Research Seminar: Year 2 Ends

Hurricane Katrina and the New Orleans Saints; Serial Killers & Assassins; Jim Jones; Misogyny in Hip Hop Lyrics; Housing Discrimination in Baltimore; Renaissance & 19th Century America; Stanford Prison Experiment; North Korean Defectors; Sleep; Street Smarts v. Book Smarts; The Middle Class; Organized Crime-Bratva, Yakuza, Mafia; Gun Control; Alcatraz; Concussions in Football; Syrian Refugee Crisis; #BlackLivesMatter v. #AllLivesMatter; The Ryder Cup; Donald Trump & the Republican Party; ADHD; Ghost Guns; History of Mental Health Treatment; Importance of Sports in Baltimore; Boston Sports & Boston Strong; Sleep Paralysis; The Philippines (1898-1946).

Those are the topics that my students researched and presented to their peers in Seminar. I came to realize the obvious – students are learning a pretty diverse curriculum, even when they can choose their own topics. The fact that one person chose to do all sports related topics does not mean that their curriculum consisted only of sports. The passion and personal investment behind the research projects was visible in the products. Students became interested in topics because their peers were so passionate about them and learned about things they never would have chosen themselves.

Mid-way through the semester, I was frustrated – students missed their own deadlines, and we had some trouble getting our collective act together. I don’t know if some of them wanted me to step in and lay down the law, but I tried to avoid that approach. I needed for them to figure out how to make it work. As we moved forward with the last project, it was a little risky since we were going to have only two weeks after we returned from Winter Break and then the course would end. Given our block schedule, we would only meet six or seven times. The students set a schedule for presentations that allowed for enough time for everyone, but there was no room for delays since the course was ending.

They did it. Each student was ready to present a substantive interesting project to the class. It all came together in the end. I was so proud of them because by each taking personal responsibility, they reached success as a class. We ended the course on a high note. When I asked them in a course evaluation/reflection what they would tell someone who was interested in the class, the answer was “Take it.” There were some who still wrestled with the fact that I didn’t impose the structure and said that even though it is counter to the phiolosophy of the course, they would have liked a bit more structure. I appreciate their thoughts, but I respectfully decline. I didn’t grade the students’ final products because what I think is most important is learning their process, improving their process, and managing freedom that comes with accountability. In the end, their reflections and our conversations told me more than their learning than their presentations.

This is only the second year of the class. This year’s group made it their own. Some members of last year’s class who were back from college came to visit this year’s class one day during presentations. I can’t wait to see what next year’s group will do. I have one more semester with several of the Seminar students who are in my Introduction to Design Thinking course, but that is another post.

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Research Seminar: Student Voices

With just a few classes to go, I asked my students to write a reflection of their experience in the Research Seminar class. I asked them to write about what they have gotten from the course, and to give me suggestions for what I could do to make the course better for students. I knew they were happy with the class because they had gone to the principal to ask that it continue for the whole year when it was only scheduled to be a semester class, but I was not sure what they would say they had gotten from it. Here is some of what they said.

“This class has helped me figure out what I want to learn and study more than any other class.”

“Another major takeaway from the class was that I was pushed out of my comfort zone.”

“I’ll take away a stronger knowledge of research strategies and experience working independently, which I know will be a valuable skill next year.”

“It was easily my most enjoyable class this year, and I looked forward to every class.”

“I have taken away the idea of working on my own and trusting myself with time management.”

“I have taken away how much work is needed to be put in to have a great project. I’ve also taken away how to push myself through getting bored with interesting topics.”

“It was the best and most work I did in all of my classes.”

“This class has probably been the most influential ones that I have taken in all my four years in high school at Friends. Not only did you challenge me, you being my teacher, but so did the whole objective of the course.”

“I didn’t know what to expect from this course, but it greatly prepared me for the future I want.”

“The biggest thing I took away from this class is learning about my own style of learning.”

“This class has given me some of my best memories and tools from high school.”

“One might think that a class with very few rules is easy; however, it is very rigorous and uniquely difficult to create a curriculum for yourself.”

Half of them referenced feeling better prepared for college due to the course. They all gained insight into their own learning, which they will carry forward. There were a few suggestions, but not many. Most focused on what they had gotten out of the course. I am so proud of this group of kids. When we sat down to figure out the final schedule for final presentations, they decided that they wanted to use the senior exam block so they could all present at once, rather than splitting it up between the final two classes. They also wanted a little time to polish their presentations after they finish classes. So, they are coming in for two hours on a day that they otherwise would not have to be in school.

I have no idea how strong their final work will be. As seniors crawl to the finish line with classes this week and prepare to head off to work projects for the month of May, it is possible that some of them will fall short of what they have accomplished previously. No matter how they end up, I am proud of them. They created a class. They kept it going for a full year when it was supposed to be a semester course. Many of them took their projects and turned them into workshops for our March Convocation Day for Social Justice.

I will write my final reflections on the class after we conclude next week.

Research Seminar: Part IV Scandal Style

My seminar class is now into the second project of the semester. Although the first projects were due at the end of the first quarter, the presentations took several classes, due to the breadth and depth of the work they shared. The presentations varied from slide shows, a TED style talk, an original spoken word, to a workshop. We went well beyond the two classes we had allotted for presentation. While we were wrapping up the first project, we began to contemplate what would be next – with no set curriculum, we had to devote some time and thought to it.

As we approached the new project, there were a series of decisions to make. The first decision was whether to do shared work or individual research again. After some discussion, the students chose to do individual work but under a common theme. Proposed themes were revolution, scandal, and innovation. Scandal is the one that generated the most enthusiasm. We quickly dismissed anything that was really just gossip as not worthy of attention and effort. Students set out to find their scandals, a task that was easier for some than others. We may have to have a fairly broad definition of scandal in order not to be too limiting. So far, the list of topics includes: Monica Lewinsky, Valerie Plame affair, Bill Cosby, Chappaquiddick, Dyncorp, NCAA violations. There are a few who have not settled in yet.

Today we had to decide on a plan for presentations. One student arrived about half an hour early and we started talking about it. Her idea was to have a roundtable type discussion where each person would tell the story behind the scandal and why the scandal matters. She wanted to do “techless” presentations, with maybe a posterboard instead. She brought that plan to the class which approved it, with the modification that the chalkboards and white boards in the room be used as a place to put images that students would connect as they told their story “Olivia Pope style.” Beyond just the stories, students will share their essential questions with the class, which could be about corporate power, presidential power, etc. I also challenged them to add a new type of source to the mix that they used for the first project. Many of them will be looking at media sources, such as historical newspapers. Given the nature of the topics, they will need to scrutinize their sources carefully and be certain they know the difference between allegation and confirmed information.

After that conversation about process, they locked into their research. There is a certain energy in the room when students are engaged in their work – even silently – that is palpable. They have a limited time for this project, as it will be due by Dec. 12, at the latest.  After that, we shift into exam week and winter break. They decided that they did not want this to carry over break. We will do something else for the final two weeks of the course in January. Several students are lobbying to have this class extend to become a full-year course. A few said they could not imagine being in a “regular” class again after this. They value the autonomy of their work and the community they have constructed, I think. So do I.

Research Seminar: Part III Grading – Square Pegs & Round Holes

My first encounter with true discomfort about this course came with the attempt to report out mid-quarter grades on the students in my seminar class. I had been convinced that I could give my students a different experience than they had in other classes, but now I am not so sure how different it can be.

At first I worried that I could not report grades yet because students had chosen to do quarter long projects, which would not be completed until the end of the quarter. Whatever the students have done to this point may or may not be indicative of what they produce by the end of the project. I wanted students to have time to try and fail, iterate and redesign, before I assigned grades.

If only it were that simple. It occurred to me today that grading projects is not very different from traditional courses at all. Students helped create a rubric, which I thought was impressive. It included a section on sources, including quality, variety and quantity of sources. They also decided that depth and accuracy of information should be assessed. Finally, presentations should be engaging, organized and include visuals. I was very happy with them for creating this – I felt we trained them well. Then came the conversations about grading with my colleagues.

We have been having ongoing conversations about deemphasizing grades and training students to be more concerned about the learning. We have talked about shifting to standards based grading and away from averaging grades. Today I was talking with a teacher who is having the same discomfort in generating grades for her senior elective. She purposely challenges the kids with extremely difficult problems. A few kids have some success, but does that mean that others deserve lower grades, even if they achieve quite a bit. We both have concerns about encouraging kids to take risks but only rewarding them for success. Of course, what is an academic risk is highly personalized. One student may be taking a risk by trying to make a movie while another who is technologically adept may be taking a risk by speaking in front of an audience. Do I have students create individualized goals? But how do I know they aren’t playing it safe given the place that grades have in their college process? Even if they are all honest and really stretch, how do I determine a grade? Effort is impossible to measure. Success is the default measure but then how can students feel like it is okay to fail?

The hardest part of this course is trying to provide a genuinely different, authentic learning experience within a system where at the end of the semester, I am still required to reduce my students’ work to a number between 1-100.

Advice is most welcome.

Research Seminar: Part II – In the Zone

Seven tired seniors made their way into my classroom this Monday morning. After exchanging greetings, then some information they had come across related to each other’s topics, they set down to work silently on their projects. As I look around the room, each one is working. One student just burst into laughter as she found something amusing in the documentary she is watching about the history of hip hop but that creates very minimal disruption.

At the beginning of class, a few students shared with me what they had learned since our last class. One girl began class by telling me that she had gotten to the bottom of a quotation that she had not previously understood which drew an analogy between slavery and hip hop.  Another student shared that he wanted to go beyond the iconic black athletes to examine the issue of black management and ownership in professional sports. Neither exchange was prompted by me asking them anything. In fact, my role today has been passive.

Last week, about half of the students did short presentations detailing where they were in their research. The class listened, watched and then asked questions or made suggestions about directions for further research. We also took the time Thursday to begin to create a rubric for the projects. The students focused on sources, content, and presentation in creating a standard against which they want to be judged. I had expected that we would continue with presentations today, but the class decided that they really wanted to work on their own research and that we should continue with presentations when we meet tomorrow.

With each iteration of their research questions, I find them digging deeper into important issues. I still have do not know where they will end up, but I am glad that they have the opportunity to take this journey. I am equally grateful to be along for the ride.

The Research Seminar: Part 1- Building the Course

Eight seniors have signed on to take a leap into the unknown with me this semester. I have taught six of them before, but not in a course like this. There is no set curriculum. The course will be what the students want it to be, and I am excited and a little terrified.  Anyone who really knows me, knows that I like to be in control. While I do not feel like I have lost control, it is a different kind of teaching when you feel obligated to consult the class on all matters.

We started with three basic questions. What do you want to learn? How do you want to learn it? How will you demonstrate/share what you have learned? In the first week, we have been trying to answer them. The first class involved some discussion and brainstorming of ideas for research. Then students spent time in the next class working on their chosen topics. Today, we sat around the seminar table, and each student shared what he or she has been working on. In some cases, there has been a laser focus; two students came into the class with an idea of what they wanted to research and have stuck to it. One is looking to build on some work she did this summer about conflict resolution and the UN. Another wants to look into the psychology of witch trials, although she has broadened beyond her initial focus on Salem. Another student is interested in the Cold War but has not yet determined a more narrow focus. Others have started with one topic, which has led them to something else, which has sparked an interest in a new area.

Today they decided that they wanted to do a different project each quarter, so they would have two in-depth projects by the time the course ends in January. They also agreed that they need to be able to share their findings beyond the classroom. Ideas included screencasts, TED style talks, and blogs. One student wants to develop a conflict resolution workshop to offer at school.

What is hard for me is figuring out how much to try to direct class time and how much to let them be. There are times when conversation breaks out, and it does not seem to be entirely efficient, even off-topic. But I am also not sure yet what is truly off topic. My role should be to let learning happen and try to guide students back on course when they stray. Except that I find some of the best learning may happen when students are having a casual conversation.

It is clear to me that they care about a lot of issues, and that is part of the reason several are having trouble settling on one thing. In the back of my mind, I am wondering if a student might substitute breadth of knowledge for depth in this class. I have been thinking about research as an in-depth process, but maybe it does not have to be.  Maybe a student could learn a little about a lot of different, related things.

So – my challenge for the course is to let the students shape their own work, help them create a classroom community of support for each other, and help them set standards that they need to meet. No wonder I am nervous. The class that requires the least amount of preparation may end up calling on me to work the hardest. I need to be fully present and responsive in class and reflective out of class, which is also what I am asking the students to do.

I anticipate blogging about this course through the semester, as a way of sharing my experience and also processing my thoughts. I hope some students will join me in blogging their perspective.