Thursday, June 21, 2012

A year in the life of an 8th grader--A digital end-of-year project

It seems like every year after the first round of EOG testing, the learning community we have created throughout the first 170 days of school begins to lose shape.  Remediation and retesting takes center stage, schedules change, kids get shuffled around, and for many students, particularly those who passed their tests, the time spent in regular content classes becomes and exercise in passing time.

I've never considered such an end to the school year desirable.  After a year's worth of building connections and knowledge, the end of the year should serve as a point to celebrate a year's worth of achievements.  It should be a time to look back and reflect on all that had happened with new eyes, realizing the value of our time together and the effect it will have on the rest of our lives.  

I've been thinking throughout he second semester of school about the idea of doing such a reflective final project, contemplating what it could look like.  One that was was intellectual and reflective, while also flexible and engaging.   One that would enable students to refocus their attention from standardized tests and the summer break around the corner, to celebrating and sharing the the amazing transformations that had occurred within them this year. 

Going into the last week of school, I felt like I had pretty good idea of what this project would be, and I was hopeful that it would be awesome.  So, on Tuesday after my students and I were back together in class after a long weekend, we dug in.

Writing into ideas for our project:

To begin the process, we opened our daybooks, stretched out our hands, and wrote for a few minutes in response to the following questions:
  • Describe yourself as a writer at the beginning of the year.  You can talk about your attitude, likes, dislikes. 
  • What are some important events that have occurred in your writing this year? 
  • How have you noticed your writing change this year?
  • How has your writing changed you?
  • What other important ways have you changed this year?

With some thinking fresh in our heads, I presented students with three possible directions their projects could take.    Below are the directions I gave:
A Year in the Life of an 8th grader--Digital Reflective Project 
         Pick one of the following options for the focus of your project:
1. Show the path of your journey as a writer/reader this year

2. Retell one of your writing pieces with images or other media

3. Explain lessons you learned about life as an 8th grader

        And use one of the following tools to create it:

        Animoto, Glogster, Prezi, Photostory, Movie Maker 

I gave students brief demonstrations of each of the digital tools, adding that if they knew of another tool in they would like to use, they could, and I encouraged them to use one that was new to them for the purpose of learning something new.  I also told students that they were more than welcome to do more than one project option, combine options, or, if they wanted to, come up with their own option for a reflective project.  

Students took the next 10 minutes or so to write in their daybooks about their plans, then took a few minutes to share ideas and get responses from classmates.  I gave students the last 15 minutes to either plan in their daybooks, experiment with possible tools, or dive into their projects.  

From what I could tell, it seemed like just about all left class with a sense of direction and, importantly, motivation. Students seemed excited and engaged, and I could feel a level of energy in the room that, like I had hoped, would make this last week we had together powerful and productive. 

We were all excited to begin. 

The best laid plans.....

My plan for the week was to use the next two days as workshop time, and Friday for presentations.  Two days wasn't a lot of time to work.  I knew it was going to be tight, but if students used their time productively, a couple full class periods should be enough.  Motivated 8th graders can accomplish just about anything. 

Students arrived at class chattering about their projects.  While they logged on to their computes, I reviewed the project they would be working on, explaining that they would have two days to work and that Friday would be our presentation day.  As computers logged on, daybooks opened to yesterday's planning, and the class grew quiet as students eagerly dug into their projects.

Right away, I noticed something wasn't right.  Some students noticed that the internet was slow.  Others began loosing their network connections.  And some were not even able to log on.  I couldn't figure it out.  It wasn't the wireless connection.  I was connected and so were about half of my students.  Not knowing what else to do, I instructed students that if they experienced problems with their computers, they should try restarting, and while they waited should use their time to continue their project planning in their daybooks.  Restarting worked for some, but was incredibly time consuming.  But having more time to work ideas out paper proved to be a good thing, though.

Our first work period wasn't a total loss, but we couldn't afford to lose another day.  Motivation is hard to come by in 8th grade during this time of the year, so I spent my planning period in our technology facilitator's office.  Eventually she figured out the cause of the problem.

It turned out that, while nothing was wrong with our school's network, many other classrooms in the school
were streaming movies and videos from the Internet, using up quite a bit of bandwidth.  

Teachers were instructed to stop streaming, and while our web connection was better the next couple of days, many of my students were still not able to finish their projects.  A few barely had the chance to start. 

Presentation Day

We went ahead and presented projects anyway, even though for many students this presentation consisted of them talking through what they were planning on doing.  It wasn't exactly what I had planned, but even so, what students had made or were wanting to make was pretty impressive.  Here are some examples:

  • Jacob created this Prezi, showing how he had transformed as writer this year.  And indeed he has.  Check out his blog to see the amazing work he produced. 
  • Diana created this Glog.  It didn't turn out exactly as she wanted it to, with some parts being cut off, but it was an awesome idea.  In it she reflects on her growth as a writing and includes quotes from the writing of her classmates and comments that people left on her writing.  
  • Josh created this photostory reflecting on his writing and life as an 8th grader.  In it he includes screenshots of his writing and writing of his classmates that he found particularly powerful.  He ran out of time in class and recorded this presentation from home. 
  • Alycia's project took the form of a letter to next year's 8th graders that she posted on her blog here.  In it she addresses subjects such as work, principals, teachers, and cliques, writing in a way that is sure to capture the interest of her audience.
  • Weston created a Prezi and embedded it in his blog here.  In it, he describes the growth he experienced as a writer this year. 

It's rare that a project my students and I take on for the first time goes as planned, and, of course, this one was no exception.  The technology problems that we ran into were out of our control, but with respect to what students could control, the directions they took with the freedom they had was awesome.  They carved out ideas for what they would create based on their own experiences, taking directions that I hadn't considered.  It was fascinating to watch their process as they experimented and worked with different mediums for creating.  Many took me up on my challenge of learning to compose with something new, and many also thought considerably about the possibilities and limitations different tools presented with respect to how their message was conveyed.  

The presentation day, regardless of the projects' stage of completion, was indeed a celebration.   Students were eager to share just how far they had come this year and were supportive of their classmates.  I think I was the most excited though, as many students highlighted elements of  learning and growth they experienced in my class of which I was completely unaware.

This was how the school year should end; it didn't go as planned, but it was exactly what it needed to be. I'm sure that I will build upon this project next year, but without question my students and I will again head in this direction during the wild time that is the final days of school.  

I'm excited to be able to share my experiences here.  Perhaps I will inspire others, and next year bandwith loss will be less of an issue. Perhaps.

*In the meantime, I'd love to hear additional suggestions for end of year projects.  I'm also all about collaboration, so if you're interested in heading down a similar road with your students next year, please get in touch!