Another project bites the dust

by Mr. Sheehy

It is amusing to me how often I think of a project I am convinced will be great and how often these projects completely tank. I have mentioned that I am trying to implement in real, tangible ways strategies where students work more and I talk less, and I tend to pick away at this one lesson or project at a time. Maybe I can add something to this unit this month, maybe something to that other unit next month, until perhaps five years from now I’ll have managed to create a new classroom, one where students walk in the door, hear me for no more than 15-20 minutes, and then work diligently for the next 70-75.

It’s a crazy dream, maybe, but I continue to plug away and whenever I design one of these new projects I am almost always excited about a few particulars:

  • It requires students to interact with material on their own.
  • It seems to be a way for students to grab information that I otherwise would have had to convey through lecture.
  • It requires students to manipulate the material in an individualistic level–that is, they can emphasize what strikes them as most important.
  • It embeds much of the skill-work I try to teach, like writing and reading, and makes it seemingly more relevant.

A recent example is a way to avoid a lecture that I have never delivered effectively. It’s basic material about the communications process, and it’s the kind of stuff that students generally ignore even when I make them write it down. My real goal, when you sift through all the gobble-di-gook we call our curriculum standards and prioritize the main ideas, is to make my students better speakers. This year, then, I decided I’d make them create their own tips-sheets for public speaking. I’d make them read through a bunch of solid resources and compile what is best. Then, they’re reading the same material, they’re held accountable for paying a little bit of attention, and they end up creating a useful document for themselves (theoretically).

I knew something would go wrong, despite the carefully articulated rubric I explained to students before we began. I gave the assignment to students and in less than an hour they were handing in completed tips-sheets. I thought to myself, “You’re telling me that I designed that entire thing and you’re finished already? You’ve got to be kidding me.” Then I discovered why: many students had simply made up their own tips. Sources? You wanted us to read sources? Why? I can think of tips on my own!

Why would I tell them to make a tips sheet for themselves out of stuff they already know? Hello? Did you miss the part where I clearly talked about the resources you had to read?

Apparently.

In the future I may have to ruin the project a bit by requiring students to write by each tip where they got it. I was trying to avoid making them do that–it seemed to me to take the relaxing fun out of reading some good articles and compiling what is worth keeping. That had the research-paper feel I was trying not to awaken. Yet here I am with a pile of papers I now need to grade carefully, and half my students didn’t put half as much thought into them as I will have to put into the grading, as I attempt to determine whether they took the easy route or did the right thing.

That is so often the problem with these projects. There are so many shortcuts available, and students are persistent in looking for the shortcuts. They find them in places I never realized they existed. When they find the shortcuts they then turn in to me inferior products in far less time than I had anticipated . . . leaving me wondering if this project-based, active-student model is all it’s cracked up to be.

I’ll have to keep trying, if for no other reason than I am not interested in talking anymore. It strikes me as fundamentally better to keep my mouth shut and to keep them working. Sometime, maybe 10 years down the road, I’ll have some success stories to share about this.

Thanks for reading.

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