Tag Archives: project-based learning

Drama Isn’t a Grecian Urn

drama vase photo
Photo by Internet Archive Book Images

I was intrigued by Jennifer Gonzalez’s recent post on Cult of Pedagogy, “Is Your Lesson a Grecian Urn?” Basically, Gonzalez argues that teachers need to be careful that their favorite projects are actually assessing learning and are not fluffy ways to fill time. Gonzalez refers to the work of Wiggins and McTighe in Understanding by Design, particularly their description of one of the twin sins of design—activity-based instruction. If you are a long-time reader, you know I think Understanding by Design is the most important book on pedagogy for any teacher to read, and it has certainly been the most influential professional reading I have ever done.

I agree with a great deal of what Gonzalez says; she also adds that “all lessons have some educational value [and] any kind of reading and writing, manipulating materials and words, interaction with peers, and exposure to the world in general offer opportunities for learning.” However, she also says that teachers should ask, “Does [this activity] consume far more of a student’s time than is reasonable in relation to its academic impact?” She concludes that “If students spend more time on work that will not move them forward in the skill you think you are teaching, then it may be a Grecian Urn.” She defines Grecian Urns as activities that consume time but don’t necessarily contribute to learning, naming such activities after a Grecian Urn project she describes in the post.

Gonzalez explains that “[c]oloring or [c]rafting” should be “used sparingly” after primary school, adding “[t]his doesn’t mean you should never ask students to color, cut, paste, sing, act, or draw, but every time you do, ask yourself if that work is contributing to learning.” While I do see her point, I would argue that some might read her argument as an admonition to cut these art forms from assessments, and I can make a case for using almost all of them for educational purposes. What I fear is that teachers who do not want to incorporate these other ways of learning and demonstrating knowledge will find justification for other teaching methods that don’t work—such as coverage-based instruction (the other of the “twin sins” of design).

I ask students to cut when I give them a scene from Shakespeare and ask them to distill its essence, leaving the most important parts intact. In doing so, students are editing and thinking critically about the text. I ask students to act out scenes from literature, a method advocated by the Globe Theatre in London for teaching Shakespeare, because it helps students understand a text to speak it and create movements that communicate the characters’ feelings and actions and the time invested pays dividends in engagement and understanding. I ask students to draw symbols when creating literary reductions because these images help them explain their ideas.

Another concern I have is that many people automatically assume technology-based projects are Grecian Urns. Yes, some are. But some are excellent projects, and Gonzalez makes the difference between valuable technology projects and Grecian Urns very clear. I do think some of the commenters on the article read the article as permission to dismiss technology. I would argue that in addition to considerations of time, which are important, we should also consider the value of the assignments, even if they take some time. Could the assignment be done more efficiently without technology? Does technology add any value to the assignment?

For example, I find working with digital texts cumbersome. Annotation of printed texts is much more efficient, though tools do exist to annotate online texts. If you have access to a printed text, however, it makes more sense to me to use it. My experience using these online annotation tools is that they just don’t replicate or work as well as what we can do with a pencil and printed text. We should never being using technology for the sake of using technology, but that doesn’t mean we should dismiss it as a Grecian Urn. To be clear, Gonzalez isn’t arguing that we should dismiss technology. But I could see some folks twisting her argument a bit to imply that technology is a time-waster.

Time isn’t the only factor we need to consider. We really need to figure out what it is we want students to know and be able to do as a result of a lesson or unit. As Gonzalez advocates, we need to use backwards design and design thinking to plan learning for our students so we can avoid Grecian Urn assignments, but I would suggest that we also think carefully before we decide a project is a Grecian Urn. And if it is, Gonzalez is right—it needs to go. I have stopped doing quite a few assignments over the years after holding them up to Wiggins and McTighe’s description of the “twin sins.” But there is a lot of value in integrating the arts and technology, and we shouldn’t be quick to dismiss that value just because rich arts and technology projects take some time.

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Digital Stories: Feedback from Students

feedback photo
Photo by Skley

After we viewed the digital stories my students had created this year, I asked students to evaluate themselves using the rubric I had given them. Next year, I will definitely make time to create the rubric with the students in advance. The rubric I have is good, but the students could make it better. On the back of the rubric, I asked students to give me feedback about the project. I wanted to collect some of their feedback here for those who might be thinking about this project and are feeling on the fence. This feedback represents what the students actually said (warts and all).

Don’t change this from being the final exam because it’s an absolutely great way to end the year and it’s really fun. I don’t think anything needs to be tweaked, the timing is perfect, the spacing for due dates is good and the help given is great.

I loved the project and how we could all pick whatever we wanted and got to watch everyones. Don’t have to change anything, it was great.

In all honesty, I think this project is a lot of fun to put together and all the criteria make sense, even when you don’t think you have a story to tell. It fits for everyone, especially with all you can choose from.

I think the idea of this project is awesome. I had a lot of fun with it and finally learned how to use iMovie. I didn’t find anything wrong with the project.

I liked this project. It was very fun and I enjoyed watching the videos at the end. I liked being able to pick your own idea instead of being told what to do. I wouldn’t take anything out. I liked where you checked our script too. It really helped me at least with knowing it was ok.

The project is great! I enjoyed every part and was excited to do it every step of the way. The one part I had difficulties with was the sound aspect. The sites are great [sites I provided for finding public domain and Creative Commons media] with so many options, but I’m not good at picking things like that. Thank you for helping me find the “perfect” one (better than I could have done).

I don’t know how you could improve it. I thought it was well explained and fun. I would keep everything the same.

I don’t think there should be many changes to the project at all. It’s a really good and fun project. I enjoyed making my video and going back to find everything.

You should keep this project next year. I really enjoy doing the digital story.

The project was very clear and I really like how our final was a project. The project helped me become more creative and engaging. Personally, I really like it and nothing should be changed. Also, I learned a lot in this class, and thank you for a great year, Mrs. Huff!

This project was very fun. I enjoyed our own choice of theme. It was even fun looking back at old pictures and reliving my little league life. One thing that did frustrate me was learning to use different applications on my computer. If I was taught throughout the year to use these different sources this project would have been much more enjoyable. Overall a great project.

I have to point out that last feedback came from a student who struggled with the technology to the point of wanting to give up and take a zero. He persevered, and he did a fabulous job in the end. He was very proud of his work. His feedback about using the software earlier and more often is legitimate. Many students tell me this project is the first time they have opened the iMovie and GarageBand applications on their school-issued computers.

I had a lot of fun doing the project, I enjoyed showing where I’m from and I hope my video would inspire someone to visit one day.

I like the project and we have enough time to do it.

A few trends emerge for me from this feedback:

  1. Students seem to love this project, and even those who struggled said it was a great project and should be kept in the curriculum.
  2. Students seemed to feel they had enough time to complete it. I was worried about that because I gave them more time last year.
  3. Students appreciated the agency they had as they created the project: picking the topic and telling the story they wanted to tell was an important reason why they enjoyed the project.
  4. Student felt proud of their work. They didn’t exactly say so in so many words of feedback to me, but it shone through in the feedback they gave themselves. Here are some snippets:

I am very happy with my music choice and the amount of pictures I chose.

I had a lot of good pictures.

I liked how I had the music start after I said the title.

I liked the pictures.

I thought I had the perfect music and well placed pictures.

I did not have many pictures, but I was able to think of ways to get around lacking pictures.

I paid lots of effort on it and I really enjoy this project.

I did well with the pictures as well as the story.

This project was very challenging for me from the start. After figuring it out things began to come together. Once my voiceover came in I started to enjoy the project.

I think my video has pretty good background music and photos that go along with the voice.

All these comments tell me that the students feel good about what they were able to do. They offered fair criticisms as well. Most of them didn’t feel 100% confident their voiceovers were as good as they could be, but that could also be they are not used to hearing their voices and worry about how they sound (most of us feel that way when we hear ourselves on a recording).

This project makes for a great culminating narrative. They worked on narrative writing, and putting their personal narratives together with image and music to tell a story using video was a great way to see what they had learned about telling a story. And as it turns out, they learned a lot. I’m really proud of them.

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Digital Stories 2016

Last year, I shared my students’ digital stories. While I did have some good work, I knew the end results could be improved. I did some reflecting and retooling, and I made a few changes to the project for this year. First, I introduced more checkpoints that counted for a grade. For example, bringing an idea (or several) to writing workshop, which was part of the project last year, became a small quiz grade. Just like last year, I asked students to write a draft of their script, and I conferred with each student about the draft.

I added in checkpoints as well. Students needed to show me a collection of images so that I could help them if it looked like they might not have enough material to work with. Collecting images was a problem last year, but I didn’t realize until too late that many of my students were struggling with this issue, and they didn’t realize it was a problem until they tried to assemble their movies and didn’t feel they had enough images. I also wanted to see the draft of the movie, which was graded, so I could give them feedback on potential issues such as a runaway Ken Burns effect (common if you are using iMovie and don’t know how to correct it) or music overpowering the voiceover audio.

Another change I made that actually worried me: I gave students less time to do the project than I did last year. It was an accident. I looked at the calendar, and I realized we hadn’t started the project yet. I freaked out a little, and then I sat down with a calendar to figure it out. It would be tight, I thought, but we could still do it. I gave a copy of the calendar to the students so they would know exactly what was due and when.

I think that reducing the amount of time I gave my students actually resulted in better work from them. I am not sure why this is unless the pressure of completing it in a shorter period of time meant students actually attended to it in a more timely fashion than they would have if they had more time and were tempted to put it off until the last minute. I think procrastination may have been a much larger issue last year because students felt like they had more time. I suppose it is true that we use all of the time we have to complete a project, and if the deadline is tighter, perhaps we put our shoulders to the wheel.

I am really happy with the results this year. Students were thoughtful and reflective. Their stories sound like them and reflect who they are. What a great group of writers!

As always, there were some hiccups. Students do not know how to use this software. The biggest mistake educators make is assuming kids are digital natives and can figure this stuff out. No, you need to teach them how to use it, and you need to be prepared to be a guide on the side for the entire movie project if you are asking students to make films. If there is one thing I could ask educators to stop doing, it is assigning technology-based projects without helping guide the students through the use of the tools. I hear it over and over again from educators that students just know how to use the software.

Another issue: students at my school have MacBooks, but they don’t keep them updated. Several had to get the latest version of iMovie because older versions didn’t work well on their computers. I asked them to check on updates before the project, but of course, not all of them did. We had a few setbacks as students struggled with lack of RAM (they really need to stop opening every program on their computer at once). One student’s computer apparently imploded right after he uploaded his video to his Google Drive account. I am so relieved it waited until after the project (so was he!). Students really ran into problems as a result of the way in which they use the computers: not updating, keeping too many programs open, not restarting regularly.

Because I gave the students a calendar, absences were not a problem (for the most part). Students definitely need support for this project. I think the results are worthwhile, however, and with this excellent crop of digital stories this year, I can’t wait to see what next year’s students create.

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Teaching Science

This week, Worcester Academy’s science department chair and teacher of physics and engineering has been out on paternity leave (congratulations, Derek!). At our school, we try to cover for each other when we have to be out. I opted to take two of Derek’s classes, an engineering class and a physics class, for a few reasons: 1) I like to help out when I can because it can be hard to get your classes covered, 2) I really wanted a peek into what Derek is doing in his classes, and 3) I like to see how students work in classes outside my subject.

Derek is a project-based educator. It was fascinating to visit his classes, even his absence, and see what his students are doing. I subbed in his engineering class yesterday. Students were building a wind tunnel and constructing cars using modeling clay. I know this is leading up to an interesting experiment, but I admit I don’t know a lot about it. I was fascinated watching the students work. They got right to work and knew exactly what to do in Derek’s absence. They were busy the entire time. In fact, I had to make them stop so they could clean up.

In physics today, students were conducting a test using Hot Wheels ramps. The students had to construct the ramps so that their cars, set loose at the top of the ramp, would fly cleanly through  hoop on a stand. I think that if Derek had been present, the plan was for the hoop to be on fire. Thankfully, I didn’t have to do anything that involved fire, but when the students were ready to do the final test, they had to let me know, and I needed to watch. It was so exciting. I have to admit I’ve never taken physics, so I don’t feel qualified to explain the purpose of the experiment. The students were so nervous for each other. One student (whom I also teach), was also anxious for the other groups (besides her own) to be successful in their experiment. The students had to turn in their lab writeups. All period long, there was action. Students were measuring, checking measurements, running tests. Cars were flying across the room. Again, students knew just what to do and got right to work, even in Derek’s absence.

One aspect of subbing for Derek that fascinated me was watching my own students in a science class. Students who rarely speak in my class or are quiet and reticent are active and participate in Derek’s classes. Part of that is their comfort level with the material. I am thinking in particular of international students who do not speak English as a first language. It was interesting to see this completely different side of my students. It was fascinating to see their level of confidence shift in a different subject.

I have to admit I’m jealous of these kids. I wish I had a science teacher who had made science half as interesting as Derek does. I really want to go back and observe when Derek is present. His classes ran so well with minimal help from me. I feel like his students were doing all of the work. I spoke to a few of them. I said to one girl today, “This seems like such a fun class,” and she said, “Yes, and we do stuff like this every day.” To a boy in engineering yesterday, I said the same thing, and he said, “Yes, it’s my favorite class.”

I can’t believe how much I learned from Derek even though he wasn’t present. His classes are so engaging, and he really gets project-based learning. Our students are lucky. I’m lucky to have him for a colleague. He has much to teach the rest of us.

If you get a chance to visit a class outside your domain, you should do it. It’s really interesting to see your students working in a different subject, especially when it’s under the guidance of such a gifted educator.

You can follow Derek on Twitter and read his blog.

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D is for Deeper Learning

EinsteinWhen I taught pre-K, science was my favorite subject to teach because all of the science lessons I taught involved experiments. What happens if you plant a potato eye? What happens if you let an egg sit in a glass of cola? How can you make a tornado out of two bottles? My favorite science teacher was Mr. Tusa. I was in 7th grade. All I remember about his class was doing experimental labs—everything from combining chemicals and recording reactions to raising small rodents.

Science wasn’t my only experience with deeper learning, or inquiry-based learning, when I was in school. I have written previously about a role-playing game my 7th grade history teacher had us play. In Understanding by Design, Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe write about the “twin sins of design.” The “sin” more often committed at the secondary level (in my experience) is focus on coverage-based teaching. Coverage-based teaching is marching through the content, often at breakneck speed, which doesn’t allow for deeper learning.

Deeper learning offers students an opportunity to explore a topic. The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation has a good explanation of what, exactly, deeper learning is. One persistent criticism I have heard about deeper learning, project-based learning, and its cousins is that it removes any emphasis on knowledge and comprehension, the lower levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy. I don’t think deeper learning or project-based learning means you do away with these foundational types of learning, but I think it asks that you not stop there and that you move into application, analysis, synthesis, evaluation, and creation.

The ways in which I try to engage my students in deeper learning mostly involve writing. I have recently described the writing workshop model at the center of my classroom:

Writing workshop involves student collaboration in writing and opportunities to give and receive feedback. It has also improved my students’ writing. Yes, it takes longer, and it results in higher grades (two somewhat controversial sticking points). However, I would argue that the goal of teaching writing is that students become better writers. Period. The goal is not to write essays every single week if students never engage deeply enough with the writing to revise and edit their work, much less receive and offer feedback. Nor is the goal to slap a grade on it and move on to the next one. I know too many English teachers who use writing as a stick to hold students back, and I don’t understand why. I’m not sure they’re consciously doing it, but they are making students hate writing instead of engaging them in learning how to write well.

My students recently selected topics for multigenre writing projects. The way I described the projects was that they were a way to “go deeper” with the material we had learned in class this year. I want to write more about multigenre writing projects later when I get to letter “m,” but essentially I asked the students to pick something we had studied this year that they wished they could learn more about or go deeper with, and the end result was an incredible variety of genres and a profound connection to the texts. One of my students declared, “I’d rather do two of these projects than write one essay.” Truthfully, the multigenre projects were more work than a traditional essay. However, students enjoyed the choice and creative license that the projects offered.

As I was writing, I rediscovered an old post in which I described writing a test with my students. I haven’t tried writing a test or a quiz with my students in a while, and it was a worthwhile activity. I should try it again. It was, I recalled as I re-read the piece, an interesting way to engage students in deeper learning, thinking about the material in ways they had not. It also made instructional design and assessment explicit to them.

One thing we have to consider when we teach, especially at the secondary level, and especially in AP courses, is whether or not we are giving students the time and space to engage deeply with the subject matter. We need to allow them to see the relevance of what they are learning by giving them opportunities to apply it, take it apart, put it together, and connect it. Deeper learning takes more time, and it means not “covering” everything.

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A is for Assessment

ExamI have thought for some time that if I ever get myself together enough to write a book in the field of education, my subject would be assessment. It’s probably the issue I think about the most often. It truly bothers me that it’s done so poorly—not just with standardized tests, but also in classroom settings. It’s too big for a blog post, but I will put a few of my thoughts together.

Several years ago, and some of you have been reading this blog long enough to remember, I read Understanding by Design by Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe. When I read that book, things really clicked for me. I cannot honestly say that I create UbD units for everything I teach, but one aspect of UbD that has really stayed with me is authentic assessment. I don’t give tests, even though UbD says tests are fine in addition to performance tasks. I give quizzes, but rarely with multiple choice, true/false, or other types of purely objective questions. I tend to ask more open-ended questions that require students to tell me what they know about a given topic. Aside from these types of quizzes, the main types of summative assessments I give are writing assignments, discussions, and projects.

Our school is incorporating more project-based learning. Project-based learning is not the same thing as doing projects. I have had to do plenty of projects in school that were more or less busy work and didn’t demonstrate much learning. Those old dioramas come to mind. Quite a few posters come to mind as well. However, I do recall doing some projects as a part of project-based learning that required deeper learning. For instance, in the sixth grade, I created a tour guide for Venezuela. I am sure that my social studies teacher required certain elements, such as tourist destinations, exchange rates, and the like, but what I remember is researching the country and creating the pages in my guide so that I my readers could learn everything they needed to know about the country in order to prepare for a visit. I still remember showing the project to my language arts teacher, who told me, “Oh, now I want to go to Venezuela.” I remember doing the work and what I learned because it was an authentic assessment that placed me in the role of a tour guide writer who needed to convince readers to visit a country, and it felt fantastic when my language arts teacher liked the project. My social studies teacher easily could have asked us to write a research report that included the same information, but I doubt I’d still be remembering the research report more than 30 years later, nor would I remember what I’d learned about Venezuela. The most important thing is that I did all the work. I did the reading and research. I created the tour guide. My teacher must have given me class time, but I recall sitting by myself in the library, with a copy of Fodor’s Travel Guide, encyclopedias, and other books.

One of the reasons I am an advocate for authentic, project-based assessment is that I have seen the students’ engagement in the learning, and I have seen how it helps students to learn and remember more of what they learn. There is a saying that has been bandied around to the point of cliché, but it’s worth sharing at this point:

Franklin Quote

Some years ago, a student gave me a card that I have cherished. In it, she wrote that she felt the work she did in my class was relevant. To be quite honest, the work I assigned, especially before I became thoughtful about designing for understanding and authentic assessment, was not always relevant. In fact, it often wasn’t. Students should understand why what they are learning is important and what they might do with it in the future. We’re not always great at communicating the importance of the work we assign. We need to reflect on the work we ask students to do. We need to determine what it is that we want students to learn, and we need to plan lessons and assessments that will help the students learn that information. We also need to give students agency and choices. Students should have a role in selecting reading and writing assignments. They should be given opportunities to discuss what they are learning in their reading and writing, too. It is in this way that we can involve students so that they learn.

None of that is to say that we do away with essays or tests, but we need to ask students to apply what they are learning in our classes so that they understand they’re not learning it for a test. I have only scratched the surface and don’t feel I’ve said a whole lot here, but please check out some of my other posts on assessment for more, and of course, more will come, as I can’t seem to leave this topic alone. (See tags and category links below for more on assessment.)

Chalkboard background: Karin Dalziel

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I Like Projects

A conversation*:

“Mrs. Huff, are we going to do another project soon?”

“Fairly soon.  I want to finish The Iliad.”

“I really like projects.  I think they’re better than quizzes or tests because you really think about it and analyze it more.”

“I agree.”

“Plus I know when I study tests, I might do fine, but I forget it like a month later.”

“I know.”

“But with projects, I think about it from more angles and I enjoy it more.”

“We’ll do some more projects, but we have to do papers, too because composition is important.”

“Papers are cool, too.  But I really like projects.”

Out of the mouths of babes.

*Paraphrased because I recount it here about 5 or 6 hours after it occurred.

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