This post is the last of an occasional series documenting my entry into project-based learning. This semester, my students participated in 20Time, a 12-week experience where they chose a worthwhile project to complete (somewhat) on their own using 20 percent of our class time. You can read more about the path that led to this project here.
Now that the year is done and I’ve enjoyed some hammock time, it’s time to reflect on this 20Time adventure.
When the student speeches were finished in late May, I was 90 percent certain I wanted to give this pilot project permanent status in the curriculum. After talking candidly with different groups of students about their experiences in our last few weeks of school, I’m now 100 percent certain that this project will be a spring semester fixture in my classroom.
My 20Time plans were far from perfect (I’ll chat about some alterations for next year below), but the overall project was definitely worthy of the time it gobbled. First, though, if you’ll indulge me, I want to share three of my students’ 170 projects (Want more? Here’s a list of 50 other unique projects my students tackled.):
1. Balm Buddy is the creation of T.T., a student who sketched, computer-drafted, and ultimately built 32 pocket-sized lip balm keychain holders using our engineering department’s 3D printer. T.T. used online software to draft the model and then sweet-talked our engineering teacher into letting him use the lab after school. A few sheets of plastic later and T.T. had built a working prototype of an invention that could be the Next Big Thing in keyring accessories. (The red is nice, but imagine it as a monkey or koala – cute, right?) T.T. also wrote a business plan and researched patent laws as part of his project.
2. S.G. changed from YouTube content consumer to content creator with the successful launch of her own YouTube channel, Sashagreenbean. In 12 weeks, she posted nine videos – a productivity level many adult vloggers would struggle to match. S.G. is hooked on the medium and plans to continue building her channel and subscriber base this summer and beyond. My favorite is her Mother’s Day post from early May – it’s such a sweet treat and features many of my (adorable!) students:
3. Finally, B.B. dazzled the class with a built-from-scratch RC truck that can race up to 40 mph. Once he popped off the shell, he became a surgeon, deftly explaining the inner spaghetti bowl of wires and connectors. He also designed a single-sheet set of directions in “kid talk,” so middle-schoolers could follow his steps. Finally, he closed his speech with a Hollywood-style video of his truck rounding corners and completing jumps in scenes would rival the latest summer blockbuster.
Several times, I was so impressed with students’ project presentations, I sent “attaboy/attagirl” emails on the sly to their parents. Feedback from the homefront was overwhelmingly positive, as parents enjoyed watching their kids lose themselves in their work. Ah, yes, the power of flow. Here is one parent response I received:
Now, not all of the projects were this successful. In weeks 4 and 5, a handful of my kids (thinking back, probably five or six) approached me with requests to switch projects; I refused in the kindest way, reminding them that their struggles were the whole point of this project. Instead of bailing, we brainstormed. Some were able to get back on track, others weren’t. In every case, lessons were learned.
When projects failed, it was either because the original plan was too grand in scope (solution: scale back and complete one baby step toward the larger goal) or the student wasn’t truly passionate about the project. Several students said they weren’t able to spend any out-of-class time on their projects (which is fine; homework was never a requirement), but I would argue that a student who couldn’t find any extra time in his life to work on the project wasn’t really passionate enough about the selection to begin with.
What the kids had to say:
1. Content creation is hard. My students are consumers, zoning out on YouTube channels, binging on Netflix, trolling through Instagram/Snapchat/Whatnot. Actually creating that content is a whole different thing and many of my students now have a deep appreciation of what it takes to build a blog following or YouTube subscriber list.
2. Distraction-free environments are rare and necessary. Many students said they allowed themselves to be pulled off course by phone notifications or other interruptions, especially when facing the harder parts of their projects. The successful 20Timers learned to turn their phones off or leave them in another room.
3. There’s a passion/productivity curve, and it seems to look something like this:
If my students had known that other people were facing similar highs and lows, they told me it would’ve been a bit easier to ride those first choppy waves to get to the calmer waters of project creation. We didn’t collectively discover this curve, though, until we were midway through students’ reflection speeches.
Lessons I’ve learned:
1. If they’re doing it, I have to do it, too. Students agreed that the fact that I was doing my own 20Time Project added a ton of value and motivation to their experience. If I’m going to keep using this in my classroom, I’m going to have to keep trying new things. (What’ll it be next year? Drawing? Roller derby? Juggling fire?)
2. They will surprise me. Some of my highest academic achievers painfully struggled (which I sort of expected from those Excellent Sheep), while some of the kids with the lowest academic scores just killed it (which I didn’t expect at all). In every class, I had at least one moment of wonder when a lower-achieving kid presented a marvel of a project. The takeaway? I need to build more authentic hands-on learning opportunities throughout my entire year, not just for 20Time.
What will I change?
1. Add better accountability. I tried a mid-point check-in with my juniors, but it took me more than three class periods to conference with everyone. Unfortunately, that’s time in my calendar I just don’t have, especially since I’ve already carved out three days for Guppy Tank presentations and 12 days for work sessions. So, taking a student’s suggestion (thanks, Mackenzie!), I’m going to assign Accountability Teams. At the 4-week and 8-week marks, those teams of four students will be given class time to meet and show teammates what they’ve been working on, what they’ve accomplished so far, and what they plan to do with the remaining time. My hope is that seeing what other students are creating will motivate those who are losing steam and the teams can help brainstorm pathways around roadblocks. And, yes, I’m going to assign the teams (at least one high-, medium-, and low-performer per group) rather than allow free-choice groups.
2. Add a Support Our Bloggers day in the computer lab. Many students built blogs or channels, but it’s disheartening to labor over a post only to have no audience. A “like” or encouraging comment goes a long way in making a blogger feel like he isn’t talking to a wall. Next year, I’ll work in a surprise lab day about halfway through the project, posting a list of blogs/vlogs on my class website and an assignment to read/view and comment on at least three classmates’ entries. I think this will be a good shot of motivation for that large group of content creators.
3. Celebrate with some sort of end-of-the-project gallery. We were able to glimpse the projects as screenshots during the students’ speeches, but everyone really wanted to see/touch the tangible items that were created and/or explore the digital channels/pages. Maybe this will look like a science fair or tradeshow with booths in the multipurpose room? Not sure yet, but I know I want to have some sort of wrap-it-up experience.
Why do we go to school? It’s not (surprise!) to learn specific poetry terms or mathematical formulas. We’re at school learning how to learn – and we should want that learning to continue all our lives. This project took students’ nuts-and-bolts skills and provided an opportunity to use those tools in a meaningful way. It’s entirely possible that the seeds planted in this spring semester will grow into future passions and/or careers for my students. We must use the power of our classrooms to foster this kind of growth.
The kids (mostly) loved 20Time, parents unanimously loved it (lots of affirmations and not one complaint email/call – when does that happen?), and I definitely loved it because I learned so much about my students and about myself. That’s what I call a win.
Teach on, everyone!
[UPDATE: During my 20Time adventure, fellow teachers in both the real and cyber worlds asked many great questions and requested that I put all of my materials together in one convenient spot. You can now click HERE to access all of my 20Time blog posts and free materials in one grab-and-go location. Hope this packet is helpful!]