by Nathan Hatt
A2 STEAM Project Based Learning Coordinator, Ann Arbor Public Schools
We all know that excellent projects position students to drive the learning. Through the deliberate accounting of student passions and interests, the teacher is able to modify aspects of a project that allows individual students to satisfy expectations in different ways. Teachers are also stakeholders in this process. Through PBL design, teachers weave an interdisciplinary tapestry of standards. By way of this process, teachers often select an overarching theme, public issue, or inquiry path. In addition to student input, the charisma, interest, or expertise of the teacher is often an important factor in the success of a project. Between the tension of standards alignment and student voice and choice lies the question, “What does appropriate voice and choice look like?”
A 7th Grade ELA Project
When our school’s 7th-grade English language arts and social studies teacher Karen Haddas embarked on her project TED Talks: #socialstructures, she had taken careful inventory through formative assessment, and was excited to walk the line between standards-driven instruction, and student voice and choice. In the preceding project, Wonder Woman, students explored the themes embedded in the driving question: “Why do the wonder women, in our biography study, challenge societal structures and break out of expected gender norms when other women didn’t? Are they rebels or heroes?” Based on this foundational understanding, students are compelled to apply this discernment to a choice of subgroups within a society. This is one way that student voice and choice is a key feature of the project.
Throughout most of the project, Ms. Haddas was feeling excited, but that changed towards the end. When she introduced the rubric for the summative performance assessment, something changed in the students’ outlook. It wasn’t the narrative content of the writing piece that caused feelings of unrest. It wasn’t the abstract application of the synthesis of complex literary themes. Oddly enough, it was the expectations outlined in how the work would be produced.
Major Product: Secret Compartment Assignment
The idea of a secret compartment is simple enough, and rather brilliant. Ms. Haddas drew her inspiration from the work of educator Elaine Wang from the article, Art as Meaning-Making in a Secondary School English Classroom: A “Secret Compartment” Book Project on Toni Morrison’s Beloved. The concept being that in its construction there would be a hidden message, or reveal that would encapsulate the deeper, abstract thoughts of the student in response to their biography study. Within this constructive framework, students are given an avenue for their expression. The expectations were as outlined:
Each page contains one of the types of Information listed below with cited pages from text. Illustrated and narrated example of…
...how women break out of gender norms and why they did.
Four Panel Secret Compartment
- Two panels have written claim with explanation of thinking.
Final Draft Requirements:
- Colored neatly
Through discussion and careful solicitation of student feedback, Ms. Haddas realized that this structure was intimidating for some students. They either did not have confidence in their own artistic skills, or felt strongly about expressing their understanding in different ways. Ms. Haddas revised her product requirements thusly...
Each page contains one of the types of Information listed below with cited pages from text. Show and explain…
Shows and explains why you think the character has the heart of a rebel or a hero or both.
Final Draft Requirements:
More Options Help Engage Students
While many students elected to embark on the original secret compartment concept, they were given the opportunity to propose their own idea as long as it met the revised requirements. Some examples include computer programs, iMovie projects, and other media expressions that break out of the common Google Slide medium.
Renewed enthusiasm returned to the classroom dynamic, and students were refreshed to be able to express themselves using complex fluencies they have acquired as students at a STEAM school. As developers of project-based curriculum, we ask students to engage in inquiry and self-reflection as a matter of course. If we hope to instill these values in our student body, it is important that we practice and model these skills as well. It can be tricky to espouse this discipline while maintaining a fair expectation of academic excellence. Through careful curation and appropriate formative assessment of all aspects of a project, student voice and choice can help all stakeholders to embark on a bolder vision of project design. Inevitably, we can all feel excited about our work.
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