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Teacher to teacher
High expectations and project-based learning
by Starr Sackstein | June 28, 2012 New York Teacher issue
We can all agree that teaching teenagers requires a level of patience and concern that almost forces us into sainthood. We become so driven by our content and our need to have students “get it” that we often enable them, leaving them feeling crippled and entitled. In the current educational climate, it is essential that we give our students the freedom to express themselves responsibly as a form of self-empowerment. The trick is to let them think it was their idea!
At the beginning of each school year, I give my students a syllabus much like what will be expected of them in college. I post it on my website and I explain that they are responsible for meeting deadlines. At first, I religiously remind them about what is coming due and then contact parents regularly when the deadlines are not met. Then I loosen the reins, letting out the rope, allowing each student to be more and more responsible for the work.
You might be saying to yourself, “This can’t work,” but you’d be surprised. Once we’ve gone over the syllabus at the beginning of the year and the expectations are clearly designated and my students have shown understanding with verbal or non-verbal assent, I consistently do what I promised from Day One. If Step 1 is to create clear and consistent expectations, Step 2 is regular, consistent and fair enforcement of them.
Beyond laying the groundwork for facilitating high expectations, you have to be clever in your project and work design. All work should have an explicit purpose and exemplars provided for them to understand how to achieve mastery work. Don’t expect your students all to do the same thing. Throw the formulas out the window and let them be creative.
Some of the most successful assignments I’ve used are: student poetry tutorial videos, satirical movies, literature review as talk show segments, group comic strips and writing a one-act play. The one thing all of these assignments have in common is synthesis or higher-order thinking expectations, but they are cleverly hidden in fun. Students almost never realize how much more work creative assignments take than prescriptive formulaic essays that can be a simple regurgitation of classroom conversation.
For all of these creative assignments, students are given time in class after I’ve carefully backward planned my units. For example, if I know I want my students to write an original satire about an issue of their choosing at the end of the unit, I carefully plan the skills they will need to be successful into a couple of weeks of instruction and allow time for practice in class. We’ll define satire and elements of it in the beginning. Then we will discuss satires they are familiar with and even watch some in class. Then we will read classic examples before beginning to brainstorm topics. Only after the students have been taught the necessary pieces can we move on to the end product.
That’s not enough, though. Next comes the support. In class, the process of the assignment should be clear. Benchmarks should be provided and they should count. Once students select a topic, they should do research, then draft and write. It’s important to check in with them during the process. Allow time in class for conferences and work periods. It’s not a waste of time to allow students to work on assignments in class because the data you get while monitoring can lead to useful information for future planning.
Once the students have completed all of this work, they still aren’t done. I always make the students write reflections once they complete an assignment. Teaching students how to talk or write about their learning is almost as important as the content. Students should be able to connect parts of the process to the standards they are addressing. They should be able to talk about their challenges and how they solved problems and how they might do it differently in the future. Students who can discuss what they’ve learned and how they’ve learned it are much more aware of their own process and require much less explicit direction.
The last step in the process is always publication of some kind. Students work hard on what they’ve done, so providing an opportunity to share their work is essential. Don’t ever underestimate how positive reinforcement or encouraging words or pride can help improve a student’s motivation. I have made class publications that I have used in future years as sample work. I have done gallery walks and presentations. They all serve the same end: acknowledgment of success and growth. It’s worth it.
The author teaches English at World Journalism Preparatory School in Queens.
Related topics: teaching issues and craft