My freshmen students teach me important lessons about teaching, most of the time without their knowing of it. When I returned from the holiday break, I sensed it was time to turn to another one of the examples put forth in my education at UW-SP. Although my students had been away from the classroom for almost two weeks, I wanted to turn them loose on a project in hopes that they'd discover new information in a context which mirrored my lessons in the past few months. My high school has a computer lab like so many other schools, but in my conversation with students I came to the realization that their teachers were somewhat reluctant to use this 'teaching tool' as they could. And so, my New Year's lesson would take the form of something like a webquest with groups of 4-5 students. Using the concept of creating a front page to a newspaper, I asked my students to image themselves back in the year 1787 when news of an innovative concept called "The Constitution" was revealed to the country. They were employed by a newspaper within one of the thirteen states and it was their job to communicate this "news" to the public.
I laid out the entire process with a packet which contained resource forms and story-board outlines, along with suggestions on dividing up the various responsibilities as reporter, graphics, layout, and general editor. Three class hours would be dedicated to the computer lab, but it was of utmost importance for groups to recognizing who was doing what and by when as deadline dates provided accountability and demonstrated the importance for the task at hand. An attached rubric noted how each segment of the project would be graded and with 50% of their Final Exam grade at stake, most students realized how serious I was with the project. Knowing that young teens need to get their information in various formats, I downloaded an assortment of helpful links on my class wiki and showed the class how they could easily reference these from home. The school librarian had also set aside a list of books which I had provided to her, and in addition, I supplied her with a copy of the lesson plan so she was aware of what the students might be looking for in the way of resource assistance.
Then the moment of truth for identifying who was going to be in each group. I was torn between whether I should assign working groups of four members or let them make their own choices. Rather than sticking to my guns, I elected to oblige by those of the class...which was to chose their own partners. I gave them two minutes to break and reform within their groups, and then reminded them about the importance of the task at hand. I went around to each group and asked one individual to serve as Team Captain in order to allow me easy-access to monitoring their progress. And since this was going to play a huge role in their final grade, I noted where each individual was with regards to their class grade as of that moment. I made this information 'public' to the group as I needed to stress how much this could help each individual. Some of my students got off to a horrible start with their grades last September, but this was a 'golden opportunity' for them to change all of that. For those students with current grades of 'A' -it was their moment to shine by pulling it all together for this project.
At the end of that first class I felt good about the prospects of this working, but after I unveiled it to the other three classes I was extremely pumped up as I drew from their excitement of doing "hands on work" in the computer lab. The first session in the computer lab was a real eye-opener as I watched each group begin to tackle the task. While there was the occasional comment of "I don't understand how to do this," I witnessed some good learning taking place as students undertook the challenge. In fact, I would describe it as 'high energy times 10' and then some. I made my rounds with each group, demonstrating the task with a large blank piece of paper along with a sample of today's front page from the local newspaper, pointing out features and characteristics of layout and design.
Although we still have two computer labs forthcoming in the next two weeks, I sense some good things taking place within the minds of my students. Some of who were rarely engaged have suddenly come to life again, and those who excelled with the subject of History remain focused with the task. Best of all, I feel invigorated by their learning and I look forward to seeing this come to fruition in the final two weeks of this first semester. Stay tuned.....