Monthly Archives: April 2013

How I Spent My Weekend!

The end of the year is rushing at us, and I have a lot of content that still needs to be tackled in my 7th grade World History course. I decided to try to accomplish the work by doing a project. It wasn’t going to be a full Project-Based Learning project, because I just didn’t think that I had the time. I wanted, however, to add in some elements. I decided to have the students create a museum exhibit around a topic of their choice that answered the question: How did Europe in the 15th-17th centuries influence the development of the modern world? It was a very teacher-style question, but it covered the material over which I needed them to gain some familiarity: Renaissance to the Age of Exploration. I didn’t want to beat it into them with lots of textbook reading and notes on the board, but I also needed them to cover a lot of material.

I wanted to have them start by simply exploring, using textbooks, the library resources and digital ones as well, recording people, places and events that interested them. I was hoping that with some unstructured time to investigate a variety of resources, they would come up with a focus for their work. The goal was to have them research for 4-5 days after they made their choice and then build an exhibit. They were going to give an oral presentation of the information that they found. I knew I had some of the aspects of PBL as laid out by the Buck institute, such as Voice and Choice and Oral Presentation, but I knew I was missing a lot.

Saturday morning, I decided to take what I had built so far and go to the Buck Institute’s website and see how it measured up. I went to their Project Planner and started to fill it in. Suffice it to say, mine was a mess! I was simply pretending that this qualified as project-based learning. It didn’t. It might be a decent project for the students, and they might have learned from it, but it wasn’t PBL. It was time to decide to stick with what I knew or jump into something more.

So I jumped!

I basically started over. First I realized that I needed to think of a way for this to be a collaborative, rather than an individual project. PBL doesn’t happen outside of group work. I usually work in groups of 3-4, but I knew from my training that often the groups are often larger than that in PBL. I decided to make groups of 8 who would create a museum exhibit together, with each of them responsible for a specific aspect of it. I tried to think of who the Authentic Audience could be, perhaps local museum staff or AP European students. The more that I thought about teenagers and museums, the more it seemed like a typical class project that didn’t have a Hook that would engage them. I had to find a way to grab their interest!

Then it hit me, from all of my visits to museums with students and my own children! What was their favorite part of the museum? Always, always, always – the Museum Gift Shop!

And I knew I had it! The Driving Question became: How does a museum gift store capture the importance of the museum’s collection and sell items that are of interest to the public?

It will require them to do significant research to understand the time period and whomever they chose to focus on. They will need to collaborate and learn together. They will make decisions and create items for their shop. 5th and 6th graders, AP Euro students and History teachers will be given Renaissance “money” to place by items that they find worthy of purchase.

With an idea born, I spent the weekend running back to my laptop, typing up a new document to build the scaffolding that the project needed. After every drive to the market or time in the garden, I was back typing up each new idea. It is what teachers do! We dream and build for our students!

Monday morning’s Entry Event involved items that could be found in a museum gift shop, spread all around the classroom. Time for investigation! What were they? What did they have in common? Where might they have come from? Their curiosity was definitely peaked, and the project, a real PBL project, was launched.

More on how it progresses in later posts!

SmartBlog Article on Ungraded Class

Here is a link to the article that I wrote on my ungraded 7th grade class.

I Love Giving Students Time to Work!

My 7th grade is currently working on a project where they study primary sources from the mid-to-late 14th century. They read Giovanni Boccaccio’s account of when the plague reached Florence. Then they study a variety of woodblocks, including Hans Holbein’s Dance of Death. Their assignment is to write two diary entries of a person living in Europe at the time. Each student decided on an identity from the king to a peasant. They developed a personality, family and connections for their characters, settling them in a village, town or city. The next step was to investigate the woodblocks and the writing and to develop a list of details that they found to help them understand what happened and how people felt about it. The final step was the writing process, including 10-15 facts from their investigation in each of their diary entries.

Rather than have the students write for their homework, I have begun to have that work done in class. I learn a lot about them from watching them work. They spread out around the room, some still sitting in desks, but many sitting on the floor or on the cushions in the Reading Corner. With an incredible level of focus, they started writing and kept on writing. Every now and then, one of them would ask to get a drink, but otherwise they were totally focused on what they were creating. In the quiet of the classroom, they built a world that was facing the plague and then responding to it. They were driving their work; I just gave them a time and space to do it.

I started the second class by handing out 4 Post-It notes to each student and had them stand up. Their task was to go to a different desk, read the diary entry there and leave a comment, constructive suggestions, grammar errors, etc. I did this for two reasons. First, they often help each other identify places where it isn’t as clear as the author thought it was. Second, it allows the weaker students, who struggle with developing their historical imagination, to see some examples of other girls’ work. After reading 4 diary entries, they went back to their desks and read the notes that were left for them. This is always their favorite part! They love having messages left for them.

Then it was back to work! And they went to it! Again, with no hesitation!

When I set a task that holds their interest, provide enough tools to support their learning and work, then it really is time to get out of the way! While some classes need to have more of my “teacher” input, I keep reminding myself that I can be just as valuable when I plan a great lesson and let them go to drive their own learning. Those lessons don’t happen without a lot of work, but when the work is done before the class starts, then what happens in class can feel empowering to the students. It places responsibility with them, rather than with me.

My students often are uncomfortable with being given the power to do their own work. They want me to set the requirements and limits, to tell them when they are done. Once they start, however, the work often sucks them in. They want to master the new skill or create their new understanding. As one student recently wrote on her self-reflection, “Working on this project was much different than any other project because we had a lot of choice in what we wanted to do and basically had to come up with everything ourselves. However, it was really fun!”

Time plus work that engages them! That is the goal!

SmartBlog on Education Article

Here is a link to the article that I wrote for SmartBlogs on incorporating movement into the classroom.