Thursday, May 28, 2015

Project-based learning: Where fun and creativity goes to die

Say your students ask you a question related to a topic, such as “Did they have newspapers during the Renaissance?”  You get the brilliant idea that students should research it.  It turns out that neighbors and communities just circulated hand-written newsletter type communiques, which might or might not have been 100 percent factual. 

As a teacher, you might decide that this is a good time to have your students show real-world application and encourage collaboration and project-based learning, plus a few other educational buzzwords for good measure.  Why not have your students develop Renaissance-type newsletters, including stories that they think they might have seen, related to events that might be happening historically?  Your eyes are rolling back in your head over the brilliance of this.  You are a fabulous teacher, capitalizing on student interest in order help them learn!  You should get the “Teacher of the Year” award!

Here’s why this is a bad idea.  First, you have to assume that your students might follow through.  Will they?  The obvious answer is maybe, but hey, it’s still a good idea. 

First let’s figure out what subject you teach.  Is it social studies?  You’re probably okay unless you’re only focusing on American history.  Math or science?  Forget it, none of this stuff is on the curriculum, so you can’t justify it.  Besides, what were you talking about in class that this came up?

English?  Maybe this can work, but it’s tricky.  If you’re doing American or British literature, then you have to figure out how to squeeze it in between the novels you’re supposed to teach that the students can’t understand, and the expository writing that you never do enough of.  Remember, too, that it better be part of the course standards.  Otherwise, you run the risk of a principal coming in to appraise you and not finding justification of it in the curriculum.  In education, conformity is our standard.

“But it’s journalistic writing – that’s expository!”  Well, no, it isn’t.  But hey, no one’s really going to split hairs, right?  The fact of the matter is that most educators don’t know the difference between journalistic and expository writing, and they’re too set in their ways to figure it out now. 

Regardless, you decide to go out on a limb and do this.  Now let’s figure out how you’re going to grade this project.  After two Red Bulls and 7 hours, you finally develop your rubric.  Woo-hoo, you’re cooking now!  You check the school calendar to pick an appropriate deadline that doesn’t interfere with anything previously scheduled.  No field trips, no benchmarks, no assemblies.  Fortune is smiling on you.  This will be the greatest project ever!  Students will learn so much that other teachers will be begging to know what you did to make them so smart. 

You announce your project to the class, hand out the rubric and give the deadline.  Some students complain, but a good amount seem genuinely interested.  You pay yourself on the back until the mandatory staff meeting that afternoon.  The principal announces that since the students didn’t perform well on the last benchmark, they’ll hold another common assessment.  This one falls on your project deadline.   Teachers can’t have due dates for major tests or assignments during that time. 

So you move it to another day.  The problem with the next date is that it falls on Prom – a day that will be full of preparation and teacher headaches.  That day won’t work.  You try a date after the common assessment. But now your department head finds out about the project and comes to you to point out that the assessment is coming up soon, and you need to be working on testing strategies with your students.  After all, it’s what all the other teachers in your department are working on, and we’re a team, right?  No one likes a troublemaker on their team.  Besides, your scores during the last CA weren’t that great, so YOU really need to step it up.

So, maybe you should push the project to later in the year – AFTER state standardized testing, spring break and such.  But by that time, no one’s interested anymore, particularly your students.  “We just finished all this testing,” they’ll whine, “so why are you giving us more projects?”  If you persevere and assign it anyway, you might get 25 percent of the class to turn in the projects, only to find that three of them are identical.  “But I thought you said it was group work!” your students will say when you confront them. 

Finally, you find the day with absolutely no other events to interfere, not falling at the end or beginning of the six weeks, and not before a big holiday.  You breathe a sigh of relief that you are flexible enough to find that perfect day - a day which, you find out later, you’re not going to be in class when the students turn it in, because you are required to attend mandatory district training that day.  Just you, you lucky teacher type!