On Teamwork, Survival, & Homework that Energizes

I don’t know about you all, but the theme of 2020-2021 has felt a lot like survival.  As if global pandemics weren’t enough to reckon with, we are all just now thawing out from a freak February ice storm.  So in more ways than one, it seems completely apropos that eighth graders are currently steeped in that classic coming-of-age tale of survival, Lord of the Flies.  And in a time when we’ve been so recently reminded of the importance of having a safe, warm shelter to weather out the storm of life, it’s pretty timely that Andrew Cohen engaged his students in designing their own how-to-build guides for  novel-inspired island shelters.  I had been meaning to catch up with Andrew anyway since he’s the cool new kid on campus, and the chance to hear a bit about this project gave me just the excuse.  And if you’ll indulge me in stretching the analogy a bit, you could safely say that Andrew’s words offered a basic survival guide for us as educators in the mostly-paradise (only occasionally hostile) islands of PK-12 classrooms. 

Eighth grader Verena Bhagat provides some Lord of the Flies-inspired survival tips for stranded islanders while exercising her informative writing muscles.

Andrew, from your email it sounds like eighth graders are designing shelters in teams as a response to Lord of the Flies? What a great idea?  How’d you arrive at this?
I’ve worked with projects before, but not this particular project. And I didn’t invent this project, though I put my stamp on it by adding elements of engineering and the arts. It’s been probably about eight years since I’ve taught the Lord of the Flies, and I haven’t taught it to eighth graders before, so I figured something fun would be key. But also, we had not yet considered exposition, one of our three drafting targets. So rather than approach explanatory writing in a simple step-by-step essay, why not embrace a project and emphasize the 21st century skills of teamwork and digital fluency. That said, I would have loved it if we could have somehow created physical shelters, building these on campus, or even better driving the kids out into the forest and leaving them stranded for some experiential learning, returning on Monday to assess their mettle. Instead, we created wikis, with each team of students offering their researched insights to answer the question, How do you survive when stranded on a deserted island or in the wilderness? Their step-by-step guides were enhanced through the drafting process, as the key English components of explanatory writing are clarity and precision: readers need to be able to follow your steps to success.

Bhagat utilized step-by-step drawings that correlated with her written instructions. To view all of the entries, see the class wiki here.

Oh interesting!  So they didn’t actually build shelters for this, but they practiced clarity in writing words to guide the creation of shelters? What a cool way to blend an English Language Arts Standard (how-to-writing) with like more design or sciencey approaches.   Can you tell us more about how you set that up?

For step by step details, here’s a link to the assignment sheet I used to set this up.   So students begin with STEM in considering the durability and weight of materials that they’re researching. I asked them to enhance their ideas by using an “if / then” then approach: if the island you’re stranded on has bamboo, use this for your roof as it’s light and strong, and if no bamboo is available then you must look for… By ranking preferred methods, students are forced to use their higher-thinking skills.

Students also needed to consider construction elements regarding tools: they needed to figure out what tools they would need, and how to make these tools. In addition to engineering, we added the A in STEM to make it a STEAM project (science, technology, engineering, arts, and math). I’m always looking for ways to add the arts and design into critical thinking, and teenagers are further engaged by this approach. We considered the value of design in society, something beyond island shelters, i.e. what arts and design add to our lives to move from surviving to thriving

They had to do research and of course everything’s cited using MLA standards. They need to strengthen their abilities to cite, including formatting and citation and of images, and these research skills will help ready our middle-schoolers for ninth grade. But also—and this was a little tough for some teams—I encouraged the students to draw their own step-by-step pictures. And some kids immediately whine, “I can’t draw,” but they’re not being graded on drawing: they are being graded on the clarity of their information. We had some creative and clear stick-figure work.

Wow so this shelter how-to project ties into writing, STEAM, and general psychology about joy and motivation.  Is there anything it didn’t relate to? 

We had some great discussions about what humans need beyond air, water, shelter, and food. Our kids—especially now during current crises—are in tune with the importance of emotional wellbeing: they discovered that art can be used to raise morale and to motivate. So they looked for different ways to motivate stranded companions. We used three New York Times articles and studied intrinsic and extrinsic motivation in their own lives, and then applied this learning towards islanders looking to move beyond survival. They considered coconut soccer and other games, as well as returning home to your shelter every day with its nuances of design and artwork used to increase pride and morale. We considered morale in the novel as well, and the students began to make predictions about what happens when emotional health reaches low lows.

Okay let’s go back to the grading. Earlier you mentioned that kids are being graded on clarity of information, not their ability to draw.  Can you say more about how you graded this assignment?

So the rubric (click here for the rubric and here for the checklist) for this is what I like to call a hybrid rubric: it’s not collaborative learning, it’s not cooperative learning, it’s both. Students have a team grade—including the homepage and Works Cited—and they have individually-graded pages, where each student is responsible for one element of the overall picture. One student might focus on the art and design and one student might focus on the tools. A team might divide individual responsibility into construction or gathering materials, or designate a morale officer focusing on intrinsic and extrinsic motivation, or really in any way they deem appropriate or efficient. All of this was built into the rubric. 

That’s awesome. So how did the kids take up the invitation? 

A couple of students included videos, and none had yet included sound bites, though we have been exploring and making podcasts this year. NPR has a great article on an artist who uses a 17,000 year old conch shell.  One key goal is to get kids thinking about different ways to communicate and ideally for them to be uploaders instead of downloaders. It was fun in parts. Sometimes it was sluggish. The kids are sluggish and often need a morale boost in this year’s unique education environment. I have yet to meet some of my students face-to-face. They need that little push or pull.

I love, love all of what I’m hearing and I’m looking at the documents as you talk about them. I mean, the number one thing I think with collaborative group work or group work is such a contested sort of fixture in education. And, and the thing that I always say the most important thing is that there’s both interdependence, right. and independence. Right. And you have those two pieces so nicely in the rubric.

I like both collaborative learning and cooperative learning. But I am very fond of the hybrid model, as it forces students to truly think about what they’re doing as a team, what each is doing individually, and to take ownership for both. One of the things that we’ll have in the upcoming test is a reflective question where each student has to analyze his or her role, including the evenness of work distribution. We have some amazing students who tend to dominate these projects, and the formal reflection helps these students to think more deeply about growth regarding teamwork skills:  if  a hard-worker does all the work and shoots for that A+, what does he or she learn about teamwork? It’s great that they have the opportunity to reflect on this growth now, because 8th grade is a perfect time to develop and strengthen these skills.

Okay so this all sounds utopian, but it couldn’t all have just been a super smooth process.  What about some hiccups that students encountered along the way?

Some of the hiccups or challenges regarded teamwork.  One group had trouble and met with difficulty and I would not accept their final product. They need to re-draft. Now that they’ve seen all the work from their peers, they realize how much potential they didn’t take advantage of yet. It’s back to the drawing board for this team.

One of the things I do with the kids—and we’ve been doing this since September now—includes the division of labor and responsibility: I assign colors.  So each team has an aqua, green, yellow, and purple teammate. And so I’ll say, okay, the green teammates are liaisons—they’re the ones who are going to ask questions of me. The aqua teammates are in charge of this, the purple teammates in charge of that. And sometimes, if their teammate doesn’t fulfill his or her own responsibility, the other kids either blame that student in a forceful way, or end up doing the job for that student, which is exactly not what we want regarding the end product. But it is, I suppose, what we want as teachers during the process: kids need to discover these things, need to work as a team, and need to develop tact in communication. And so, I don’t know, I wouldn’t call it a hiccup. I call it an opportunity.

Okay then how do you deal with these scenarios when the purple teammate fails to fulfill their duty?

So for example, if the purple teammate does not hyperlink the website by the due date, it’s minus two points off of the team grade. Says so clearly in the instructions. There were some conflicts that came up, and because it’s very clear that this task was the purple teammate’s responsibility, there are opportunities for growth, communication, and conflict resolution. For one group, the yellow teammate completed this task because the purple teammate, you know, wasn’t doing it. And so there is a problem. Minus two points. As well as an opportunity. I think that some teams discovered room for growth. They are nice kids, kind and sweet, but there was bickering. Now one of the things I like to do with the kids, even if they think this is a particular challenge, I like to say, “you gotta work this out as a team. Yeah. I will mediate but it’s better for your teamwork skills if you do this on your own.” And maybe some of the kids maybe took this too far. There was one team that should have come to me. I suppose that I’m growing as a teacher as much as they are as students.

I think, I think this is, this is really interesting. I love how this entire project and the three attachments you sent me really highlight how incredibly organized and structured great projects are. Right. I think often the thought is, Oh, you’re doing a project. Like it’s open. Just tell them to do it. And they get, and we know kids don’t thrive. Right. It’s not helpful. It doesn’t push them to a particular standard. If all we say is build a shelter. Um, but to see the ways in which you scaffolded it, I think is just, can be really helpful.

I’ve done other projects in the past. I wasn’t starting from scratch, this was just the first one for Lord of the Flies. But also, I mean, I’ve had other ideas that I’ve just feel, I didn’t have the time to implement. So for example, one of the things I wanted to do, and this is something I’d like to do next year, is to game-ify the whole experience. I am creating a system where I can strand the kids on different parts of an island, where they are given certain resources, depending on where they come ashore. And then the teams have to trade with each, for tool or shelter-building resources, food, or water. There needs to be some kind of point system, though not necessarily points, so I am still asking, What are they accruing?  I have some ideas, but nothing definite yet. I’m still working it out, but I love this idea and I’ve had success with similar projects in the past and kids get excited. When kids are excited, the learning has momentum. 

What would you say to someone who said: “Wait these kinds of projects go way outside the realm of what we should be doing in an English class!” 

I mean, you know, to look at it from a literary standpoint, they can empathize with the characters to some extent. Yes. And I have seen situations where I’ve experimented with stuff like this, where the kids might, take empathy too far: Jack leads the hunters and they are aggressive and violent, and it’s not out of the realms of possibility where a group or a team in a gamified situation might employ an aggressive tactic to get what they want. This provides for interesting opportunities for reflection and values. 

Now we’ve moved on from the project, but we’re still reading Lord of the Flies. And now we’re considering values and value systems and students are writing personal essays. They’re interviewing their parents. And yeah, in fact, I wish you could have observed the last class. During the last class, I asked the kids, okay, so was this the worst homework you’ve ever had? I’d say 90% of the kids were super excited and they were energized by this homework. I’ve used this framework as an example with other teachers. This is what we want as teachers. How do we energize kids through homework? It’s not a matter of how much homework is too much, or is homework effective. It’s a matter of how do we energize students with assignments?

It’s fun. So they interview their parents in separate rooms at separate times. And they hear the difference in the answers, though they use the same questions. How did you meet mom? How did you meet dad? Whatever the case might be, they often hear the same story told differently. The kids loved it. And they were like, “Oh, I learned this about Mom. . . I never knew Dad… Or I didn’t know that my parents…” One of the questions here was What did you worry about when you were my age? “My dad worried about the same thing that I worry about!” I feel that, you know, I’ve done something good.

My dad passed away five years ago and I fortunately started interviewing him two decades ago. I learned many years ago how capturing the voices of previous generations is important. My mom is 86. My aunt is 90. They are the elders in my family, and I have interviewed both of them, and others now gone. And I mention this to the kids, and I say, for this interview, you can write it down if you’d like, but you could also record it and I encourage you to record it; I share my own experience regarding the value of having this recording and looking back years from now. And it might not seem like a big deal, but I am surprised that this year—more than any other year—my students took me up on that and recorded the interviews as podcasts. I think our work is valuable outside of the classroom, and I aspire to help my students recognize this value. 

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