November 29, 2011

The anatomy of a year-long project

In a recent post about the year-long project, I introduced MAD, or Make a Difference. It's easy to view the classroom web page about the project and understand the basics behind it. Understanding just how the project works throughout the school year can be a bit more elusive, so please allow me to clarify.

I introduce the project to my students by showing them a trailer from the movie, Pay It Forward, which is about a teenager who comes up with a remarkable project that impacts the lives of thousands of people. I believe video is a wonderful way to launch any project, as students relate to it more readily than other methods of instruction. After the trailer, we discuss how it relates to a project called Make a Difference. At this point, I lead students to the MAD overview web page, which contains a myriad of ideas that get them talking and thinking. It's remarkable how excited students get, because they have an opportunity to do something that is entirely their own and that can impact lives.

A major unit of study for 8th-grade language arts is research. Before teaching in a ROLE, this was the time of year I hated most, because I could never figure out how to get students to embrace this complex and often monotonous task. With our MAD project, research became easy and fun. Students begin the project by researching their ideas. Unlike previous years, when students agonized over gathering information about a "famous" person they likely had never heard of, they now enjoy searching for knowledge about a subject they're invested in. They complete a research proposal and rarely even consider that they're learning how to conduct research and properly add citations to an essay.

Learning outcomes
Once the research is finished, students begin creating their projects. Along the way, I mix in activities that they apply to the project, which meets curriculum objectives without making students feel like they are meeting objectives. This can feel a lot like school, which often equates to boredom. For example, one of our standards is to write explanatory texts in order to convey complex ideas. All of the ideas for our MAD project include this sort of writing, either in the research proposal or other examples of writing that are necessary to make the project a success. The presidential campaign project, for instance, calls for speeches and commercials that explain the candidates platform. Each idea includes collaboration, discussion, persuasion, and speaking -- all speaking and listening objectives that will be covered in mini lessons throughout the course of the year.

The year-long project eliminates the need for a pacing chart -- an archaic tool that only chains teachers to traditional methods that bore students. Instead of teaching units off of a pacing chart, we operate daily in a workshop environment. Even with a small amount of time (46-minute periods), the day is broken into project work increments. If we're focusing on MAD, we'll read for 8-10 minutes (Reading All Year project), get a mini lesson, which may be a video, for 5-8 minutes, collaborate for 25 minutes with coaching from me then close. When our focus is on RAY, the collaboration time becomes independent reading and book chat, with 8-10 minutes dedicated to MAD. This system works beautifully, and you can always take a day off the schedule, if you have to work in something you feel needs more attention -- preparing for a state test, for example.

Thirst for learning
The most important aspect of results-only learning is the thirst for learning that it develops in students. A year-long project like MAD fans the intrinsic motivation that starts this amazing thirst. Students have autonomy and see the end result as something they can take pride in. Boredom is eliminated.

Learning becomes fun.