As the sun sets over the hills, I’m feeling very reflective. You see, today marks the end of my lengthy March vacation. During the first week, I lived on my couch as I recovered from the flu. Being sick is horrible. I felt so helpless. Thankfully, I am blessed to have an amazing wife who took care of me and nursed me back to health. During the second and third weeks of break, I did much school work. It was a ton of fun. I love planning new units, learning about new teaching practices, and finding out what other teachers do to help their students find success in and out of the classroom. In between all of this work and healing, I spent tons of time with my family. We watched basketball and had fun together. That was my favorite part of the entire vacation. I felt alive again. I wasn’t just going through the motions like a robot, instead, I was experiencing life. It felt amazing!
While on vacation, I did much research, reading, and thinking about teaching, and more specifically, learning about my research topic. You see, this year I’ve focused my energy on gathering intel and data on how best to introduce and present new activities and projects to students. Are rubrics the most effective way to do this? What makes an effective grading rubric? Do rubrics prevent students from being creative and solving problems? So, I’ve devoted the past 10 months to trying to uncover the answers to the many questions I have about rubrics and project introductions. And what I’ve discovered isn’t too surprising, but has allowed me to think more closely about how I craft units and projects.
Throughout the course of this year, I’ve tried out numerous rubrics and project introductions to determine what works best. I’ve even engaged my students in a discussion on the topic, explaining my research project to them. My conclusion is this, grading rubrics and project introductions only do so much. Those students who strive for academic success, will triumphantly complete any task thrown their way with or without a grading rubric or project overview sheet. They will do well no matter what, because they want to do well. Those students who struggle academically don’t often reference the rubrics while working because they haven’t found their passion yet, in most cases. So, spending the time to craft a relevant and useful rubric is futile as most of the students don’t even give rubrics a second glance while working on a project or task. So really, rubrics and project introductions make no difference in how the students perform on various projects and activities.
This then got me thinking… So, how can I help engage all of my students in a way that allows them to see the relevance in what we’re doing in the classroom? How can I create projects and assignments that get my students excited about the prospect of learning and doing? How can I help all of my students see the value in learning and growing in school? Simple, it comes down to the project or task itself. Is it interesting? Is it engaging? Is it relevant to my students? Will it be fun for the students? Will it challenge students while also providing support for those who need it?
So, during the month of February, my students worked on a research project regarding Africa. I constructed it in a manner that provided the students with much choice and flexibility. Here’s what that project looked like for the students…
What’s This New Project All About?
Hey, do you remember how at the start of the year we talked about the purpose of PEAKS class? How it’s the most important class you will take while at Cardigan? How it will help you learn and understand the basic, foundational skills you will need to be a successful student at Cardigan and beyond? Well, here is a prime example of how PEAKS class can and will support you as a student…
Now that you understand the importance of using an open mind when learning about new people and places to prevent the use and creation of stereotypes, it’s time for you to venture out into the world of the unknown regarding Africa. What do you wonder about the continent of Africa? What do you want to know more about? Sure, you know about the basic geography of Africa, but what about the specifics of the Nile River or how the Atlas Mountains impact northern Africa? What about the people of Africa and the forms of government used in the numerous countries within the great continent? So, go forth, challenge yourself, and learn more about the amazing and mysterious continent of Africa.
- This is a solo project, which means you will be embarking upon this adventure on your own.
- Start by creating a New Document in the Humanities Folder of your Google Drive. Title it Africa Project and share it with Mr. Holt. You will use this Google Doc to record your research process.
- Choose a lense through which you want to study Africa: People, Government, or Geography. Record in Google Doc.
- Choose a specific topic, about Africa, that you want to learn more about regarding the lense you chose. Examples: Nile River’s Impact on Eastern Africa, How the Government of Sudan Led to War in the Country, Compare and Contrast Governments of Zimbabwe and South Africa, Tribes of the Sahara, etc. Record in Google Doc.
- Meet with Mr. Holt or Ms. Levine to be sure you’ve chosen a challenging and appropriate topic.
- Find at least three reputable sources regarding your topic. Your sources could be print sources, online sources, or interviews. Record in Google Doc.
- For each source, explain how you know it will provide you with the information you are looking for. Record in Google Doc.
- Meet with Mr. Holt or Ms. Levine to be assessed on your ability to choose reputable resources.
- Create an MLA-style Sources Used page in your Google Doc for your three sources.
- Meet with Mr. Holt or Ms. Levine to be assessed on your ability to utilize the MLA format when documenting sources used.
- Now you’re ready to start digging for knowledge nuggets.
- Choose a note taking form to record your findings: Bullet-Style or Two-Column Style.
- Take notes from each of your sources. Be sure to include lots of fun, interesting, and important information regarding your topic.
- Meet with Mr. Holt or Ms. Levine to be assessed on your ability to extract information from a source.
- Here comes the really fun part of the project.
- How do you want to present what you’ve learned about your topic? Poster, Trading Cards, Speech, Historical Fiction Story, Play, Report, Diorama, etc.
- Meet with Mr. Holt or Ms. Levine to be sure you’ve chosen an appropriate vehicle to present your research findings.
- Create your visual aide.
- Meet with Mr. Holt or Ms. Levine to be assessed on your ability to think critically and be creative.
- Now, here comes the hard part. Get ready for the challenge of your life.
- Participate in the first-ever Learning Exposition, in which you will present your visual aide and what you’ve learned about your topic and research process to visitors. Be prepared to answer difficult questions, wow the visitors, and teach others about your unique and engaging topic.
- Reflect on your learning process.
On What Am I Being Graded?
PEAKS Class Graded Objectives
- Students will be able to choose reputable resources regarding a research topic.
- Students will be able to utilize the MLA format for citations when documenting sources for a research project.
- Students will be able to extract important facts and information, in written form, from various resources.
- Students will be able to convey information orally to an audience regarding a specific topic.
Humanities Class Graded Objectives
- Students will be able to think critically about a topic in order to compile relevant and appropriate notes.
- Students will be able to utilize creativity when making a relevant yet unique visual aide regarding a research topic.
- Students will be able to design an engaging presentation for an audience regarding a specific topic.
When is Everything Due?
- You must choose your lense and topic by the start of class on Saturday, February 10.
- You must choose your three reputable sources by the start of class on Wednesday, February 14.
- You must complete your MLA Sources Used page by the end of Humanities class on Wednesday, February 14.
- You must have your notes completed by the start of class on Friday, February 23.
- You must have your visual aide finished by the start of class on Friday, March 2.
- Learning Exposition will take place on Saturday, March 3.
That’s it. Nothing more specific than that. No formal grading rubric, just an overview of the project. That’s all I equipped the students with. I introduced the project in a way that highlighted the freedom and choice with which they were provided. While I didn’t go into detail about each aspect of the project, I did answer all of the questions the students had about the expectations of the project. Throughout the project, I made sure to do that. I didn’t give information unless they asked for it, and even then, I generally answered their question with a question. I want my students to learn how to solve their own problems by using creativity and perseverance.
The result? The boys loved it. They had so much fun with this project. Almost every student when above and beyond my wildest dreams and expectations. Although they only had to create one visual aid, many of them had numerous pieces to share with the audience members during the exposition in the class. The advanced students in my class challenged themselves to learn as much as possible while creating an engaging and relevant presentation, and the students who sometimes struggle in class, challenged themselves to learn much and step outside of their comfort zone. They all worked so diligently on this project in and out of the classroom. They asked for feedback and used much of their free time to exceed any expectation they felt I had set for them. It was amazing. I created an engaging and relevant project that allowed all of my students to meet and exceed the objectives. Even without a specific and detailed grade rubric, my students rocked this project like it was a concert.
This experience helped me to prove and solidify what I had hypothesized after collecting much data earlier in the year. It’s not about what you tell the students in terms of the expectations for a project or task, it’s about the task or activity itself. Is it engaging and fun? If it is, the students will learn much, utilize their problem-solving and creative skills, ask questions when confused, and meet or exceed the graded objectives. As teachers, it’s not about how clear and specific we are with the graded expectations of an assignment. It’s about getting the students excited without telling them too much. Let them wonder and make noticings on their own.
As I came to this grand realization, I found myself thinking about how I can transform my curriculum for the remainder of the year to make it more engaging and fun for the students. How can I get them DOING the learning? Over the course of my school’s March Break, I spent much time creating a brand new Humanities unit that will have my students talking with and to each other, discussing big ideas, writing poetry and plays, playing with words, acting out a play, creating new words, discussing the power of words, and learning the ins and outs of the English language. After I mapped out the unit in a day by day format, I looked at what I want and need the students to learn regarding figurative language. I thought about each lesson, activity and project in terms of engagement. Will these tasks and lessons engage my students? Will they be learning relevant skills and content that they will be able to apply to their future English and history courses? Will they enjoy the activities and have fun learning about words and the power they hold? This exercise and experience wasn’t about creating strict and detailed expectations on how the students will be graded and assessed, oh no. It was all about making sure that my students will be engaged in the learning process. If they are interested in what they are learning about, their brains will do the rest.
For me, this year has been transformative. I’ve realized that rubric or not, it’s about the lesson and learning task itself. I need to create units and lessons that will intrigue and challenge my students in new and unique ways. I need to get them excited about what we are learning. If I can do that, then the rest will easily fall into place. After a productive and restful March Break, I feel more alive about teaching and education than I have in a long time. I’m ready to engage my students in the learning process in relevant and meaningful ways. I’m ready to challenge them to think critically, ask difficult questions, take risks, be creative, try new things, fail, and have fun as we embark upon the final nine weeks of the academic year. No more feeling like a robot. It’s time for me to think like my students and find ways to ensure that I am reaching and engaging all of my students so that they can reach their full potential in the sixth grade.