There is nothing quite like the magic that happens in a middle-school language arts classroom when the word “project” finds its way out of a teacher’s mouth.
Whatever learning has been taking place, or not, can finally be used – or not – in creating some creative representation of that particular unit of study. I generally showed students what the end goal would be right at the start, just to create a sense of enthusiasm before they began the day-to-day learning (which, oddly enough, didn’t generally engender the same degree of excitement). In my classroom, over the last several years, projects included the creation of a literary scrapbook; a filmed public service announcement to wrap up persuasive writing; a creation of original games to end a reading unit focusing on winning (photo above); an infographic on extreme weather and its impact; and a group timeline and individual displays for an end-of-year grade-level Museum of Tolerance.
The words are uttered, students are teased with quick looks at the project to come – but it is a long road until glitter and glue appear, like the Emerald City. shiny and magical – but fraught with flying monkeys and a evil green witch.
Such, too, is the project. From the very first poster board or manila paper to the many supplies that students bring in, chaos reins. Yes, it is an organized chaos (mostly). but it was chaos nonetheless. No matter how many days I would leave to get the job done, there always seemed to be more and more needed for the insanity. For a project students had done in previous years, I knew, mostly, how much time to give them, not including surprise assemblies or snow days, but for new projects, I could only work with what appeared to be logical plans until I watched them crumble.
And yet, the project couldn’t go on forever. Over the last five years or more, projects had become end of marking period requirements – and yet, of course, that had the potential for being a real problem; even with a fairly easy rubric, teachers still needed time to grade six or seven different group groups’ work, with individual components, in each of three different classes, not to mention totaling up all of those points and put them into their gradebooks. (If we could, we tried to move projects up to avoid the tight deadlines, but this wasn’t usually possible.)
About that group grade . . . There had to be one grade that stood for the final project, the full and complete visual along with the supporting writing and research, but I learned early on that this could not be the end of the matter. No matter how carefully I had developed the groups (and how many hours it took to get there) – working to join together a mix of slackers, overachievers, and those who might rise to the challenge – there were always some that just broke down. Some students would work, and some wouldn’t. So projects were broken down into parts: individual research, writing, peer editing, proofreading, and so on. In this way, students who did their best for themselves and their groups would clearly benefit.
To help me judge this effort, students had to score themselves at the beginning and end of each project session on whether they had come prepared with whatever was expected – research, materials – or whether they had worked successfully during class time as a contributor to the group.
Did this part of the grade make that much of a difference in the overall project score? Not really. But it did give the students a sense of ownership over their actions – and it did make at least a small difference. Would they score themselves fairly? Mostly, yes. It didn’t hurt that I walked around while they were scoring, which had to be done in front of their entire group, and that I might find myself stopping to look over the shoulder of a student who had spent a great deal of time hanging out or visiting another group. I had my own notes, I told the kids, so I expected honesty. Of course, most of this was in my head, as I hardly had the time to write anything down as I supervised glue guns and student arguments and gave feedback to each group on a revolving basis. But that was usually enough. (A long, long time ago, I used to be in charge of this scoring, but I learned, over time, to give it over to the students, who were, often, remarkably honest.)
At first, I didn’t give the entire double period over to the project. We’d still be working on something else that might be unrelated – independent reading, or revision to a writing piece – for half of the time. But there they were, lying in wait for the moment when I would say that it was time to begin project work for the day. (Occasionally, I started the class with project work, especially if it was beginning to involve materials or if that non-project part of class could be continued independently at home, but it was better to have it as a carrot dangling before them for 30 or 40 minutes.)
Quickly, with whatever they needed for that day’s project work, students would move to their designated project seats, if they were different from their regular seating (which they often were, just to keep things controlled for at least a part of the day). But project work didn’t mean going right to the glue and glitter, though there were always those students who brought their materials in early and often, and they clung to them, even when it was clear that there was still much research and writing to do before they got started.
Of course, no matter what work I had done in setting up groups, taking into account student preferences in topics and students who didn’t get along – or who got along far too well – I found that there were usually one dud group in every class. These would include students who just couldn’t get along with anyone, or those who had never had a problem before, along with those who had the reputation of doing nothing and were making sure to keep that reputation up. Students would appear at the end of class to talk to me “in private” about the problems their groups were having. In very rare cases, I would move a student; in even rarer cases, a student would be better off working mostly alone, using me as their springboard. I tried, as much as possible, to push it back to the students, with me as a mediator of sorts, but that didn’t always work.
There were many days toward the end when students worked with their groups during their lunch and lunch study periods, either in my room or in our Media Center. Sometimes, it was just that time was getting tight; at other times, it was that a group just hadn’t gotten it together or one that was doing far too much. By that time, though, the project generally involved the entire double mod, with a few minutes for set up and more for clean up and organization and, of course, self-scoring.
Was this why I had become a language arts teacher? I sometimes wondered. Wasn’t my job to teach reading and writing? But, obviously, helping students to get along with other students was part of my job too. Encouraging students who were hanging back to take the reins in an area of the project would help them forever – as would showing those who were taking over that they needed to hand over those reins.
Ultimately, the project would end, and the “museum share” would happen, where students got to walk around, take notes, and write comments, eventually sharing what they had learned. And despite repeated reminders, the myriad pipe cleaners, magic markers, buttons, and glue guns were often left there for the next project, the next year’s students.
In the case of the games project, students just had fun as they tried each other’s games with their groups, which, by that point, were often tightly knit, the pressure of the project behind them. Most of the games’ rules actually worked, and the students were able to enjoy the wonders of games that weren’t technology in a long period or two, voting for the one they felt was the most successful for a prize.
But, I would ask myself, had they learned anything, anything at all, from all of this? I would often find myself cringing during grading when I read some of the preposterous research students had come up with or the conclusions they had drawn from nowhere. And yet the glitter on the title was just right, and the string lights were set up to blink on and off, even if glitter and lights had nothing at all to do with the topic at hand, such as a dark period in human history. Was was the point of it all? I would wonder. Yes, creativity of all sorts should be encouraged, but shouldn’t learning be the ultimate prize?
Did they learn, then? Not always, clearly. But every day, in my workplace – and in yours – we are going to meetings to present findings to a roomful of people, or we are working on projects and presentations that determine our raises, and our bonuses, and our promotions. To get there, we have to work with others who don’t always do what they should – or, perhaps, we’re still those slackers who are desperately trying to hold on to others’ strengths to see ourselves through.
Yes, there are winners and losers in this game called life. The projects in middle school may not really matter, but the lessons in good sportsmanship should.
If our conclusions aren’t sound, no amount of glitter and lights is going to help them along. But maybe a little bit is okay.