Tuesday, November 11, 2014

You CAN do projects

When I talk about students doing projects in school I often get the same feedback.  They are never all at once but they are usually some form of the following.
  1. "I have a lot to cover/no time"
  2. "no materials and no money for materials"
  3. "Kids won't do it, or their parents do it for them"
  4. "I don't know how, I need PD"
  5. "I'm preparing them for (test or next grade)"  see #1 and #2
Stop it.

#1. I have a lot to cover.
Join the club, this is public education.  Really what is essential?  What is really going to help them be successful in _________(life, next academic level, test)?  I realize the answer to each of those areas are different and that there are more ways for students to demonstrate success.  Cut out the stuff that is not essential.  Cut out the activities that are not essential.  How much time would you get back if you stopped lecturing in class and flipped your classroom?  In the age where all the world's facts are accessible with an internet connection what makes class time valuable.  The facts can be received anywhere at any point 24/7 when they are needed.  Why should kids be in the walls of your classroom?  If you teach kids how to access the facts they need to know on their own, how much time do you get back?  There is time if you want there to be time.  
If the purpose of projects are only an assessment of understanding you will not have time.  If projects are the vehicle through which understanding is delivered then you can take out all the learning activities you had kids do before the project.  Enter Project Based Learning.  Having your students learn through a project is the basic idea.  At the beginning of the project they don't know the learning target and by the end of the project they do.  Could the meeting the challenge in your project be the way students access the learning target? 

#2.  No materials and no money for materials.  Start looking at this differently.  This is an obstacle not a limit.  What do kids really need?  Who has what they need?  How can I get it into the hands of kids so they can do their learning and work?  What resources can I give kids so they can complete the project with free materials?  Example:  Recently did a water filter project with students where they were learning mixtures and pure substances as a part of our chemistry unit.  Students were challenged to make a water filter out of common materials that could filter out a 200ml of a water mixture of dirt, sand, and food coloring.  We also partnered with Water is Life  CEO Ken Surrite who I randomly made a connection with and Akua Akyaa Nkrumah an environmental scientist who lives in works in Ghana that my district coordinator connected me with.  Yes, the real world connection to Water is Life who is sending and prototyping water filters for people in third world countries was awesome.  Yes, connecting those water filters to someone who lives and works in Africa made it meaningful and real.  I have many more examples cardboard circuit arcade games, story of stuff through electronic waste, and toy hacking.  My point here is the materials were never an issue because most of the time projects were made out of A.  Things people weren't using and were going to be thrown away B. Things that were being thrown away.  or C. Stuff that is found in nature.  The materials are there.  Connect the dots and start looking at things (community businesses, grants, trash day, school waste) differently.

#3.  Kids won't do it, parents do it for them:
Is there enough choice available in your project?  Choice is motivating.  Who are the kids that won't do it?  My guess is you already know who because you have seen patterns of behavior in previous work. The fun part is when many of those kids surprise you because a project is different.  Some kids need more structure and support in their projects, this is true no matter what is going on in class.  Parents will do it for them:  1.  Have in class time to complete the project.  NO TIME see above.  2.  In a world of soccer teams, piano lessons, overworked adults, and broken families your complaint is that parents are working with their child on a project that they are learning from and they are spending time together on it in the process... this is still a HUGE WIN.

#4.  No Professional Development on this:  In the age of the internet where all of the world's information is a Google Search away you are holding your learning ransom.  You are depending on tax payers to fund your learning time.  Stop it.  There are plenty of online resources available to learn about project based learning.  Even better there are educators out there on social media that will help and share anything and everything.  Learn from the best resources and the best people who are out there doing it everyday because you can.

#5.  I'm preparing students for (test, next grade level):  What do you want kids to be able to do better upon leaving your classroom?  Preparing them for the next grade level and a state test is fine and should be done.  This can be done while still completing projects and tackling problems.  At the same time success for a test or grade level only is a narrow focus.  The next grade level and the next test is so little time in the scope of the lives of my students.  It is limited time success.  Preparing for life by learning how to solve problems through various content tools and perspectives is a stronger focus and one that students deserve.

The reasons not to will always be there when we want them to be there.  Start asking What if? and How? These questions are more fun anyway.