Back in the Saddle

I’m finally sitting down to write again - it’s been a long time, folks!

Sometimes, when I write for this space, I feel like I’m shouting into the void. I’m not sure how many people read anything I post here. But that’s when I remind myself that one of the greatest benefits to committing to a writing practice as a teacher is all the reflection that comes out of it. I want to recenter myself around that idea: that this reflective writing I do makes me a better teacher, and that alone is reason enough to do it.

Since December, much has happened in my classroom. The first semester ended well, I thought, but in the case of my International Problems (IP) classes, I wanted to take a step further along the project-based continuum for the second semester.

At the end of January, I began with all new rosters of students, and in IP, I began a new way of teaching the class. I feel so lucky to be teaching a course in which I have so much freedom. In the past, I’ve sometimes railed against the idea that I am left to my own devices in the classroom. Doesn’t anyone care whether or not I’m doing a good job? How does anyone know that I’m doing a good job?

But this year, as I’m teaching a course in which I have free rein in just about every aspect (content, course structure, grading, etc.), I’m really enjoying the power to experiment and try some new things out. So let’s look at some of the specifics of what that means.


I’ve built the course around the idea that students complete four major projects for the semester. Each project will be on a different topic that falls under the umbrella of International Problems (which is rather a large umbrella). Students spend the bulk of their class time each day working on these projects; a project is due about every four weeks or so. Everyone gets choice in a) what their topic is, b) whether they want to work in a group and who is in that group, and c) the product they create to show what they’ve learned about their topic.


If we think of each project as a “unit,” there is a sort of rhythm to each one. We begin with an initial phase in which students brainstorm topics, choose one (in any given project phase, no two projects in a class can be on the same topic), and then generate questions for exploration.

To generate these questions, we use the Right Question Institute’s Question Formulation Technique, which I highly recommend. You can join their Educator Network for free to access a variety of resources on this protocol, or you can get their book, Make Just One Change (disclaimer: I haven't yet read this book, but I understand it's highly regarded. And hey - it has great reviews on Amazon!)

There follows a period of several days of research and note-taking, and then students naturally move into building their products and filling them with the information they’ve found and the insights they’ve gained into their topics. The most popular project medium, by far, is websites, but some groups have created digital magazines, textbooks, or other products to share what they’ve learned.

At the very end of the unit, when projects are due, we go through a gallery walk to view each others’ work and learn about the topics that were studied by classmates. The next week, we start the process over again.


While the units have a fairly distinct rhythm at this point, the class periods are a little more loosey-goosey, and I can’t decide whether that’s good or bad.

One thing I don’t plan on getting rid of any time soon, however, is our Video of the Day: a 5-15 minute chunk at the beginning of every class period during which we watch a short video on some IP-related topic and discuss it.

Because the bulk of the class is spent on project work, and there often is no whole-group lesson of any kind, it’s nice to have something that brings everyone together. Additionally, students are only going to go in depth on four topics for the semester, so this is a way to broaden students’ awareness of other topics around the world.

After our video and quick discussion each day, the rest of the period is for project work. As you might guess, there are varying degrees of productivity around the classroom. If I discipline myself to be more consistent in circulating around the room, we do pretty well. If I get wrapped up at my desk or at one specific table group, then… there might be some off-task behavior happening. It’s a work in progress.


That pretty well sums up how things look and feel in my class right now. As I think about the possibility of teaching this course again next year, I am confident I’d stick with the project-based structure, but here are a list of things I’d like to add or tweak in some way:

  • A clearer outline for students on what solid research, analysis, and synthesis look like (these are the three skills they’re assessed on)

  • More and better mini-lessons in essential skills

  • A refined list of appropriate topics that are neither too broad nor too narrow (yes, I want them to choose, but climate change is a rather massive topic to tackle in a four-week project)

  • More discussion on what it means to be a contributing member of a group

  • A wider audience for students’ work

And now, by the end of writing this post, I already feel better about being back in the blogging saddle. If you are reading this, please share your thoughts with me - I’d love to bounce ideas back and forth!

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Erin DickeyComment