Friday, April 29, 2011

Doing the Work

            Many homeschool moms have told me that they purchase curriculum because they just don’t have the time, with three, five, seven, children to create their own lessons.  Teachers say they do not teach in projects because there is no way they could “cover” all of the material required for the curriculum unless it came in a textbook.  My question is:  Why is the mom or the teacher doing all of the work?
            A workshop teacher I once listened to (sorry, I do not know who it was or I’d be happy to give her credit) said a sentence that completely changed the way I taught.  She said, “The one who does the work is the one who learns the most.”  She continued to point out that at the end of a typical school day, teachers are drooping, exhausted, while the students are bouncing out the door, so much energy that they barely have the time to say goodbye.  This is not how school should be.  When we purchase pre-written texts and just have the students read the information, someone else has done all of the work.  The teacher then has to work to figure out ways to present the lesson, which is also a form of doing the work.  What is the student’s job?  To listen, read, and copy definitions, timelines, or general information from something that is set before them.  We are “spoon-feeding” our children long past the age they should be fed.  They are bored and we are frustrated trying to force them to just accept what we are giving them. 
            Unfortunately, however, children cannot structure their own lessons – they just don’t know how.  If you say, “Research the American Revolution” to a ten year old, s/he may grin excitedly, but then look at you blankly, wondering where to start.  They may even make a couple of attempts to find information, but they do not know what to do with the information they have.  They don’t want to be spoon-fed, but they do need help.  Somehow, we need to change our lessons so that the children are doing the work, yet have enough structure that they can be successful.
            Projects were the solution which I found allowed children to do the work, but I was able to put enough structure around the project so that the children would explore the topics which I chose.  Through all of the various projects which I introduced to my students, I found that there are three essential components for a successful project:  clear objective/requirements, time to work, and time to present their findings.
            Clear objectives or requirements were actually very difficult in the beginning.  I knew I wanted my students to learn about habitats (also called biomes), but what should I require them to learn?  I decided I wanted something to show that they had read about information first.  There were 2 ways which I did this:  a booklet where they answered questions with increasing depth, or a chart contrasting information in the texts.  I also recognized that they should have at least three sources, not just one textbook.  Next, I wanted them to do some type of learning that they did not have to write about.  Finally, I wanted them to have something they were going to present to the class, which would be the “final exam.”  These three elements were somehow involved in every project which I created for my students.
            My next problem was to make sure my objectives were easily accessible to the students.  I once took a college class, “Art in the Elementary Classroom,” in which the students (in groups of six) were required to write a play, create puppets, and present the puppet show at the end of the class.  The teacher very carefully spent twenty or more minutes listing all of her detailed requirements.  In the middle of these requirements, she also stated that all puppets must have mouths which move as the puppet speaks.  She never mentioned this requirement again.  While the class was working on our puppets, she helped many groups with many issues, but there was not one group where she reminded them of this requirement (believe me, we all discussed this at the end of the class!).  Then, on the day of the final “exam,” the college students proudly presented their puppet shows.  Four out of six teams failed the final exam for the simple reason that someone in the group had a puppet which did not have a movable mouth – which the teacher claimed was fifty percent of the grade for the puppet show!  2/3 of the class failed the final exam because one small detail was not followed!  The fact that the teacher intentionally helped students with everything except for this one small detail meant that her entire focus was to try to “trick” the students – she said it was to see if we were listening.  Based on the three pages of notes which I copied down that matched all of the others in our group, I don’t think that was a problem.  Movable mouths on puppets was not the purpose of the project, and tests like this have no part in a serious classroom.  The entire class learned a great deal in the project that went far beyond the five minute puppet shows, but all of that learning was brought into question because the teacher’s idea to trick her students. 
            All requirements from the teacher should be written in a clear format.  I suggest you use an outline format, because it makes it easy for students to consult the list and find information s/he is looking for.  Small details, unless they are of serious importance, should never be a requirement.  Creating puppets with movable mouths was not the focus of the class, yet I remember it in great detail fourteen years after I took that class.  The project was wonderful in providing learning opportunities far beyond the textbook, but the teacher’s trickery at the final exam completely counteracted everything else that was learned.  Never try to trick your students.  Keep the requirements loose enough that students can have some flexibility, but specific enough that they have some structure.  Saying, “Read page 5 – 15 in your textbook” does not provide much flexibility.  Saying, “Site three sources for your information” provides flexibility without completely controlling everything your student looks at.  For a student to find three viable sources, s/he will have to look at many more than three texts and will learn much more than you could ever have taught.
            Students also need time to “explore” the topic.  Finding “multi-intelligence” charts gave me many ideas of activities which my students could do with other students.  In team jobs, they would be required to discuss things they were learning, which would give a deeper understanding of the subject matter.  For our study on biomes, I had one class of students create dioramas.  Another class I taught how to create PowerPoint slideshows. Both classes were assigned two contrasting biomes which were required to be in the final project.  They learned much more about these two biomes (which were different for each group of four students) than they could ever have been taught by a lecture by me.
            Finally, every project should end with the students presenting what they have learned.  Notice I did not say to give a final, multiple-choice test.  Students can be very creative in the ways they present, and this will allow you to easily recognize that they have learned about the topic.  Whether the presentation is in front of Mom and Dad at homeschool or in front of the class in a schoolroom, students need the opportunity to proudly display and explain their research results.
            Projects allow students to do the work within structure provided by the teacher.  All projects should include clear objectives, opportunities to learn more than will be tested, and a final presentation to exhibit their new knowledge.  Remember, “the one who does the work is the one who learns the most.”  Help your student(s) to learn the most that they can.

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