Value Added or How I Learned to Stop Reinventing the Wheel

Disclaimer: I know there is value in having students start something and build it from the ground up. There are times when I still do this, but I want to focus on an increasingly important skill set – the ability to take advantage of work already done. We have always done this to some extent, but I think it is getting even more important, given the range of materials available through the Internet.

In the midst of guiding our sophomores through a project where they focus on a specific commodity as a lens through which to view history, a colleague showed me blogs created by students in another school doing what appeared to be pretty much the same project. It was actually a student who found it and showed it to him. After the initial surprise (we really should not have been surprised but that is for another post) that someone else had the same idea and published the student work, we discussed how to handle the situation. Should we share with students so they know we know about it, lest our students see it as enabling them to cut corners? Should we ignore and hope more did not discover “the answers”? Should we encourage them to use it but go beyond? We realize that this is bound to happen more often as teachers share student work publicly on the Internet. In fact, we plan to publish our student projects.

I think we need to be open with students about the resources available, including other student work. They can and should learn from it. They should evaluate it like any other source for reliability and utility. Beyond evaluating the sources, I want them figure out how they can build on or off of what has been done already. They should be able to add value. It is important not to discount student work on the Internet, since that sends the message to our students that their work is somehow less valuable just by virtue of being done by them. Teaching students to take what they have and extend it to something deeper, more nuanced, or even tangential is incredibly important in today’s world. It is more important that they learn what they can do with wheels than how to make them.

The conversation with my colleague was in the back of my mind when I went to EdCampMetroDc on Saturday. The first session I attended was led by Joe Phelan who shared the wealth of resources on the EDSITEment website. I have used it before to craft lessons, but on Saturday I saw new possibilities for using the site. I have often adapted the lessons to suit my timeframe and particular curricular objectives, and the depth of the lessons allows me to do that without having to resort to Google. I am not reinventing the wheel, but I am building the vehicle I need.

As we begin to look at the Cold War in US history, instead of selecting the lessons and adapting them, I will have my students do it.  They will choose a lesson from EDSITEment that fits the unit and read through all parts of the lesson, including the questions, resources and plans. Then, they will adapt the lesson for their classmates and lead it. I will become one of the students in the room while they teach. By giving them the wheel, they can then craft the means of conveyance. By giving them everything they need, they can spend their time thinking critically about how to use it. In another sense, they will actually be taking the wheel, too, and driving the class.

My goal is that we all gain more insight into teaching and learning, as well some knowledge of the Cold War era.



3 thoughts on “Value Added or How I Learned to Stop Reinventing the Wheel

  1. Seems like this could turn into an awesome series of lessons. Would love to hear more about how it turns out.

    I have been thinking a fair amount about turning things over to my students. For WWII I was considering just giving my students the state standards, and was then going to have them divide them up and figure out how to teach theirs to the rest of the class.

    Your ideas seem a bit more feasible since there is a bit more of a scaffold built in.

    • I like the idea of getting my students more invested, and once they get over the initial reservations, they generally get a lot out of it. I have found that some structure is useful, although some of the best classes I have had allowed students to research whatever they wanted.

      We are just finishing World War II. Since there is so much to learn, and the students generally are all pretty interested in some aspect of it, we did an EdCafe. I started with an overview of the war and then allowed them to choose topics of interest to investigate further and lead their classmates in discussion. After two classes and homework time to prepare, I set up a grid with three conversations happening at once, and four time slots during my seventy minute class. Students led sessions on their topics, and other students who were not leading during a particular time slot, would choose which session to go to. It is a modification of an Edcamp for the classroom. That seemed to strike a good balance.

      I am lucky that I teach in an independent school, so my standards are my own, not mandated. Still, I was amazed at the breadth of learning that happened in the EdCafe when students owned it. They really learned from each other and made connections between topics.

      I appreciate you taking the time to comment. I will follow up in a few weeks when I have completed this unit.

  2. In foreign language teaching this (something surprising found on the web) comes up a lot, too. How do I teach this book differently when I know the full translation is available online? Do I give students a model of the writing so they know what the target is, or does that limit the range of responses they give to merely parroting the sample? There is a lot of value in critiquing a translation or evaluating a model, but it is not the same skill as reading comprehension or creating with language. At least with online translations, there is some equality: all students have access. In the “olden days” only the very determined might be able to find a published English version of a certain text.

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