Once Upon a Time in the Projects (Yo)

Back in part 2 of my ongoing Basic Principles series, I mentioned that I had some time for experiments in my two 8th grade classes. Today I want to talk about what those experiments became, how they worked and turned out, but also what battles I had to fight over them. It’s not quite Here’s Your Future but it’s not without its ups and downs.

The situation was this: I had written all my class tests already and had about three months of time, equaling over 30 lessons. We had done everything that the curriculum requires so I felt that this was a great chance to do something different, free from any rules. I suggested to both classes that we could do project work, where they could work on something of their completely free choice with basically as much time as they need, organized by themselves with assistance from me only if necessary. The students liked the idea and most of them found themselves into groups and had ideas.

The ideas were quite diverse although most of them settled on making a movie. Others wanted to read a book and present it, one group made a comic, one compared a book with a movie, one student started to write a book and one group started a blog. I was happy with the different topics but was aware that they might not consider all the requirements necessary, especially with the filmmaking. Most groups settled rather easily on a topic, others had big arguments and had to learn to compromise. Other switched topics again and again, seeing that an idea alone is not enough and that the practicality of realizing it can lead to many problems they hadn’t thought of. All of these struggles are part of the learning process in my opinion that they would never face in the traditional way with the teacher standing in front of the class and telling them exactly what to do. To actually deal with conflicts among fellow students is worth a lot.

So, there were internal problems. There were technical problems as students realized making a movie is more than just holding a camera at things but knowing what to say, getting the sound right and torturous the editing process can be. There were disciplinary problems as some students abused their freedom for slacking off with their phones or other things. And there were time problems as some students got done early why others were not able to finish in time.

And then there were, let’s call them ‘external problems,’ which came in the form of my colleagues. Because, believe it or not, some of them had a big problem with me doing this project work. The complaints included: it is too loud for other classes, the students don’t do anything, they don’t learn anything, they can’t work by themselves, it’s not a real lesson, it’s too dangerous if they’re on their own, they need a clear structure. Interestingly, none of these complaints were mentioned directly to me. I only learned about them through students and other teachers. And through having a conversation with the principal (yet again) where I had to justify my decision.

The surprising thing was that this conversation actually turned out well. For some strange reason, my arguments this time worked out and I couldn’t really be blamed for anything. This is the first time in my rebellious career that this has happened. I could explain that I had done everything the curriculum said already, that it worked for the most part, that I gave the students clear criteria for what they had to do and how it would be graded and that I mostly knew where they were and what they were doing. While my relations to the principal improved because of that talk, some of my colleagues were less happy, obviously pissed that I got away with this. Which I couldn’t care less about, since I now basically had the legitimation to do what I wanted. In a conference where the topic was brought up and where I presented my concept, the astounded looks of some teachers were quite amusing to me. Giving the students this kind of freedom is hard to grasp for many. (And to add my favorite part in all of this, apparently some teachers are scared to get my classes after I have to pass them on after two years because they are “not used to normal lessons anymore.” Thinking about that still makes my day and either you know why or you don’t.)

And that’s what was most satisfying about the whole process, seeing how many students “blossomed”, showed qualities I never knew they had. Especially the “problematic” class proved the notion I always had, that authority and strictness is more likely to limit the students but that giving them freedom and trust, enables them to be creative, productive and inspired. Seeing that and, in the end, seeing that in the movies and book presentations and the blog and the comic, was extremely rewarding. No class test could have ever shown this so clearly.

But I don’t want to ignore the problems that were there and if, no, when I will do this again, I will probably change some things: giving some groups clearer instructions, ensuring more that they actually work, instruct them more on the obstacles that moviemaking can include (especially editing), maybe giving them a thematic foundation they can start from.

These were some of the negative aspects they mention in the feedback rounds I did after the presentations. But the positive aspects they mentioned were clearly stronger: the freedom to do what they wanted, to be able to work independently, to learn to work with others and to find compromises, to work on something different and unusual, to have the teacher's trust, to be able to work outside the classroom, to be able to work individually, to realize ideas, to improvise and simply to have lessons that were not like every other lesson on every other day every other year. When asking whether they would want to do this again, the answer was a loud and clear: Yes! Me too.

We are adventuring, we are adventurers

- be your own PET - Adventure (2006)