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Friday, January 5, 2018

“If at first you fail…” The Value of Project Revision

By: Andrew Larson
Columbus Signature Academy New Tech High School

Once a teacher has taken a stab at a project it’s often the case that there are one of two prevailing sentiments. The first: “Never again.” The second, and hopefully more common one, is, “I can’t wait to try that again next year.” While there will be clear winning and losing components of the project, I find that there are a few recurring themes with aspects of projects that need a constant reevaluation. Here are five recommendations for taking a completed project and improving it for future years. 

1.       Reflect while it’s fresh. It is obviously vital to reflect with students. While there are a myriad of ways to do this the simplest may be to use a Tuning Protocol with students in one large group. Take notes and be sure to remember where you kept those notes when the time comes around to get back to project redesign. 

It is always surprising what students liked, disliked, or otherwise got out of a project. Recently, students remarked at how challenging they found a certain book that we read (this coming from our very best students.) While they always seem up for a challenge, it seems that this time, we reached too much. Does that mean we will remove the book from our rotation? Not at all; however, the next step of seeking a more middle- ground title for next time was identified as a result of the class reflection. 

A lot of good logistic next steps will also come out of such a conversation. Last year, our class hosted the Columbus Holiday Ride, a cold weather critical mass bike ride as a culminating event for our study of climate change and raised awareness of alternative transportation. Unfortunately (and ironically?) we had to reschedule our event as a result of inclement weather. That rescheduled date had to be produced more or less on the morning of and, as a result, attendance at the event suffered. Thus a key next step we identified during that class reflection was to have identified an alternative date at the outset of the project. 

2.       Increase the authenticity. Sometimes, especially when time is limited, I find that a project is fundamentally pretty good but has gaps with respect to the authenticity. Sometimes the community partner is not as involved as they could be. Other times, the final product may feel contrived. In some instances, the actual selection of the community partner may have been a little off. Then there is occasional realization that some community or seasonal event would fit in perfectly with a project and it would make sense to adjust the timing of the project.
I remember a project several years back where I badly misjudged the community partners we chose. The task was to design an interactive museum exhibit of a certain cell function. The curators from the museum were great at interacting with students but were ill equipped to give them feedback on the technical aspects of the exhibits, as they were not experts in cell biology. Again, while it would not make sense to scrap the project for that reason, there is a lot of logic in getting separate community partners that are, in fact, experts in cell biology to guide those designs. There again, it is not a matter of changing course entirely, but instead, adding a layer to an already good project foundation.

3.       Improve your assessment tools and realign the standards. You may know that feeling that the exhaustive list of standards that you have aligned with a project just feels like a pipe dream. Will you really address them all, and can you really expect proficiency from most or all of your students? I’ve had plenty of projects where it became clear that our exhaustive approach to a large bundle of standards was a detriment both to the authenticity and the enthusiasm for the project. For example, in biology, we always do some sort of food project for our macromolecules standards. We have always felt like the project was too big, too long, and too hard for most students. Furthermore, we were trying to force too much depth of content into a final project. This year, we simplified. We taught students just enough biochemistry to create a nutritious, delicious and interesting salad dressing for our Thanksgiving feast. There was plenty of content that was introduced, but not assessed, and we shifted some of that to the next two projects instead. The results were very positive.

For those of you tinkering with Standards- Based Grading, I think it would be a great idea to try this approach for a project that you feel has promise but wanted for effective assessment. Project- specific rubrics are very time consuming and tough to get right. If you have tried this approach and didn’t feel confident that your students hit the targets you set out for them, I suggest you take a year to learn about SBG, write (and get feedback on) SBG rubrics, and try them with a project that you are excited to try again.

4.       Increase the opportunities for practice and revision. Not all projects lend themselves to the creation and defense of a prototype… but then again, maybe they should. I am a big fan of practice presentations and feedback sessions both with and without community partners present. Presenting an incomplete piece, be it a physical prototype or rough written/spoken draft, is often more useful than feedback given on a completed product. To me, there is something really unsatisfying about a final presentation that really should have been a benchmark and chance to improve a piece of work. I have also found community partners to be extremely forgiving in their critique of student work, especially if we all know that it is an incomplete iteration.

5.       Bolster the incorporation of literacy. Every project should involve reading, period. Even if the class does not have a language arts component. Given that my class at Columbus Signature Academy New Tech High School does, we try to read a book with each project. It did not start out that way, though; that goal surfaced from the realization that there is always depth to be added from reading. Even if there is not a book that is read as a part of a project, there can be readings, examination of current events, poetry, and more, and that will always add depth of content and (usually) authenticity to a project.

On the topic of books, we try to have 2-4 titles for students to choose from. These will be differentiated by reading level, interest, or, occasionally, content. Students always appreciate choice in project products, so it’s no surprise that they will appreciate having choice in what they read as well. It is also true, though, that we never get to four title options in one year for the same reasons as everyone else: money. We may add 5-6 titles to our collection for the whole year, but that may translate to just one additional option for a given project. Or, perhaps you’ll read something a month after the project ended and lament how perfect it “would have been.” My teaching partner is great at keeping a running list of ideas for readings in projects. If you are not a list maker (as I am not,) find someone who is and have them help you to not lose it!

While some projects cannot be repeated because they are a snapshot in time (take the eclipse projects our students did,) most are adaptable and improvable. There will never be a project that a teacher can take, execute, and replicate exactly the next year. If you read this far into this blog post, I assume that is obvious to you already! Indeed, the best project almost always have endured repeated iterations and occasional (if not frequent) hiccups. Project improvement is an ongoing process. Never despair if things don’t go perfectly! Instead, get back to work for next time. 

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