Does anybody else think it’s too noisy in here? So, these kids just work on whatever they want? Somebody please explain how this works to the new girl!
I began working at High Tech Middle Media Arts in January of 2009. With a teaching background in the most traditional of schools, I’d daily find myself thoroughly confused by the project-based learning going on around me. Being an instructional aide, I had the privilege of working among the students and being a part of many of their project stages. As each project neared its completion, I asked questions like the ones above less and less. The time for Exhibition would come and I would walk around viewing the various works in total amazement.
Each student had taken the Teenage Mutant Ninja Project requirements and exceeded them. The main components of the project included writing a novella about the superhero they created, making a digital comic book depicting the main events of the novella and most importantly how their protagonist became super natural, and constructing a 3-dimensional model of the human body part that was mutated to form such heroic skill. Katie, a 7th grader, thought up “Aqua Girl,” a superhero that could use her underwater breathing skills to save the victims of the world. The comic book illustrations were real photos of her character, with Katie modeling as the human-gone-superhuman. The costume for her photo shoot was detailed with swimming fins, a snorkel and sparkling water-esque colors. Her 3-D body part visual of the lungs was complete with a breathing apparatus that very realistically expanded the lungs and rib cage, and was all creatively modeled inside two 2-liter bottles attached together. It was impossible to miss the students’ individuality shining through their final products. Anyone who knew Katie saw her bubbly personality all over “Aqua Girl.” These products now symbolized each student, each week of “noisiness,” and what had seemed like utter chaos in the classroom where I assisted. Even as those students’ biggest advocate, knowing their infinite potential, I still found myself shaking my head in wonder, “How do they come up with this stuff?”
With the opportunity to teach in my own classroom this year, I have been thinking deeply about that very question. With the project I’ve designed, how will I get students inspired to come up with incredible ideas and create unique pieces of work? What will an environment for fostering that head-shaking amazement look like? How will each individual know I believe in and support him or her deeply and seriously? After observing in many teachers’ classrooms and experimenting in my own, I’ve decided there are four main elements that are critical to supporting students in creating amazing work: open-ended project assignments, opportunities for peer collaboration, access to resources, and targeted teacher support.
As I plan each project, I attempt to make every piece as open-ended as possible. Assignments will no longer be seen as “tasks” to complete but as opportunities to build something that will display each student’s new-found knowledge and creativity—hopefully with some excitement involved as well. The content requirements have been established, but the way in which that content will be displayed is without any requirement at all. Students have the “sky” as their limit for unique expression. (It’s quite possible that when I use this saying in class, which I often do, some find it repetitive and slightly annoying!) In an effort to prevent the less tactile/less creative students from anxiety and frustration, I provide a document with resource ideas listed for possible avenues for display. My hope is that their ideas will knock the socks off of my “resource document” ideas—and of course they do! The small percentage in the class who need my mediocre suggestions take them and run with them, making them individualized and once again, better than my original. As for the rest of the team…that piece of paper could have the fifth Twilight manuscript written on it and they still wouldn’t have looked at it twice! Their focus is solely on their ideas and the excitement of creating something unique.
The students have found it helpful to share ideas with one another, to peer-edit and to critique plans of future ideas through the beginning, middle and final stages of each project piece. As a class, we agree on a system that allows students to have a conversation that affirms their peer, constructively addresses an area for improvement and poses a probing question. We call it, “Warm, Cool and Question Critiquing.” For example, as Maya’s peer editing partner, Jamie reviews her visual floor plans and starts a dialogue that looks like this:
Maya, I really like your plan to show your civilization’s fresh water source using different blue hues of tissue paper; I think that’s really creative [warm critique]. I’m finding it difficult to read your labels; they would look neater if they were typed instead of hand written [cool critique]. I’m still confused about the biome your civilization is in—how could you make that more detailed and clear?
By collaborating with each other, students become each other’s resource for improving work. Since they are communicating about their ideas and potential project pieces, they are inevitably informing each other of their material needs. This helps us to work as a community and share tangible resources. Since Jamie has seen Maya’s floor plan, she knows that Maya will need cardboard. Jamie has extra cardboard from the last assignment and will take this opportunity to help Maya by providing her extra material.
I hold conferences with students during the in-class work sessions for the purpose of brainstorming, further developing their plans and accountability. A wise teacher once said, “When you work with middle-schoolers, you must come to class each day prepared for the possibility that they have forgotten everything from the day before.” There are definitely those days when the one-on-one conferences (always noted in an on-going document open on my laptop) save some of our students.
Julian: “What did I tell you my idea for Task 2 was?”
Me: “I have no idea because I heard 59 other ideas yesterday too…
but lucky for us, we have it saved in Microsoft Word!”
Not only is this a safety net for the forgetful 12 year-old, but also serves as a way for me to touch base with each student and provide myself an additional resource. I treasure having moments throughout the week to give them all the attention and the specific support they need to succeed.
Do I believe our students are amazing? Yes, there is no doubt about that. But I’m sure any teacher would boldly say that about his or her students. What allows students to produce beautiful work is the environment and opportunities they are given to do so. Beautiful work is only produced when accompanied by ample support specific to their project idea, time allotted for collaboration amongst each other and their instructor, flexibility and options for assignments, and, most important, confidence in their teacher’s belief that they can succeed and make something extraordinary.
Nicholas always turns in incredible work, before it’s even due. After a class gallery walk where every student evaluated every project with the help of a rubric, Nicholas received perfect scores from his classmates. When we collaborated to create a list of descriptors for the projects the class considered examples of beautiful work, the following made our list and hence described Nicholas’ project: a lot of time and effort put into the piece, neat, creative, carefully done without errors in spelling etc., creator used the feedback from peer critiques to improve, creator was resourceful and made the work from scratch. I asked Nicholas what his thought process was like when he was creating such beautiful work. He casually told me, “I think to myself, what would average work look like? Then I do more than that. It’s like on the first piece of the Civilization project, I could have just labeled the water and mountains, or I could type the labels out and make them 3-D and really cool!”
How do they come up with this stuff? They are inspired by an environment that asks more of them than average. The freedom they have in open-ended assignments is the same that gives them liberty to go beyond the requirement and create something beautiful. The collaboration with other students allows them to hear the voice of someone of their same age, and to learn to respect and utilize feedback. They become wise in their strengths and are pleased to share their expertise with peers. The support of their teachers and classmates gives them the resources and confidence they need to try new ideas and think deeper about content. They come up with work that makes us shake our heads and wonder…