have finished like that with a one hour time frame or a one month time frame. Extra time isn't helpful. So we give a compressed, within reason, time frame. Three weeks, max. We do not build anything that takes longer than that. With three weeks a student can have soccer practice and a family trip and still have time to finish, but not so much time that the Due Date feels waaaaaaaaaay far off until it's suddenlytomorrowholycrap.

And that plays into the second one- how much class time will be given? My answer- Not much. We have other stuff to do in class. I will spend some time in class giving specific instruction in how I want the presentation, and I will give computer lab time for research, but the majority of the work is not to be done in class. Which is where I run into a thorny problem that requires me to be a grown up and hold two seemingly conflicting ideas in my head at the same time. I don't like giving homework. It's not a thing I do anymore. My student still have homework, but it's simply "Read at least 30 minutes each night, and practice the math skill you're weak on." But I don't send home reading logs or worksheets. I'll know if you're reading at home because your reading at school will improve. I'll know if you're taking responsibility for improving your math if your math improves. I don't want to give homework. But I also can't feasibly take chunks of classtime for a project. I have too much to teach. I need to remember that I am asking the parents to help their child with research and project design, and the parental situation is different for every kid. I need to make a blanket expectation as a baseline, and then flex that expectation depending on each kids' life. I need to communicate with parents, while instilling in my students that they are fifth graders and the expectation is that they do this because I am giving them all the tools they need to be successful. I won't lift them to the gold ring, but I will put out my knee for a boost.

Suddenly the statement, "I want my kids to do a project" is a major undertaking. And we haven't even talked about building and explaining rubrics because I don't want you to dose off.

I love Big Projects. A well-designed one does so much. It gives the students initiative and choice. It sets a goal but allows them to find their own road. It leads the student to topics and learning they might not naturally have gotten to. It gives a final Thing at the end, a culmination that isn't a test but still demonstrates learning.

A well-designed project is art and creation. The teacher starts with an idea, a standard, and from that creates a project. That project is given to a student where it becomes a standard again from which the student can create learning. A well-designed project is a cycle of creation.

If you like this post and the other posts on this blog you should know I’ve written two books about teaching- He’s the Weird Teacher and THE Teaching Text (You’re Welcome). I’ve also written one novel- The Unforgiving Road. You should check them out, I’m even better in long form. I’m also on the tweets @TheWeirdTeacher.

1 comment:

  1. As a parent of 2 elementary kids, I despise the endless worksheets that come home as homework. I have lost count at the number of tears and knock-down fights that have happened after school about getting an assignment done. But never have we fought on a project. Keep giving the projects with the suggestion to make it a family affair.