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!

Thursday, May 14, 2015

When inspiration hits, it generally leaves a big mark.

Mr. Fleet came by today, interrupting my class because that’s what good administrators do – they come into a teacher’s class in the middle of the lesson to “talk.”

My mistake was that I thought it was serious.  Why else would he come in during instruction?  He doesn’t answer emails or talk to me otherwise. 

“So,” he began, “Ms. Gibbons would like a newsletter…”

I looked at him blankly. “A newsletter?” 

“She’s thinking one that could go out each month,” he continued.

“For what?” I asked.  I couldn’t figure out how I played into this scenario.

“For the parents.”

Because…?  “Don’t we already have a parent newsletter and email and phone call that goes out?”

“But this one would be done by the students.”

I still didn’t get it.  Why was he talking to me? “Okay…”

“She’d like your students to do it.”

I get that since I teach journalism-type classes, my students are the most likely to make it happen, but what do we need another newsletter for? Aren’t the massive amounts of communiques we send out each week enough?   It’s not just the paper copy of the email, but also the email itself, and then the phone call, reading what’s in the email – this is what the parents are subjected to each week, in the name of staying informed.  Why not just skywrite it, badly, and say the students did it?

He gives me a big smile.  “So which of your classes could we assign to it?” 

For a second, I stare up, looking at his hand on the doorframe, wondering what it would be like to suddenly slam the door shut on his fingers.  Then I look over my shoulder at the students who are staring at the two of us curiously.  I can’t believe he’s trying to add to my workload after he just added more last week. 

I turn back to him.  “This class, journalism,” I say flatly.

He seems surprised.  “You wouldn’t want yearbook to do it?”

Idiot, that class has a yearbook to make.  “No,” I reply.  “This is a writing class; it’s the best one for tackling a project like that.” 

He seems pleased.  “Okay.”  He turns to go, and then says, “You sure this might not be too much for you?”

Is it?  Of course it is.  But let’s face facts – this is a boneheaded idea that the principal came up with suddenly, and since she doesn’t live in reality, she wants to push it.  The other administrators are too cowed or ignorant to point out that we don’t need another newsletter.  But the biggest problem is that no one seems to think that a TEACHER should be TEACHING HER CLASS, not running the school’s publicity campaign.  That’s what a PR person is for.  If you want her to do PR, that’s what you should have hired her to do.

But apparently, teachers have tons of free time to fill.  Since the principal is good at delegating (evidenced by Mr. Fleet’s untimely visit), she’ll dump it on the journalism teacher.  Mr. Fleet will never check back to see if it gets done.  This way, he can say to Ms. Gibbons that yes, he took care of it, which he did, just by assigning it. 

I smile at him coolly.  “If it is, I’ll certainly let you know.”  I shut the door behind him.

“What was that about?” the students ask as I walk back up to the board. 

“Nothing,” I say. 

“No, really, miss…”

“Trust me,” I say flatly, “it really was nothing.”

Thursday, May 7, 2015

It's over? Now what?

As part of the IWSG, we're supposed to spend the first Wednesday writing about our writing insecurities.  Having just finished the A-Z blog post, which was like being in labor every day for a month, I almost feel like it's too much to write yet another post for awhile.

But in all seriousness, since students and school and assignments take up so much of my time, I'm now concerned that if I don't have something like the Challenge to push me on, I won't get the writing done that I want to.  I think most of us would agree that it's outside pressures that drive us forward most of the time and encourage us to better ourselves.  Otherwise, no one would change out of their sweatpants, and we'd all eat ice cream straight out of the carton for each meal.  Public accountability and shaming keep most of us moving ahead steadily because we don't have enough willpower to do it on our own.

Plus, writing is HARD, as I'm reminded by my students every single day.  "But miss, I don't like to write.  It's too hard!"  Luckily, or maybe unluckily for them, they have grades to keep themselves accountable.  I don't have that unless you want to start grading my posts in the comments sections. So, uh, please don't, at least not yet.

But if you have a suggestion for me on how to externally motivate myself to stay on a regular writing/posting schedule, I'm all ears.  Meanwhile, back to grading poorly written essays in which students inform me that I need to be more like Martin Luther King, Jr., who dreamed big and ended slavery in the U.S.  Or I should be like Einstein, who invented the lightbulb.