Rarely do I get a chance to see and hear about how my learners’ work has been shared beyond my desk. I think it would be pretty accurate to say that most students’ assignments and projects, despite the many hours that may have gone into the product, end up in the recycle bin.
I’ve often thought about how wasteful this is. Sure, the student receives a mark and the process of learning to get to the end product is valuable. But what are we thinking when we accept the fact that it’s okay to throw away the very evidence of the learning almost immediately after it’s returned with a summative grade? In the end, we’re valuing the grade. Aren’t we?
I believe there is great merit in doing things by hand. I love doing things by hand: baking, pastry work, jewelry making, scrapbooking and card making and all crafts. However, let’s face it: in a child’s 13 years in the school system, a lot of junk is created and a lot of paper is wasted. I save the special pieces. Or I take pictures of them for posterity…and then I recycle them. In Kindergarten a student’s first fantastic scribbles are proudly posted on the refrigerator. Eventually, after mounds of class work and projects have passed through the kitchen and as the student makes it to high school, parents aren’t so interested in the product as much as the grade that was assigned to it. So children everywhere learn quickly enough that the carrot is the grade assigned to it.
How do we get learners to appreciate the process of learning, to de-emphasize the summative mark that is inevitable (and still important) and instead value the sharing of the work?
I want to share with you a rewarding and INSPIRING project I just completed with my English 11 students recently. We were doing a Poetry Unit and most of the in-class activities revolved around tons of poetry analysis. I think what educators would call my style of teaching would be “flipped”. However, I just think I’m doing what I need to do to engage my learners and make good use of my classroom time. I demo-ed how to write an analysis with them on the LCD projector. I would assign them the Poetry section from a past government exam and then assign them the written component. Inevitably I’d hear “is it for marks?” I said, “yes, we’re going to mark it in class”. After the usual groans, I replied, “well, you know…you guys have conditioned me to make everything worth a mark because when I say we’re just going to practice it and it’s not worth marks; but feedback only, you don’t try very hard and no one completes the activity well”. After just a couple times of this, my learners eventually came around to accept the fact that practice is a good thing and that they should try harder. I’ll dare say they learned to appreciate the tons of practice we did in class. I swear I heard them mutter to one another that they thought they learned a lot from the modelling and in-class practice (sans marks). Really. Honestly they did!
The only homework my learners had during the poetry unit was to write a series of poems and post these to their blogs. Many were in the style of the poets we were reading in class. My final assignment to them was that they had to Self Publish an original poem and present their documented creation process and evidence of sharing at the end of the unit. I did not give them a handout or a rubric. I did not tell them how many marks it would be worth. I intentionally did not tell them much to guide them. I told them they would be evaluated on their creativity and their presentation. I also told them that the more far-reaching and public their audience, the higher their mark would be. Then I inspired them by showing them a couple examples of cool presentations from the previous year.
What I found to be so great about this project was that it forced my learners to use the phantom skills they have been learning all year long with me in English class. They learned how to use twitter, to blog and use social media to promote ideas. They learned how to create videos and upload them to youtube and use their creativity and passions to demonstrate their learning. This was the culminating activity that would show me and their peers that they know how to choose the appropriate type of technology to illustrate and best showcase their ideas.
What I saw was amazing, funny and impressive. I also saw learners engaged in thoughtfulness and collaboration with peers to make their presentations more effective and I think there was meaningful learning. What I saw was my learners going out into the big scary world and taking risks. Their work was no longer for one pair of eyes (mine!) but they had to see what complete strangers thought of their poem! now that is kind of scary. Mind you, no one did anything physically risky other than the girl that climbed up to the ceiling of her condo’s elevator and taped her poster/poem on the elevator ceiling. She said it wasn’t that high up anyway and brushed off our concern that she could have fallen as demonstrated by her Spiderwoman-like scaling of the walls of the elevator. None of the poems that my students displayed in public places had their names on them. But the most daring students were the ones that went face-to-face with the frozen-yogurt-eating Menchies customers enjoying their desserts in the Village. Other daring learners approached students studying for final exams on the UBC campus and asked if they could listen to their poems. My kids were amazed that complete strangers would actually take the time out of their busy lives to listen to their whole poems! One student said he even felt really bad that the guy he was reading his poem to missed his bus (the 99!) and had to catch the next one because he was patiently waiting for the poem to be read. What I didn’t expect was the community interaction that would result. It was fantastic. My students were very polite and thankful to the listening public and acknowledged that they didn’t realize that there were so many nice, decent people in the community and in turn they relayed that the people in the community that listened to their poems appreciated that my learners were getting out there and sharing their poems. And yes, the cold hard truth is that they encountered many people who simply didn’t acknowledge them or care to give them a second of their time. But not too much weirdness was encountered. My kids travelled in little groups for their ninja-poet-escapades and that was a pretty smart thing to do.
I could not have asked for better feedback from one little project.
A student during his presentation said “I went into the UBC Village and started reading my poem to strangers. I told them first that it was for an English project. I soon learned that there are a lot of nice, patient people around. I also learned that lots of people don’t care. But lots of people willing to listen to me read my poem to them said they thought it was a good poem and project and they liked how we English students have to get out in the community and interact with people”.
I think that one statement made my year. Rarely do I ever hear about stuff like that. The students as a whole seemed to think the whole exercise was kind of wacky weird yet fun. Many of my kids became stealthy ninja poets depositing their poem flyers in public places like community centre bulletin boards, lamp posts, mailboxes and recycling bins. I saw slideshows of poems purposefully propped up on the top of recycling bins (a poem about the degradation of our world by pollution).
Several students gifted their poems to the public with value-added items. One girl tied her poems to balloons and gave them away to children and the public for free. She even got free helium from Save On Foods by bringing her own balloons! What a fantastic idea! She said everyone accepted her balloon poems.
Another student made beautiful cards with a poem he wrote about nature and flowers. He went to the local florist and asked if he could leave his cards there for the customers to take. The florist agreed and even allowed him to leave cards near the cash register and had them propped up throughout the store to be given out with each purchase. The student was savvy enough to leave his email and phone number for the florist and asked for feedback. Several days later, he received an email from the florist requesting more card poems! The card poems were so popular that customers requested more and the florist told him that he’d be happy if my student wanted to do this again.
Another student posted his unrequited love video poem on poetry forums and sites like poetry.com, wattpad and several more poetry sites; twitter, Facebook, 9GAG, reddit… and his poem I believe was the most internationally far-reaching. He received plenty of positive feedback!
What was cool: these students were clearly glowing with pride because they actually found an audience that valued their work and provided real feedback. The feedback a teacher gives is usually all that a student ever receives. When the real world walks all over the poem you painstakingly wrote on the sidewalk with chalk and doesn’t even look down at it; or posts a comment on your poetic post on the League of Legends forum– “good job man” and several other gamers post poem replies in the thread…that is meaningful and relevant. When you get 465 page views of your Youtube video and you finally reveal to the world, your class and your teacher that you actually sing and that your music video was kind of dark yet powerful and beautiful…well that’s pretty relevant.