Most schools have culminating events that have been done year after year in the spring, such as class plays, music shows, student-led assemblies, or open houses. The upside is that students look forward to these events, having watched their older peers engage in these activities. The downside, however, is that often these events become rote – for the teachers and for the students. No longer is true learning or engagement happening, but rather the event becomes a show performed by the students unsure of the meaning of what they are doing, led by half-engaged teachers tired of the same old thing but too afraid of change to give it up.
Besides lack of engagement with real learning, another drawback with these “showpiece” culminations is that they can take valuable time out of the classroom that could be used for inquiry and instead are used for rehearsal of rote material. The project we describe here was an attempt at our middle school to replace the former with a learning experience that hits the gold standard of Project Based Learning, including a public product, a challenging problem or question,
sustained inquiry, student voice and choice, and reflection.
This way, both the students and teachers would be revitalized in the learning process, and fewer class days would be spent unengaged in practice for an event.
Let’s Work Together
In the traditional 7th grade Renaissance-themed culminating event, students each took on the persona of an important Renaissance figure. They dressed in costume and recited a speech from that character's perspective. In developing a project to replace this, the history department searched for an inquiry concept that could be inter-departmentally applied. After much thought and discussion, we decided that the social studies culmination could relate to the science department’s study of water. Students in science classes were experiencing a “water day challenge” – a design challenge in which they built a working water system in a day. The idea was that our department would do a similar project at the same time to show the versatility of water as well as demonstrate inter-disciplinary collaboration, and last but of course not least, showcase the students’ ability to collaborate through historical inquiry. The prompts: How has water shaped human civilization? How have humans developed systems to control water?
Student Voice and Choice through Inquiry
At this point in the year, we had already engaged in six units. For this project, we decided to have the students choose which of the six units of study they were most interested in revisiting. Once they chose, we explained the event and how we were going to show the importance of water to human life and the development of civilizations.
Then we placed the students in groups based on interest, two to three students per team. From there, they discussed what water concept they wanted to focus on in each unit. We hadn’t previously focused on water during these units, so they had to re-examine the unit through the lens of water.
We talked about essential questions, such as: What technologies did water help to drive? What was the impact of natural disasters involving water on the development and change of civilizations?
This discussion prompted students to think big-picture about water and its impact. After this, they crafted a research question based on their unit of choice and conducted research.
What They Created: Water Day
For the presentation itself, students were tasked to construct a monument to water, based on their research questions and findings. We discussed how some monuments were symbolic, while others were more literal in nature, and they chose which type of monument to design. They also created a presentation in the format of a 10x10 – ten slides consisting of no more than ten words each – to communicate their project and process. Finally, they crafted discussion questions to help their audience gain a deeper understanding of the material.
This project crossed interdisciplinary lines not always breached. To create their monuments, the students had gone to teachers all around the school to gather appropriate resources and advice – for example, one group built a thermometer out of water using resources from the science department. Our educational technology specialist taught kids how to 3D design during a couple of lunch sessions, and multiple groups consulted with our art teacher about how to bring their ideas into reality. The librarian helped the students to organize their resources and find sources, and curated a cart of relevant books that stayed in our classroom for the duration of the project.
Finally, it was Water Day. Each group designed their own station throughout the room to look like their region/time period. Their parents and other grade levels toured the stations and viewed their projects, the students shared their creation process, and they led discussions about the importance of water, discussing their essential questions.
The project wasn’t graded. The only thing that was graded was the students’ reflections in which they thought about their process, their collaboration, their work, and their results; in this, the students explained their takeaways from the project. Through this we discovered that many students wanted more time to create their projects. Though this was by design, as time limits can often allow for additional creativity; as Tom and David Kelley say in their book Creative Confidence: Unleashing the Creative Potential within Us All, “boundary conditions can spur more creativity, not less.” However, because so many students felt this way, we will reevaluate for next year.
What was the most impactful was that the school came together to make sure that the students really did use inter-disciplinary concepts. The librarian came to teach the students how to better research and use Noodle tools to keep track of information gathered. The director of educational technology helped make flipped tutorials to help the students understand how to make an effective slide-based presentation. The science department made connections from the properties of water to the historical importance of water on civilizations. Faculty modeled inter-disciplinary collaboration, and the students followed suit. Like water and its ever-shifting properties, this educational experience allowed for fluidity of discipline that made for real engagement for everyone involved: teachers and students.
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