You do it: A publishing project for freshmen

by Mr. Sheehy

Somewhere near the end of January I have a couple extra weeks to try something new with my English 9 students. I am thinking about dabbling in something dangerous, the kind of project that could bomb so badly I might wonder where I ever got such an idea in my head. A few years ago I got such an idea for my American Literature students and created the Worst Poetry Unit Ever, but then, in similar spurts I have also created assignments that were worth repeating, so you never know how it could turn out. Since I am in the idea stages, I am greatly tempted by this major project, because I know I have the other learning goals for the year mostly covered by other units. The set up invites risk-taking, and like most high-risk endeavors, the pay off could be huge.

I thought through the scenario in a mind-map form. Mind-mapping has been a hot trend around my district lately and when my students began talking about it I figured I’d better read some formal descriptions of it. I read what I know in Michael J. Gelb’s book How to Think Like Leonardo da Vinci, a book some colleagues are reading for graduate school. I haven’t read the entire book, but his descriptions of mind mapping are succinct and helpful, and his main point is that mind-mapping is a way to engage both your left and right brain:

Mind mapping is a whole-brain method for generating and organizing ideas . . . The most most marvelous application of mind mapping . . . is that through regular practice it trains you to be a more balanced thinker, a la Leondaro.

The main rules, according to Gelb, are simple, but I didn’t bother to follow a bunch of them. The ones I did attempt are these:

1) Begin your mind map with a symbol or picture . . . at the center of your page.

2) Write down key words

3) Connect the key words with lines radiating from your central image

4) Print one key word per line

I did not follow this one strictly but did modify some of my key words to come close to it, so I’m putting it on here. Gelb points out that this allows you to maximize the “number of creative associations,” and that is a good thing in the idea stages of a project.

5) When you feel you have generated enough material through free association . . . connect related parts of your mind map with arrows, codes, and colors.

I did not follow all Gelb’s advice. Pictures slow me down, so I drew only a couple, and I drew them after coming up with all the ideas. I also didn’t know what to draw for things like “challenge,” so I felt using time to think of something to draw was not the best way to go. I also did not use colors, because I do not have colors inside my desk. In fact, all I have is an assortment of pencils and barely functioning pens I have picked up off the floor at the end of each day. I therefore used a pencil with a bit of eraser remaining. Here’s what I produced:

The product is similar to what I usually create when thinking about new units, but the mind-mapping focus did help me to spend more time connecting the thoughts, and it did keep me on the map longer than I normally would have stayed. In the past, after completing about half of this, I likely would have jumped to the wiki to begin typing out the unit’s goals and instructions. This mind-mapping process helped me think on the possibilities longer and see the unit as a whole before immersing myself in details.

Essentially, the challenge I would like to put before my ninth graders is this:

Your job as a class is to create and publish a journal or magazine.

I will then present them with the following guidelines:

Time span

You have two weeks of class time and another week outside of class to wrap it up. Any appeals for deadlines to be moved have to be made as a class and have to be submitted formally, accompanied by compelling arguments and evidence.

Division of Labor

This is a huge task, requiring a good deal of collaboration. You will need to work together. You will likely want to appoint classmates to particular jobs and conduct a number of meetings to decide how to proceed.

Payment and Job Security

  • In the capitalistic world of work, those who take on the tougher jobs usually get paid better. If you take on a tough job for this assignment, you’ll get “paid” better. If you slack off, you risk your employment.
  • “Grades” will be decided at the end when your colleagues create an evaluation of your performance and consider it along with your own evaluation of your work.

Accountability

  • Workers need to report to their bosses and be accountable to all interested parties. You will write a narrative journal each class day explaining your contribution and sharing your thoughts on the group’s process.
    • The last 15 minutes of every class period will be a time for you to write in this journal, considering what you have learned and what you have accomplished.
  • Each person is responsible for submitting at least one written piece for publication. More submissions means opportunity for more compensation.

Assistance

  • For this unit, I am only a resource for help on understanding the publishing world. I have subscribed to magazines and had articles published before, so I have a basic feel for how things work in that world and can pass along tips when my advice is sought.
  • I will not be guiding the process, though I will hold the position of “Company President”–a job that allows me to swoop in and over-ride employee-decisions as I see fit. Yet as a class, you are responsible for organizing yourselves and making this happen.

Rules of Engagement

  • Encourage excellence
  • Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

My goal for myself is to sit amongst my students giving little help outside of technical assistance. I talk a lot about trying to talk less in my classroom, and this is an opportunity to put my students’ hands where my mouth usually is.

The learning goals for the unit are fairly simple:

  • Work collaboratively with classmates to solve a problem
  • Write and revise publication-quality material
  • Consider audience in writing
  • Choose appropriate genres and media to communicate particular messages

These goals support a number of state standards, but I am not going to list them in a blog article (they’re on the unit’s wiki page if you’re interested).

I have a number of questions yet, problems that if left unsolved could break the unit into pieces. These are where the risk seems to lie:

How can students who take on tougher jobs receive higher compensation?

Editors-in-chief earn more money than freelance writers, and I want the students who take on those leadership positions to earn more. What kind of compensation can I offer them? Extra credit is no incentive, because the students capable of those leadership roles are the kind of students who are earning A’s in my class already. I need to think of a relevant and worthwhile way to compensate these individuals, something I can promise them ahead of time.

What is one to do with students who are looking for the easy way out and haven’t bought in to it?

I have no doubt there will be dissenters to the unit. In this case, my current idea is to allow the class (or me as the acting president of the publishing company) to fire them. I will issue them formal letters and then they will be required to work out of a writing text-book on other tasks related to the same content goals.

How can I keep up with the narrative accountability journals?

This will get overwhelming very quickly, and I may not be able to read them in their entirety until the end. I should make it a habit to read at least five to seven each day. Perhaps I can develop a code system with students where if they have written something that they need me to read and consider right away, they can flag their journals and I’ll be sure to read it.

What if things are going very badly?

I must not jump in. If things are going badly, I need to remain on the outskirts and allow students to struggle through the problems. If they are failing and encountering problems, those could potentially be the best opportunities for learning. If I remove those opportunities, I am undercutting the best aspect of the unit. In this case, it will be better for them to fail than for me to save them, because the results would not be that different, learning-wise.

I do not need to begin this unit until the end of January, so I have plenty of time to spin ideas through my head and discover other problems. The main idea is to engage my students in a challenging task, the kind of task that some might remember for years to come. Overall, I am looking forward to the challenge, not despite the risk, but possibly because of it.

Thanks for reading.

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