This is a story of us. This is a story of caring teachers planning the stuff students do to show their learning. This is a story of well-meaning administrators giving advice. This is a (yet another) story of best intentions.
Interestingly, the same very sentence (via a quick convo on the sidewalk, an email, a text) tends to preface a conversation that is either the best or worst part of my job: “Hey Julie- do you have a second?”
The crucial part on whether it becomes the best version or the worst version of my job is what those words are followed up with. And here is where the gold is found:“I’d love to brainstorm with you about _______” or “I’d love to reflect with you on how something went down” or “I’d love to show you what we’ve been up to in my classroom.”
Introducing my buddy Monica Colletti, sixth grade English; she does that.
We met a few weeks ago to chat about whether or not she should assign a project to her sixth graders that they loved in the past. It involved the summer reading (Wonder) and each student choosing a “precept” (quote about life) that the English teacher in the book used in class to highlight and creatively represent using some form (e.g. art, video, etc.) As in any pedagogical choice, there were pros and cons.
Pros: The kids loved it last year; ties to socioemotional learning; good match for their abstract development/understanding of the world; let’s them choose the quote and the creative outlet; sets the stage for similar projects to come.
Cons: Takes too much class time; exhausting to present; doesn’t really “test” the kid’s knowledge of the summer reading; kids can get stressed by open-endedness; etc.
In the end, the joy-creative affordances won out. She decided to assign the project. We talked through some tweaks to make it more doable. For example, to take up less class time I suggested rather than having all students individually present their projects, she should consider a museum/gallery walk situation. And off we go.
Zander Rust, by the way, talked more about this assignment than he has talked about any assignment in a long, long time. He loved every piece of it: choosing and dissecting his top five precepts, narrowing them down to one single precept, and getting to use his stop motion animation app for a school project.
Of course, there were also tears, as there are in any endeavor. He first tried one style of video in a tedious-laborious sort of way that he didn’t love. It didn’t translate. He got super frustrated. He was tired from a trip.
Did I mention the irony of the quote he chose?: “If plan A doesn’t work, remember there are 25 more letters in the alphabet.”
In the end, he went with this video instead.
He was so proud of himself. His dad pointed out that his journey through the project actually illustrated the quote pretty darn well. I lol’ed. It hadn’t occurred to me.
Anyway, I saw Monica the day of sharing out. And while Zander Rust was floating high on cloud nine with the entire enterprise, she was EXHAUSTED by the end of those days. The noise level in the room! The kids’ excitement but constant “needs”! The difficulty of trying to both manage the class and pay attention to the projects as they were presented!
Is this a blog-warning not to listen to Julie’s advice? Possibly. At least partially.
There were other unanticipated wrinkles. (As there always are.) I met with Monica to reflect (again.) I’m impressed she was still willing to brainstorm with me after my dubious advice. Here’s what we’ve got:
Pros after the fact: some kids got excited by the project; socioemotional connection; forced kids to think more deeply about metaphors/figurative speech/etc.
Cons: final grade based on the rubric didn’t always reflect the quality of the project; some kids weren’t happy with their grades; the move to “museum format” made it hectic and all the grading had to be done separately; it was noisy/tricky for classroom management and was recipe for overstimulation for teacher and students.
We were still left with the big question: “Was this project worth the time and headache?”
All of that time for reflecting, all of our best intentions, and we never reached a solid conclusion.
So, like all of the best teachers I know, Monica is going back to the kids. She is going to give them a survey adapted from this to give them the dual-edged-sword opportunity of (1) reflecting on their own learning (2) giving her feedback on how to improve the experience.
This I don’t believe: there is one best practice, assessment, rubric, silver-bullet answer to masterful teaching and if we all just worked hard enough we’d find it.
This I believe: every test, every project, every homework assignment sheet that we design is like the launch of a stone in a moving current. There are ripples of impact. Some are good; some are bad. Some are anticipated; some are unanticipated. Most often the experience wildly differs based on the kid involved. The best work we can do is work that is responsive, reflective, and intentional based on the information we notice around us. The best we can do is talk to our colleagues about it to hear their stories. The best we can do is be honest and real.
This is the story of teaching. This is the story of us.