Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Embrace the Mess: Collaborative, Student-driven Projects

Embracing the messiness of important learning . . .

Student's display on Frank Sinatra. 
I'm getting ready for it--the mess in my classroom.  In fact, it has already begun.  Today, there were three tri-fold display boards, splayed across tables next to a huge paper cutter, piles of cut paper strips, scattered glue sticks, and scissors as I wove my way to my desk.  A sewing dummy, wearing a cute forties jacket shares space with the desktop. In the next several days--if all goes well--my room will slowly collect objects--an old record player and radio from the 1940s, fabric, lamps, and other odd objects.  One week from today, a couple classrooms, along with the adjoining common room will be transformed into a "living museum" of the 1940s--the culmination of a 8-week unit for two sections of 9/10th graders.

A student's display in progress on fashion of the 1940s.

But it's not the physical mess that is most challenging.  The other mess I refer to is letting go (somewhat) of control--allowing students to plan and create.  After all, I don't know what they will come up with for the museum, and though my humanities colleague and I guide them with rubrics, ideas, pictures from past years, and they have a solid background of the era, it's up to them to create a space that takes us into the past. And the museum opens to the public.  Student-led projects like this, with an authentic audience, require me to let go, to truly trust that the students will create something of value and that they are learning.  It means I'll feel that little pit in my stomach as I watch the inevitably rocky start of the group planning--as students bicker and brainstorm, bicker some more, and then come up with some vague idea before they prance off to lunch, and I'm sitting there thinking, it's not happening.  Every year I watch the beginning and think, nope, they are going to run out of time; they're going to continue to waste time and argue.  Then, a week or so later, I walk into a space that resembles a dimly lit 1920's speakeasy, with jazz, dancing flappers, a table of card players, and organized displays on topics such as music, art, and politics of the 1920s.  I watch in wonderment as students act as a forties "family" in a mock living room, complete with newspapers and Life magazines from the 1940s that they (or I) found at local thrift stores. They've even rolled paper "cigarettes" because they want to be authentic of the era.  For the sixties, we've burned "draft cards" and created anti-war posters.  For the last ten or so years that I've been assigning this project, the students have always come through.  But the beginning is hard to watch.
I tell students, this is your mantra this week.

As I told my students today, collaboration is hard.  Yet you can't avoid it, so it's worth practicing.  And as I go from group to group, stepping in to help with the process or an idea, I know that they're practicing crucial skills.  As they flounder  (and yesterday this looked like two students monopolizing the brainstorming session with an argument), they must learn strategies to communicate more effectively (today I watched a student grab a marker from a desk and tell her group assertively, "we need a talking stick!").  Today, I reminded them of the important skill of delegating, and I watched later as one student asked a "wandering" student if he could go find her something her group needed. These are skills we don't necessarily teach in schools, yet almost any job (not to speak of family life) will require some form of collaboration.

Learning to swing dance

So, I embrace the messiness of learning: learning to work with others, to create quality visual presentations, to innovate, to communicate knowledge to an outside audience, and to manage time.  In a week, I'll be in the common room enjoying a students' performance of Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy, listening to "Henry Wallace" give a speech, getting my "ration tickets," and eating Wonder Bread and Spam from the 1940s cafe.

Top Five Tips for student-driven projects:
1. Before and as they start, show and discuss models from past years (of writing, displays, any final products)
2. Make the planning visible: post planning sheets, to-do lists, supplies lists, and schedules.
3. Create small groups, making sure that there's some student leadership in each one.
4. Stress that the goal is the final project, but also remind them of and assess the skills that they're practicing: collaboration, communication, and problem solving.  Provide (and model) tools for collaborating effectively.
5. Provide an authentic, out of school audience, if possible, for the final project. Parents, alumni, and local community members are often willing to come support student work.

Student's display on V.P. Wallace that raised the bar: now all students want 3-D parts on their tri-folds.

Learning to dance the Charleston in the "speakeasy" from past 1920s Project
Vignette from past 1940s "Living Museum".  One year we even purchased a giant old radio from the decade.  Sometimes, antique stores are willing to loan us clothing and artifacts.