Student Projects – Learn by Creating, Sharing, Revising, & Choice

The Project Overview & Past Failures
My students recently started working on a 1920s video project that they will be completing in small groups using their iPads.  The vision is to have groups create projects on specific topics of the 1920s that will be used to teach the rest of the class.  In the past, these type of projects have not been successful when it comes to students teaching one another through their projects.  As a result, I had started moving away from using this strategy, although I always knew I wanted to work to improve it.  After reflecting on the shortfalls of these past projects, here is what I found to be the issues:

1)  The students projects don’t hit and/or focus on the most important information.
2)  A large amount of time is spent on researching and learning the topic instead of focusing on the creation of the project and how it can be best suited to teach the material.  This is not saying that research isn’t important, but when there is a limited amount of time to ask students to research, learn, and create to teach we are asking a lot.  In this project, my focus is on students creating projects with purpose of teaching.
3)  Students only listen to classmates’ content when the projects are due, which is usually the one day it is presented to the class.  The problem is that students are only coming into contact with the material once, which is simply not enough exposure to truly learn the material.
4)  Student projects are average in quality and students do not deliver the content in an effective manner.

The New Plan of Attack
The first key ingredient was infusing student choice into the projects.  My entire class has been built around student choice, and therefore, had to be included within this project.  Students were allowed to choose their groups (no more than three), their topic, and what apps they use to create their video (Explain Everything, iMovie, TouchCast, and Haiku Deck).

The day I introduced the project to students I outlined my vision and the general structure of the project.  I say general structure (overall project focus/purpose, timetable, requirement to use at least three apps = app smashing!) because I wanted students to have a part in some of the decisions being made.  The purpose is getting students take ownership over the success of not only their own project, but all of the them.  Simply put, it was AWESOME!  It was mainly because of the learning environment I have been able to create thus far where student voices are not only heard but acted upon.  I had nine topics that I needed covered and I didn’t want to assign them or even do a random choice.  I needed a way to get students to assign themselves topics and organize themselves into groups.  So how did I do it?  I told the students to figure it out and they did! The crazy thing is how efficient and quick they were, although I did provide some coaching to help them problem solve!  I simply informed that they have the next couple of minutes to figure out the topics and groups.  They had to decide how they were going to work out any conflicts, which did come up as I had hoped (we as teachers need to put students in controlled situations that may get uncomfortable so they can learn to work it out).  Two groups ended up doing Paper, Rock, Scissors to solve a conflict over topics!  Within five minutes students were organized in groups and each group had their topic!  This first day created the foundation for a great project that has a number of important elements that solves the issues my projects like this have had in the past.  Each number below corresponds and addresses the issues discussed above.

1 & 2)  To save time researching I created posts in iTunes U (I use iTunes U  for every unit to share content/materials with my students) that has all the necessary learning materials that students need, including: quality websites, my video lectures, documents and other video clips.  This will also guarantee that students will know the ‘essential’ information that needs to be in their projects.  Students can do more research above and beyond that but it is not a requirement.
3)  The central part of the project is having six work days and three share days (peer review/descriptive feedback).  The first two share days will include groups sharing their ideas and projects.  On these days the rest of the class will provide descriptive feedback, helping the group improve their project in preparation for the final sharing.  This means students will be interacting with all the other topics three times total.  In addition, I will be adding in my own tidbits to help all students understand the main topics.  Students will not have to wait until the final showing to learn the material from other groups.  Instead, they will be learning throughout the entire process and the hope is that by the end students will have a deeper understanding.
4)  The two share days before the final showing will be focused on students providing descriptive feedback, as mentioned above.  I see this as an important time investment that will lead to quality projects as students will be receiving tips and ideas from the same people they are trying to teach.  Students have already been practicing giving descriptive feedback and understand the power and importance of honesty within the process.  After each share day groups will then have work days to revise and improve their projects using the feedback from fellow students.  Below is the video that my mentor and tech trainer Ann Feldmann (@annfeldmann1) shared with me.  I now use it when first introducing students to peer review and descriptive feedback.  Note that although the video is of elementary students, I feel it makes it all that much more powerful for students and teachers no matter the age.  Great way to start a conversation and culture based on students and teachers challenging one another to get better and constantly work to improve.

Video: Austin’s Butterfly: Building Excellence in Student Work

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