Sunday, October 26, 2014

The Best Laid Plans...

Recently, I watched an extremely brave teacher on the Teaching Channel as she shared a "failed" lesson from her English class. The camera was in her classroom and recording all the awkward moments and typical student responses when they aren't engaged in a lesson. She then went on to successfully change that lesson for the next section of students. She also debriefed with a colleague when everything was said and done, questioning whether her students were even ready for the task she had planned for them.

These "failure" narratives, occasionally shared by teachers in public spaces, are like a fresh of breath air in the super-hyped, "look at the awesome thing I did," and "aren't my students amazing?" world of edu-social media. Not that people shouldn't share their successes and their students' excellence (in fact, I do this quite often!). It just gets a little overwhelming when you're struggling in the trenches of your own not-so-perfect reality. This is why I appreciate it when teacher-bloggers bare their struggles. It reassures me that even though I have my own challenges, this is a normal occurrence for educators.

So, in the spirit of the brave teacher I spoke of earlier who opened the doors of her classroom for everyone to see, I'm going to begin sharing more lessons, ideas, and projects in my classroom that aren't successful, starting with my idea for student research projects.

Inspired by the idea of Genius Hour and my own conviction that students should be participating in scientific research that is relevant and interesting to them, this summer I envisioned that my students would do unit "research projects" related to each unit topic. For example, for the first unit of the year, Ecology, students would choose any topic under the very wide umbrella of Ecology and design a project of their choosing. Besides being within the realm of Ecology, the only other stipulation would be that the project had to be shared with others in some way. My students had completed similar projects in the past, but finishing one for each unit was a new expectation. Also, I planned on tying Minnesota's Nature of Science standards to the project this year.

During the first week of school, I briefly explained to the students that they would be doing these projects, but before I knew it, midterm had come and gone without any class time spent on the research. I told myself that this is typical of the first quarter of school, when we spend a lot of time developing class culture, routines, and everyday skills. Change of plans: instead of having a project with every unit, we'd have a project for each quarter. I scheduled a class day for students to choose their topics and start researching. They were supposed to fill out a Google form to let me know what topic they were considering and what help/materials they'd need from me. My students struggled to choose their topics and only about a third of them even filled out the form. For the students that did have a project idea, they were unsure how to begin their research from scratch.

The next time the students worked on their projects in class, I tried to help them develop topic ideas with a whole-class activity. They filled out another form, or that is, some of them filled out another form. Not only were some students still unsure what they wanted to research, they also couldn't imagine what their "product to share" would be.

Hoping that the third time would be the charm, I spent a Sunday afternoon scouring TED for videos about pursuing curiosity and being creative. I showed the videos in class the next day, and asked the students to backchannel their thoughts while watching the videos. We had a whole-class discussion about why curiosity is important. I asked them to fill out the Google Form with their research ideas one more time.

I still received responses from less than half of the students.

At this point, we were under 2 weeks from the end of Quarter 1, and students had yet to do any meaningful research on their projects. Many didn't know what they wanted to research and/or what their product would be. And we ended up needing to devote a lot of class time to a different project the students were also struggling with - their digital portfolios (I'll blog about these as well in a separate post). It was time to call "uncle." The research projects were not going to happen during Quarter 1. For all intents and purposes, the idea was a failure.

So far.

I still intend to have my students complete at least one research project this year, probably as a cumulative piece at the end of the school year. But everything that I had dreamed up and planned for these projects over the summer just ended up fizzling. There's a part of me that feels like I failed in some way, but another part knows that you need to know when to let go. This wasn't the first time that everything didn't go exactly to plan, and it won't be the last. Just like the teacher from the video I mentioned earlier, I tell myself what's important is the ability to be a responsive teacher and adjust a failed idea to something in which students will find success.

Photo is from a map of the old Berlin train network, taken by SnaPsi Сталкер, from Flickr, licensed via Creative Commons.

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