When all else fails…start over

Today, at the beginning of our Biology class, I asked my students to estimate how long they would need to finish the cell projects they are currently working on.  One of my students made an exasperated sound and said, “months!”  Oh-Oh.

The project they’ve been working on for the past two weeks was to create a presentation along the lines of “voyage through a cell”.  Essentially, how does a cell work? While it sounds easy, it’s actually quite a complicated process.

So I asked, “What’s up?”  A number of groups tried to explain the issues, fumbling around for an explanation that could accurately describe the problems — words that were too big, complicated processes, trying to find words that rhyme (don’t ask!).  One student summed it up by stating, “It’s just not working. Can we scrap this project and do something else?” I honestly don’t think he was very hopeful that I would say yes.

My response? “Sure. It’s your learning.”

What happens in my classroom isn’t about me.  It’s about my students learning, not just content, but also skills. If a project isn’t working, obviously it’s not the right one.  One of my students stated, “I’ve been so concerned about trying to get the project done, that I haven’t learned any of the stuff I’ve been researching.”

That’s a problem.  And I’m guessing it exists because the bottom-line for most of our school system is getting the project done and earning the A.  This is the first thing we need to unlearn.  In my class, the most important thing is the learning.  The project or whatever we’re working on is the fruition of that learning.

So we talked about what their projects might look like instead. In place of the presentation, they’re going to create an analogy of a cell.  For example, a cell is like a house…and each organelle must correspond to something of similar function in the analogy.  They can build it, film it, draw it, or whatever else they come up with. They also need to explain why they made that choice.

At the end of all of this, my students thanked me for being gracious.  It’s not about being gracious.  It’s about my students knowing what they need and asking for it.  Next time I hope they ask sooner.

Have the past two weeks been a waste then? No. We spent the rest of the period going through the google docs they’ve created about the cell.  We distilled their research into the basic information they need about cells & their parts, which they will use for their notes.

Tomorrow we’ll shift gears and take a different approach with our inquiry.  Cells are the basic building blocks of life: to survive, they need to eat, breathe, and reproduce.  How do they do that?

picture courtesy of cc flickr: euthman

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About shelleywright

I love education & learning, which likely explains why I'm a teacher. My areas are ELA, Sr. sciences, and technology. My classroom is best described as a student-centred, tech embedded pbl/inquiry learning environment. I am currently a PhD student in the area of Curriculum and Instruction. My focus is play-based learning in high school, and it's impact on brain development.
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9 Responses to When all else fails…start over

  1. Wow! That takes guts…not sure I would scrap a whole project. But I’m glad you did because maybe I won’t be as tied to my own in the future. Thanks! :D

    • This is the first time I’ve actually scrapped a whole project. But I could see it wasn’t working. It’s not because they didn’t want to do the work. This is a class that works incredibly hard. And I think the alternative that we came up with, will actually promote deeper learning. In light of this, changing direction seemed like a really good idea.

  2. Sean Murray says:

    You’ve given them the courage to say “I don’t know”. Amazing!

  3. philedufy says:

    Wow – I’m not sure I could have done that, but it’s probably the right move if students are really frustrated. I probably would have attempted to adjust the scope, or change grouping, or suggested contacting outside experts – but all of those would continue to lose “political capital”. I’m sure your decision gained respect from some of the students who are most disenchanted with the school system. Bravo!

  4. I scraped a skit project that the students were working on today because I didn’t feel like I prepared them well enough to succeed. They had a similar sense of relief that your students had.
    At the same time though, this trimester, I’ve been paying particular attention to the tension of learning. It’s hard for me to watch my students struggle and try to determine whether they are in the nitty-gritty of learning or if they are just in a quagmire of confusion headed towards failure. They often look very similar. My tendency in the past, has been to scrap, change or modify too quickly.

    • I agree. If I didn’t know these students so well, I probably wouldn’t have started over. Rather, I likely would have worked hard to help them salvage the project. But I know these kids know how to do really difficult things, so this seemed like the smarter decision.

  5. Shailja says:

    WOW!! That takes both courage and innate understanding of your students! Shelley – you epitomize “student-centred learning”!

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