I just finished evaluating seven history fair documentary projects created by middle school students. I am constantly challenged in my quest to perfect the art of Ron Berger’s model of “kind, specific, helpful” feedback. These young students have been challenged to create a project which argues a thesis. They work within the National History Day framework to conduct research, develop an argument, and assemble their analysis into a persuasive form, in this case a documentary video. They are also required to create an annotated bibliography of their sources.
This is tough work, demanding well-developed higher-order thinking skills to be able to sift through numerous sources, make sense of them, and synthesize that bombardment of information into a coherent narrative. And then combine evidence in the form of visual elements (photographic images, newspaper clippings, maps, political cartoons, etc.) with an audio narration, and oftentimes a layer of background music.
So, when the “experienced adult” part of me wants to pull my hair out with the inaccuracies, omissions, or incomplete thinking, I need to take a step back and put myself in their 12- or 13-year-old shoes and simply say, “my hat’s off to you for a job well done.”
I sometimes use the term “just-in-time” in regards to teaching, especially as it applies to content. Originating in the manufacturing world, the basic idea is that materials are acquisitioned only as they are needed, so that companies don’t bear high inventory costs for materials sitting around waiting to be needed.
This concepts applies well in teaching and learning. Students of all ages learn more completely, more deeply, when they have the opportunity to immediately apply their learning. Such a situation presented itself to me this week.
Eight Meliora students are collaborating on writing a Western genre short story. Each of them is responsible for developing a character representing a single Western archetype, and for developing parts of the plot that include their character. Yes, a tall order! We have had a series of discussions, and the students have made a number of decisions as to how they are going to tackle the project.
One question that came up was regarding point of view. They decided pretty quickly that a third person point of view was the most reasonable choice. We then dove into which type of third person — close or omniscient? I realized, based on student reactions, that these were terms some of them understood, others did not. So, they received this assignment this week. It is a combination of learning about point of view, and then immediately applying it to work they are doing. I am confident this just-in-time approach to learning this concept is going to “stick” much better than if the students had a lesson as part of their grammar text and then moved on to the next lesson without a #realworld application.
The 2021 #writeout theme is Palettes, Storyboards, and Cadences, which meshes well with my recent reflections regarding layers of color. My musings started as I was madly turning peppers into jelly; peppers of all the autumn palette — shades of yellow, orange, red, combined with others that were green, reflecting the green lawns and other vegetation still in a robust phase of life.
The flavor palettes of the resulting jellies are also layered, with the melding of the aromas and different levels of spiciness. My recipe has been pretty straightforward – take a bunch of whatever peppers are on hand, de-seed and finely chop them (hurray for food processors), then boil them with pectin and sugar. Five minutes in a boiling water bath to seal the canning jars and the job is done! Since the medley of peppers has been different for each batch, the resulting yumminess is one-of-a-kind, never again to be exactly duplicated.
Simultaneously, the tree and shrub color palette here in the Willamette Valley of Oregon has been gradually changing for six weeks or more, seemingly with the softer yellows and oranges starting the cadence, followed by a crescendo of vibrant colors of deep orange and red. Recently, after a long period of drought, the skies have been leaden, with low-hanging clouds and rain, which further sets the striking colors in relief.
The precipitation and autumn breezes have caused many leaves to fall to the ground, where they are being trodden underfoot. As time passes, they will decompose and enrich the soil, helping the earth regenerate itself.
As the season marches forward at its predictable pace, a few outliers have emerged, such as this iris which seems to have forgotten it is meant to bloom in June. This reminds me of myself at times, especially when I get vocal about the necessity of #PBL projects being #authentic and #relevant instead of a pretend situation. When students are asked to write a letter or make a proposal, or tackle a #community problem, yet their work is never presented to the #audience in question, it diminishes the importance in their eyes, and lacks #realworld validation.
This and a few other iris arrived at my garden in early spring, a donation from another gardener in my new town. I am steadily building up the outdoor spaces, which eighteen months ago looked mostly like this, with a solitary earthworm plowing its way through the clay. I have added several tons of compost to the ground, and planted many flowers, shrubs, and a couple of trees, many of which attract pollinators and other wild critters who are native to this area.
Today, there is a growing abundance of edible and ornamental flora and fauna:
Nature is one of the best teachers, reminding us that if we honor it, follow its cadences, and learn by observation and experimentation, it will flourish. And, in the process, we will be nourished and also flourish.
It was one of those bedazzled days that needs to be pulled up from the archives periodically. In a single day, my #Meliora students:
Asked to take on more responsibility for their learning. Not their project work, where they already have a lot of #voice and #choice, but in learning the more basic, some would call drudgery, content related to the US Constitution and Government.
Offered thoughtful, practical ideas to make our Google Classroom environment function better. Not only does this demonstrate the maturity of their thinking, it shows they trust me to listen and to respect their ideas.
Asked to present a “surprise” at the end of class, which was a compilation of (200ish!) photos from a variety of project deep dives and outings over the span of several years. This helped all of us acknowledge our sense of isolation. By reliving some shared experiences, the students are trying to strengthen those weakened human bonds. Additionally, the new students in the class were given a glimpse into the exhilaration that comes with working together on a #project.
One of the great things about my #PBL practice is that many of my students return year-over-year. Not only does that allow me to continue to help them deepen their #criticalthinking skills, they move into a #mentorship role with new students and further develop #leadership skills. I recognize the sharing of memories among returning students may have made the new students feel left out, not part of the club. I welcome ideas of how to bridge that gap, to ensure new students feel included.
For the past several months, I have been alternately a coach, cheerleader and nag in supporting a group of five teens as they have created and iteratively evolved a #project for National History Day (#NHD), a #process I detail here.
The students successfully advanced through two regional competitions. The stage was set for the last leap as they presented themselves before a panel of judges at Illinois History Day, the final round of competitions from which national delegates are chosen.
In theory, the interview is moot, as the judges are instructed to assess the projects based solely on the concrete evidence – the product (in this case a documentary) and supporting documentation (annotated bibliography and process paper). Having some insight into human behavior, I believe these informal interviews nonetheless influence the judges in their conclusions.
Initially, the group of #Meliora students was confident as they answered the judges’ questions. Then, they were asked about something they were unprepared for. They would have probably been best served by saying they didn’t know the answer. Instead, they fumbled around and several students gave conflicting information.
They left the interview totally dejected, knowing they had flubbed, and convinced they had lost their opportunity to advance. A few hours later, they glumly presented themselves for the closing ceremony, where the national delegates were to be announced. There are only 18 projects which advance from each state to the national level, and my students were in competition with dozens of other Illinois students. They understood the stakes.
We all agonized through the obligatory announcements. Finally, the moment of truth arrived. Ploddingly, the announcer named the NHD qualifiers for other categories. She arrived at documentaries, backtracked, then spoke… “Senior level, group documentary… Colleen Moore…” Hysteria erupted among the Meliora contingent, beginning with the parents. The students were stunned, then raced up to collect their medals and to await the photo opps. Jubilant, I ran with my camera to capture their joy.
For a glimpse into how the #iterative process embedded in this competition (and in #PBL in general) helps develop a variety of skills, from critical thinking to creativity, take a peek at their product for the first competition:
And the one which earned them a spot at NHD:
Of course, they are not done. They will be revising their documentary one more time before heading to the University of Maryland in early June.
Recently, a team of five #Meliora students uploaded a newly refined version of their history fair project. Next week, they will be competing at Illinois History Day, the last step in their quest to qualify as national contestants.
National History Day (#NHD) provides a good example of the Project-Based Learning (#PBL) #process and #lifecycle. Students are first challenged at a local/school level to create a project, within a specified #framework. As pointed out in the High Quality Project Based Learning Framework, and by John Spencer, high-quality PBL is not a free-for-all, but rather #learnercentered work conducted within the boundaries of a defined structure.
The NHD project framework consists of the following specific criteria:
Must strongly incorporate the annual #theme (the 2018-2019 theme is “Triumph & Tragedy in History”).
A choice of five categories: paper; exhibit; performance; documentary; or website. This variety offers students abundant #voice and #choice in the product they create. Ultimately, the product serves as their primary #evidence of #learning.
Constraints for each project category. For example, documentaries cannot exceed ten minutes in length. Conversely, they should not be much less than ten minutes long, (an unspoken rule) because if students cannot find ten minutes of evidence to support their argument, it suggests they have not looked into their topic deeply enough.
Supplementary documentation, including an annotated bibliography and a process (#reflection) paper.
#Public #presentation (#communication) before a panel of judges at each level of competition. The judges use identical evaluation criteria for each category of project, focusing on the clarity and strength of the argument the students develop in defense of their thesis statement.
Nearly every discipline uses a framework or blueprint for their creative work, it’s a writer’s workshop structure, an engineering process, the scientific method, or a design thinking framework. ~ John Spencer
Students have complete voice and choice in the topic they explore, as long as their thesis and argument fit within the framework. In past years, Meliora students have explored topics as diverse as “The Tucker Torpedo,” Women’s Suffrage, Michael Jordan (national contender) and Soul Train (national contender). The topics chosen reflect the students’ interests, while at the same time requiring them to conduct thorough research.
In many cases, the students started their journey with superficial knowledge. As they dug deeper, their knowledge and critical analysis expanded. Not only did they learn more about their chosen topic, but more importantly (shhhhh, don’t tell them), they developed a much deeper understanding of the historical context, content, and relevance.
In my role as #facilitator, I did not “teach” them about their topic. Rather, I asked them many open-ended questions: “Why did [event] happen?” “What else was happening in the [country, world] at the time?” “What was life like at that time?” “How do you know?” I also helped them locate resources, and persistently asked them to use proper research methods.
This year, the most significant #mindset growth this team made was arguably related to an interview they conducted. That one 20-minute activity (plus the preparation work) exponentially boosted their confidence and their belief that they have significance, not only in the teen world, but also the adult world.
As I also write here, students who participate in National History Day create multiple #iterations of their product, refining their work between each level of competition. Since the project framework remains constant, they invariably are faced with making tough decisions as to which evidence is most relevant to their thesis argument. There is frequent anguish as they remove a favorite quote or an image they love, even as they recognize that a particular element is less important than others they need to include.
This refinement process is an excellent tool for helping the students develop #criticalthinking skills. When they are struggling to make decisions and ask my advice, my standard response is, “In what way does it support your thesis?” Often accompanied by sighs and groans, they make the correct decision.
This is the documentary going to competition next week:
For the truly dedicated, here is the team’s first version:
A few days ago, I informed a group of five #Meliora students that their history project had advanced to Illinois History Day, the last step in their quest to become contestants at National History Day.
I see these students face-to-face one day a week; the rest of the time they work individually and in a virtual environment using collaborative tools such as G Suite for Education and Trello. I informed them by email of their victory, expecting some kind of happy dance response. And received silence.
The next day, my phone rang. “Um, Miz J, we have been working on updating our project narrative. Can you look at it and give us feedback?” They had arranged a face-to-face meeting among themselves and gone to work.
This is a fine example of #intrinsic motivation, and an outcome commonly seen in #PBL (project-based learning). As I describe here, engagement was maximized by giving students #voice and #choice over their project topic, and also over the format they used to develop their product.
They have been working on this project (along with other things) this whole semester. This long exploration exemplifies “sustained inquiry,” an integral element of Gold Standard PBL, as defined by PBLworks. Multiple factors have sustained the students’ interest. Initially, they were intrigued to find out more about the subject of their project, Colleen Moore. They researched using books, clips of her silent movies, online archives, databases, etc.
Once they wearied of these forms of investigation, they experienced a fresh spark when they interviewed Ms Moore’s grandson. His descriptions of her, and other connections he pointed them to, renewed their enthusiasm for digging deeper into evidence of her life and influence.
The inquiry process takes time, which means a Gold Standard project lasts more than a few days. In PBL, inquiry is iterative; when confronted with a challenging problem or question, students ask questions, find resources to help answer them, then ask deeper questions – and the process repeats until a satisfactory solution or answer is developed. ~ PBLworks
Another important factor in the students’ continued enthusiasm is the public audience, another tenet of Gold Standard PBL. At each level of competition, they present their project before a panel of judges. Invariably, the judges express interest in their work and in their process. The judges also provide the students with specific suggestions on how to improve their work.
This encouragement and critique from the outside audience spurs the students on to create yet another #iteration of their project (also integral to Gold Standard PBL). The stakes are also higher at each level of the history fair competition, which intensifies both the focus and the stress.
The challenge is to ensure the students are experiencing an appropriate level of stress. As this Psychology Today article states, “You experience good stress when you feel a sense of control over the event in question. No matter how your body may respond in the moment, you know you’re going to come out fine on the other side—and perhaps even better for the experience.” My observation is this group of students is functioning within this range. Their ultimate goal is to advance to the national level of competition. At the same time, they are staying grounded, taking one step at a time, to each subsequent level of competition.
The current iteration of their project may be viewed here.
Earlier this week, a group of five #Meliora students finished revising their National History Day (NHD) documentary project in preparation for the next level of competition. NHD projects essentially consist of developing and defending a thesis, a difficult cognitive task for the middle- and high-school students who enter this contest each year. At each level of competition, the students present their project before a panel of judges, who evaluate and provide feedback on the solidity of their thesis argument. Those projects with the most persuasive defense are the ones which advance to the next level.
In the recent competition, my students received feedback that their selection of secondary sources was narrow and limited. The judges knew this because as part of the NHD framework students are required to create an annotated bibliography of their sources.
As I supported them in learning how to more effectively dig through (online) newspaper and other archives, one of the students commented, “we don’t need this article, because we already have this information.” Which prompted me to loop back to earlier in the year, when we discussed reliability of evidence, how we must find multiple sources that support facts or a certain interpretation in order to consider it reliable. We work on #digitalliteracy as we talk about the kinds of digital sources that are generally more reliable, with the understanding that even those must be substantiated.
During the revision process, the students also made some claims I was skeptical of as they developed their historical context. So, I did a little research of my own and presented my evidence, which clashed with their claims. Then I asked them to sort out what they thought the most valid interpretation was.
This experience coincided with my reading of a recent MindShift article on how students are unable to evaluate the credibility of what they read online. The percentages are staggering; 82% of middle schoolers in a 2016 study were unable to tell the difference between an online ad and a news article. Even more frightening is that 59% of adults in a 2014 study couldn’t tell the difference either.
As Sam Wineburg, Stanford University professor states, “rather than teaching them [history lessons] as rules or things fixed in time or set in amber, these are precisely the kinds of things that are worthy of debate.” In Meliora history classes, every topic is open to discussion. I impress upon my students that I am not the “expert,” that they are welcome to challenge any claim I make… as long as they have evidence. As we ask our students “why?” and “how do you know?” during these kinds of discussions, we are helping them develop their #criticalthinking skills.
For the curious, the Meliora documentary project currently in competition can be viewed here.
I have an admission to make. I am living vicariously through my #Meliora students. A group of five teens has been crafting a documentary project for Chicago History Fair, with the goal of advancing the several steps that will take them to National History Day. This competition asks students in grades 6-12 to convincingly argue a thesis, a skill many students develop only in college.
The Meliora team’s self-chosen topic (a central #PBL tenet is to give students #voice and #choice in deciding what topics they #deepdive into) shines a spotlight on Colleen Moore, a larger-than-life, yet nearly-forgotten woman who was a top salary-earner in silent films; a significant influence on the evolution of American society’s views of women through her “safe” flapper lifestyle; and an investor maven, unheard of in her time.
Through a fortuitous series of events, the students located Moore’s grandson. I urged them to ask him for an interview, the goal being to have him provide them with additional evidence to include in their project. His initial reply to their email request was pretty abrupt, with edges of ice. He pointed them to a variety of existing sources that detail her life and influence, and said he would need to understand their “line of questioning” before granting an interview.
Fortunately, the students had already found and analyzed the sources he cited. I encouraged them to continue to pursue the interview, and suggested maybe his coldness was due to uncertainty around what questions they wanted to ask. I suggested they send him their interview questions, so that he would understand their “line of questioning.”
After receiving their list of questions, he agreed to a telephone interview, which was conducted by three of the five team members. When they actually got on the phone with him, he was friendly and forthcoming with information, and provided very intimate views of Colleen Moore from his viewpoint as her grandson.
It was apparent during the interview that the three student interviewers were feeling nervous. Notwithstanding, they did a stellar job, and obtained the information they were seeking. After they concluded the call, their relief was palpable, followed by laughter, and “That was great!’ They felt exhilaration related to the fact that this hard task they had never tried before had been a success.
This success led to increased confidence in reaching into the adult world. During a recent class session, the team made a series of phone calls to other potential sources in an effort to deepen their understanding and analysis of their topic. Some of the calls led nowhere, others bore fruit. As one of the students remarked, “This is fun, talking to all these people.”
This. Is. What. We. Want: Students. To. Learn. #RealWorld. #Skills.
The students’ project has advanced to the next level of competition), and they are currently in the process of improving it, based on judge feedback, readying themselves for the next level of competition. This iterative approach is integrated into #RealWorld design processes, another way #PBL helps prepare students for the adult world.
A few moments after the agonizingly drawn-out note-writing experience I describe here, I witnessed (not for the first time!) the mercurial shift of these teens into almost-adults.
Each year, the history students in my #Meliora project-based learning (#PBL) practice create a project to submit to the National History Day (NHD) competition. This year, a group of five students is collaborating on creating a video documentary. The deadline to submit their work for the first round of competitions is eight days away. They have a lot of work to do, as is the case every year about this time, when students realize they are down to the wire.
This afternoon, I sat in on a revision process of the voice-over narrative the students are going to use. The objective of the narrative is to argue their thesis. The quality of their thesis and supporting evidence is what will allow them to advance to the next level of competition. Or not.
The assignment I gave them was to have one student read the narrative aloud while the other students listened. The listeners could stop the narrator at any point and jump in with suggested revisions. My observations:
One student started reading the narrative, and was having difficulty staying focused enough to read smoothly. Another student stepped in to take over the task. The “hand-off” was done with a friendly, positive attitude by both students.
Students were listening intently to the narrative flow.
When students heard something they felt was lacking/incomplete/repetitive, they spoke up immediately and the whole group worked to find a solution.
There was no defensive or argumentative behavior and they came to consensus efficiently.
These are the moments that inspire me to continue challenging students using PBL. In this one activity, which lasted for about 45 minutes, the students hit all of the touchstones of High Quality Project Based Learning:
Intellectual challenge and accomplishment. At the beginning of the semester, they spent weeks researching and defining their thesis. Once established, my persistent question to them has been “how does this narrative support your thesis?” That was a question they returned to throughout their review today.
Authenticity. They had complete choice over their topic, the two constraints being that it relate to Illinois history and that it fit the NHD theme, which this year is “Triumph & Tragedy in History.” This is a requirement of the Chicago History Fair organization, the regional level of entry into National History Fair. Due to this freedom of choice, they have remained highly engaged in conducting research and creating a convincing argument.
Public product. The students will be presenting their work to a panel of judges in a public forum, which raises the stakes and their desire to create a high-quality product. The stakes (the intensity of competition) will continue to raise as they advance levels.
Collaboration. Today’s task was completely collaborative. Throughout the project, they have worked both individually and collaboratively toward a common objective, which is persuasively arguing their thesis.
Project management. They students have been using Trello throughout the project process to identify, assign, and track progress on tasks. Finalizing the narrative is a task they must complete before they can assemble the video documentary, so they understand the criticality.
Reflection. They were actively and openly reflecting on the narrative composition that had been done to-date. Throughout the project development process, they are required to reflect on how the items they are researching, the books, images, video clips, newspaper articles, etc. contribute to their argument. They assigned team roles and responsibilities early in the project, and have continued to modify them over time, based on the interests and skills of each team member.
I have every confidence a week from now these engaged, enthusiastic students will have a well-argued, well-edited documentary to submit for competition. Because they care.