Friday, July 11, 2014

Teaching and Learning: In Praise of Projects, part II

Teaching Middle School after years of teaching older students has been an epiphany for me.  While it is new and the comparisons are fresh in my mind, I’m making note of some of the biggest distinctions between middle schoolers and older high schoolers.  These thoughts of mine are sometimes open-ended; I don’t have any big answers.  But I do have plenty to mentally chew upon and I intend to do so.  Today’s topic is a continuation of yesterday's posting on class projects in lieu of final exams.

Yesterday, I made the argument that projects are better method of assessment and college preparation than exclusive reliance on midterm and final exams.  Today, I’m going to explore the experiences that brought me to this point of view.

Two years ago, as an exercise to prepare for midterm exams, my 11th grade U.S. History students formed groups and created illustrated projects on some big theme ideas in the first 100 years of U.S. History:  the missions and motivations of the different colonies, significant moments in the Revolutionary War, and major compromises from 1776-1860 were among them.  We did this as a way to bridge the gap of weeks of instruction lost to Hurricane Sandy and to practice use of iPads, which the school was adopting as part of a 1:1 initiative.  Between review, research, planning, and learning to use a new technology, the students spent a week’s worth of class time at work on the projects.  They enjoyed creating the projects and then shared them with one another to use as a study tool for the midterm.  Those midterm exam scores were the best I’d ever seen.  That they came from a class that hadn’t been particularly strong was noteworthy.  My mind was opened to the value of big ticket projects, the kind that take time to create and perfect.

So I was already thinking of the value of projects when my own child came home later that same school year year excited about a project he was to make in lieu of a final exam in his 7th grade U.S.  History class.  The task: to create a theme park based on American history.  A child who had spent most of the year complaining about schoolwork settled right in to create his very own American history theme park.  From the Jamestown Scavenger Hunt for Food Snack Shack to the Boston Harbor Lazy River Ride, my 13 year old wrote nearly 5 pages worth of creative and analytical descriptions of American history, creating and engaging with ideas and material in a way that he and I both found thrilling.   The project showed him just how much information he retained. It also persuaded him that he could write more than a paragraph without whinging and moaning.   In fact, more than a year later, JT remains proud of the project and open to the idea of creating more big-ticket projects.  He embraced the 8th grade end-of-the year- project.  American history remains alive and thrilling for him.

So it was that by the end of the 2012-2013 school year, I was sold on the value of projects as a learning tool superior to the traditional exam format.  This past school year, my 6th graders have practiced answering multiple choice questions on quizzes and they have written about history in all sorts of ways, from statements of fact to explanations of why certain events occurred.  For their end of the year project, in lieu of a traditional final exam, they generated an historical time travel brochure, written and illustrated work that illustrated the historical value of select places and people they studied in the Medieval world.  The final product was digital and illustrated with images selected from the Internet.  They worked on it in class and at home for two weeks and in the process I saw both how much they have learned and how they internalized the lessons about people in history.  In their final projects, I can see the sophistication of their thinking as well as their sense of humor.  Most important, the individual projects were fun to make and the students are proud of their work.

Reviewing the value of final projects, I’ve generated a list of the skills gained in my 6th graders' most recent project work.  It's a list that can be applied to other project-based assessments:

1.  Thinking big and then narrowing down to specific examples to support a point of view.
2.  Reviewing the whole of material studied in the school year.
3.  Creativity in a whole variety of ways, from design of the brochure to organization of their time travel tour.
4.  Planning, organization, and time management.
5.  Practice in both detail and analytical writing.
6.  Practice and facility with variety of digital applications.
7.  Patience, as they manage big ideas and summarize them in a useful fashion

I think it’s this list that really confirms the value of projects.  Midterm and final exams are useful, but they cannot lay claim to this kind of value.  Projects are about process and the final outcome.  The students have something tangible to show for their year in the class and that’s of much greater value than an exam score on a sheet of paper.

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