Project Work, Stage 1: Gathering Information
One of my weaknesses as a teacher - and something I’m consciously making an effort to improve on - is structuring project work for students. Typically, I spend a lot of my instructional planning energy on the unit as a whole: writing a driving question, gathering inputs and outputs, deciding what the final project-based outcome will be, and possibly writing a standards-based rubric for that final outcome. However, I have more often than not left out any detailed planning of just how students will work on the project for the unit. It’s as if I’m conning myself into thinking that students will magically develop project management skills in a sink-or-swim environment, when we know that isn’t the case. Heck, many adults struggle with project management.
Inspired by the recent workshop I attended with Jeff Utecht, I’m making a concerted effort to get better at this aspect of facilitating projects in my classroom. In his workshop, we talked about four stages in the creative process: research/gathering information, planning, creating, and reflecting, and I’m attempting to structure each of these four stages for my students (where in the past I would have been much more hands-off). Let me give you a peek at what the first stage is looking like right now.
My International Problems students have been studying terrorism for the past few weeks. This study has consisted of readings, short videos, documentaries, and other exercises to get them thinking about what terrorism is, what the response to it has been, and what we might do about it going forward. The driving question for the unit is, What can/should we do about terrorism?
Students’ final outcome for the unit will be a project in which they present an answer to the driving question. I’m asking them to treat their project as an argumentative piece, following the standards for argument writing laid out in the Common Core standards. I’m also asking them to choose one of six digital tools I’ve selected for them to create their project with.
Below are some images of the project overview I gave students last week.
The Project Launch
Note: In the past, I would have launched the project by giving students an overview, a due date, and a rubric, and then setting them loose. This would be the cue for many students to procrastinate and waste most of their class time, forcing themselves to rush through the project, with mediocre results. This time, I’ve broken the project into four stages, each with its own process.
Although the driving question has been posted and referred to throughout the unit, true project work only began last week, when I asked students to choose their partners and begin the information gathering stage of the process. Rather than just leave them to their own devices, I instead asked partners to create a 3-column shared doc and brainstorm a list of questions that would help them get closer to answering the driving question.
The Research Phase
After brainstorming, partners divided up the questions and began researching. In their document, the left column was for listing the questions, the center column was to take notes on each question (I required that they paraphrase when taking notes, rather than copying and pasting directly from websites), and the right column was for copying and pasting the link to each source they used.
On the second day of this information gathering stage, I asked each group to share their docs with me, so that I could give them feedback on their questions and on how I thought their note-taking looked so far. This one change in itself was huge for me - actually commenting on their work during the process, rather than after, when it’s too late, was so effective. I got a very clear picture of exactly where everyone was, and I could quickly redirect anyone who was off track. Students seemed to think it was helpful for them, too.
If you haven’t tried this before, I’d highly recommend thinking about how you can assist your students in becoming stronger project managers and creators. How can you scaffold the process for them to achieve stronger outcomes, without micromanaging them and taking away their choice and creativity? My modus operandi in the past has been to think that the only way to give them choice and creativity is by giving them no structure at all. Based on the results I’ve already seen in the first stage of our current project, I can see that isn’t true. I’m hoping the rest of the project phases are just as successful.
In my next post, I’ll write about Stage 2 of our project - the planning stage, which is another step I’ve often glossed over. Wish me luck!