by Dara Savage
I love awards shows – the couture, the performances, the glitz AND the glamor. I also love the news. In January 2016, The Academy Awards gave me a unique opportunity to combine two things I love into an authentic, relevant project for my high school classroom: The Carter G. Woodson Awards – The Carters.
Jada Pinkett Smith, and her husband Will, decided to boycott the Oscars because of the lack of diversity among the nominees, and she posted a video on social media on the Martin Luther King holiday. Most of my kids only get snippets of news through social media, so they had heard parts of the story, but didn’t really understand. The first thing I asked them to do was to scour the Internet and social media to find out what was really going on. Hooking students in the beginning is crucial to Project Based Learning success, and this was Hook #1. Then I showed them a report from Entertainment Tonight highlighting Pinkett’s comments, followed by the official statement from Cheryl Boone-Isaacs, the president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. This response explained that a taskforce was forming to correct the lack of diversity by 2020.
The Students Are Hooked
My students were angry! They wanted to know why it would take so long. I re-directed their attention back to Pinkett’s key message, “You shouldn’t have to beg to be recognized.” I likened this situation to the fact that some people even wonder why Black History Month exists. That got them more riled up. “We should teach people about that,” several students suggested. The driving question: Why should we celebrate Black History Month? Hook #2.
That was the perfect opening to introduce The Carter Awards project. It’s named for historian Carter G. Woodson, credited with founding Black History Month (originally, Negro History Week). In the entry document, students were challenged to create a nomination package for a person who deserves recognition during Black History Month. The package would consist of a mailer (4-5 page research paper), an image gallery, a quote ad (quote by others about their nominee), screening (a video about their nominee) and an acceptance speech as their nominee. I told students that the project would conclude with a gala awards ceremony, attended by the entire school. That’s when winners in each category would be revealed just like a real awards show – Hook #3.
The Inquiry Deepens
The question from students, “How will we define greatness?” led naturally into the next phase of the project. I guided them through a critical-thinking discussion. Students were assigned one of seven categories: The REAL MVP, Literary Giant, Move the Crowd, Best Entrepreneur, Economic Game Changer, Entertainer of the Millennium, or Best Innovator. After that, they could choose anyone they wanted between the time of slavery and 1999, which allowed for student voice and choice. Then they developed their own rubrics to assess greatness in that category. For a practice round, we evaluated the Super Bowl performance by Beyoncé to see how she measured up as a world-class entertainer on a scaffolded rubric I had created. Hook #4. As students got more specific and thoughtful about their criteria for greatness, I could hear their conversations go deeper and their rubrics became more specific.
If my students were going to write a research paper, plagiarism and citation had to be covered and they HAD to get it. My question for this section was “What is the difference between a sample, a remix, and a cover?” After taking Cornell notes on the various forms of plagiarism, students set out to answer this question. I asked them to use the resources I provided, then find two more on their own to support their answer. I asked for a paragraph that defined a remix, a sample and a cover using language from the different types of plagiarism in their definitions. They also were to identify songs they knew as either a sample, remix, or cover.
As their research began to grow, they were constantly learning more about their nominee, and each week, they were challenged with a new question like “Did you nominee have ties to any other nominee?” and “Who is a present-day reincarnation of your nominee?” I posed these questions in order to sustain inquiry throughout the entire project. Additionally, they had to educate their classmates about their nominees and Black History Month in advance of the awards ceremony. They had a chance to reflect and revise each section of the nomination package before the final submission. To do this, students used the rubric created for each section, scored their submission, and wrote a paragraph justifying the score they gave themselves.
The Big Finish
Students campaigned for the popular vote by introducing their nominees to the student body during morning announcements. They shared their image galleries on their own social media sites, persuaded other students during lunch, and even offered to help students vote – for their nominee, of course. Other students asked them questions about their nominees and being able to answer them made them feel like experts. The official Carter G. Woodson Awards ballot was a Google form that was shared with the entire student body, and nationwide through my own social media. Many of my connections shared it as well. Their audience was from across the country – how much more authentic can you get? Hook #5.
The Carter Awards was the school-wide Black History Month celebration. The entre school attended, the chorus and band performed, spoken word poets delivered original pieces, the African drum and dance corps performed, and the Mass Communications department at Delaware State University covered the event. There was VIP seating with refreshments for all the nominees, and trophies for the winner of each category.
Although all the elements of Gold Standard PBL were important for the success of this project, the authentic audience was the highlight. My students involved the whole school and beyond in what they learned.
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