My 7th grade classes have been working on a project based around the early explorers to the New World, from Columbus to Magellan to de Soto. I divided them into pairs and presented them with the challenge of creating a ship’s log, complete with a daily log, a biography of the explorer, a map of the journey and a drawing of the ship. I adapted it from a project that I found here: “An Adventure to the New World Project.” They also had to research one of the areas where the explorer landed, its flora and fauna, to see what might have returned to Europe as part of the Columbian Exchange. They had almost total freedom to decide how they would create their log. They could use Pages on their Macs, use Word docs or they could handwrite and draw the images. They had a total of 6-7 hours of class and homework time to work on the project.
I put together a list of initial research sites and showed them where to look in our libraries online databases. They also knew that they could use SweetSearch for any other research questions they developed and Creative Commons for images. Then I just let them go, and what followed was silence, hour after hour of focused silence. Occasionally, there was quiet whispering between the partners, or one of them would ask to go to the printer to pick something up or to take a walk to help her think. For the most part, however, they simply worked.
Sometimes they were drawing; sometimes they were typing. Then someone would come for help with research terms or to ask if a new idea would fit in. At every turn, I shifted the decision back to the student. “What do you want to learn about? What other words might you use to describe that?” “How will that add to your log?” My most common response was simply, “What do you want to use to tell the story?” With a smile, though often with a slight look of frustration that I wouldn’t simply tell them what was “right by the teacher,” she would go to figure out what she wanted without me.
It felt a bit like a miracle, students working independently, totally engaged with very little need of my interaction, hour after hour. I wandered around at times, but for this project, it almost seemed to distract them from what they were doing. It clearly made them think about what I, the teacher, might want, and they immediately started asking questions to verify that their work was alright by me. They lost their own assessing and creating momentum. Without me, they were investigating, doing, making. The project clearly had shifted from being my assignment to their independent task.
When I asked them to come up with a list of aspects that they would want to have evaluated for this project, they wrote: independence, creativity, collaboration, effort, commitment. So, I wrote up a self-reflection where they can discuss what they did and the learning itself. I don’t want to take the power of the project away in the grading process. I don’t want them turning over the importance of their work to me. I want them to articulate the steps that they followed and how well they did on each one, as well as to figure out what they would do differently the next time.
Last night, the designated last night of the project, my InBox was filled with emails requesting one more day. Over and over, the student said she was so close, but it wasn’t exactly what she wanted. She wanted to make it show how much she had learned and wasn’t quite there yet.
So I emailed the class to tell them that today’s class would be one more work day.
And it was another hour of silent, focused work!
What was my role in all of this? Was I, as the teacher, even necessary? Definitely! As teachers, we plan and create. We listen and learn. We create a safe environment within which each student can learn. We model learning, and we affirm it when we see it. Student independence only happens when we create and sustain it.