Student Choice 2.0
There is a fine line between giving students freedom over their learning and providing clear expectations and structure. Achieving that balance can be a challenge to attain, but usually generates the most enthusiasm and motivation for learning. Over the years, I have increased opportunities for student choice and participation in online collaborative environments, but progress has been slow and meticiulous and it was time to losen the reigns. This past month, I introduced an old project with a new twist: choose a project and present it online– on a platform of your choice. As it happened last year, my Grade 6 students worked with teachers across the school (we are a PK-12 school) and Dr. Robert Edwards in our art department. This year, our new computer teacher, Stephanie Pell, also jumped on board to collaborate with the technical aspects of the project.
The project was related to our study of East Asian religions and philosophies, which I developed last year, following my participation in UPITT’s National Consortium for Teaching about Asia seminar. After an introduction to four of the common belief systems, readings, and group discussions, students were given the following menu of choices:
Buddhist Breakfast: Make a game that teaches people about the history and beliefs of Buddhism. Include directions about how to play.
Confucian Luncheon: Write and illustrate a story or cartoon that teaches people about the history and beliefs of Confucianism.
Taoist Dinner a. Create your own Taoist landscape art and provide a description of how it incorporates Taoist beliefs. or b. Write and illustrate a story or cartoon that teaches people about the history and beliefs of Taoism through the Eight Immortals.
Feng Shui Buffet: Select one teacher, administrator, staff member, or specialist and apply feng shui to his or her space (classroom, office, or specialty area). Showcase before and after pictures, with a written explanation of a.) the basic beliefs behind feng shui and b.) how you applied the principles.
Once I gave them the above choices, they prepared for a reading quiz about the topic of their choice and we talked in smaller groups about process. All students were expected to begin with a brainstorm of what they already knew, launching them into the formulation of research questions about what they still wanted to know. From there, students progressed from various angles; some students began with their platform choice, others went to the art studio to paint landscapes, some analyzed a teacher’s room for feng shui, while others stayed in the classroom to strategize plans for a Buddhist game. I am so fortunate to work with engaged and mature students, who could handle the freedom this project entailed.
When given time in class to work on projects, I am always in awe of the near absolute engagement of students in their learning. The process of this project was even more fun to observe than others, because I could see evidence of students thinking critically about their choices. Rather than plodding through a checklist of expectations, they used my procedure as a guide, but modified it for the project topics and platform they chose. We also made use of our school discussion board for the first time, so that students could collaborate on content resources and technology questions.
There were a number of tools that Stephanie and I introduced to the students, but they ultimately landed on Voicethread, Edublogs, Vimeo, and Little Bird Tales. In some cases, students even decided that their project would be best presented with a combination of these– which was an exciting evolution in their grasp of the tools. One student asked if he could use Minecraft to design his Buddhism game, which turned out to be an enlightening moment for me. Having never played Minecraft, I did not know the capabilities, so Stephanie and I discussed the options. She found this article about using Minecraft as a teaching tool and we gave him the green light, as long as he could turn it into a game. For the rest of the 70 minute period, this student — independently– researched ways of programming and designing true/false switches for the game, even making use of YouTube how-to videos. In the end, he presented his introduction and research through edublogs, followed by a video tour of the game recorded on bandicam— in which he built the Mahabodhi Temple and the Wild Goose Pagoda.
At the end of this unit, the students posted their projects to a school wiki and presented them in class. The projects were diverse and creative and the students paid close attention, in order to learn the strategies their peers mastered and look for similarities with their own work. The students presented for 10-15 minutes, and most were able to articulate depth and connections far better than I have seen without the use of 2.0 platforms. I am convinced that choice led them to an inquiry model of thinking and they made more connections based on their own curiosity and interest.
As for me, this turned out to be my own Taoist experience with “going with the flow,” and I would say that we ended up in a better place without a detailed map. When one teaches the same thing all day, year after year, the knowledge comes easily and we forget what it was like to learn it for the first time. Each time around, as students master the checklists and content, the expectations become etched in stone and the bar gets higher and higher. Only, the next year, students are beginning with as little prior knowledge and skill as they did that very first time we taught it. I find that, though it can be intimidating to rework material, change the expectations, and let students have more control, it allows me to become more of a partner and guide, rather than a teacher of process and content. For me, this is is critical. I also have more fun and am able to let students surprise me. As I plan my next unit about India, I am bearing this in mind and preparing for more inquiry and online collaboration. Beyond the plan lies a newfound trust between my students and me and we need to have more opportunities to explore together.