Improvise. Learn. Don’t Regret.

When engaged in project-based, collaborative learning, I think the three most important words to remember are: improvise, learn, don’t regret.

I’m tired.  I haven’t worn dress clothes to work in almost two weeks, and my classroom is a disaster. Oddly, I consider all of these good things.

This past week, my students, and I have worked incredibly hard. We’ve spent the entire week constructing our Holocaust Exhibit.  In total, we’ve spent approximately 20 hours this week alone . On Thursday we worked 6 hours straight. No complaints.

The first “face” of our exhibit, looks much like we thought it would. There are two beautiful displays created to show what the lives of the Jewish people were like before the Holocaust. They were ordinary people like you or me.  And interspersed on the boards of clothing worn at the time, are family pictures. People laughing. Life was normal.

Then the canvases progress to all of the things going wrong in Germany.  The propaganda surrounding Hitler’s rise to power, and the insidious lies spun to incite hatred towards the Jews. My students created an entire canvas detailing the Hitler Youth, and how they were important to the success of Hitler’s plan. There is also a Ghetto display that includes pictures and replica clothing, all pinned with the yellow star. At the bottom of the display sits a half packed suitcase.

Tucked in behind the propaganda canvases, is what looks like the quarters of a German officer.  With a lovely table set with tea and goodies. In behind, on a display board are Nazi uniforms, surrounded with all of the Nazi symbols.  It’s hidden because much of what the Nazi’s did was hidden.

The second “face” of the Holocaust isn’t exactly how we originally brainstormed it. Announcing that something has drastically changed is an 8 ft high gate from the concentration camp Terezin that visitors will enter through. Rather than focusing on the ghettos, my students researched and created an exhibit about the Eugenics program that was taught in schools and enacted in a number of the concentration camps.

The 300 calorie exhibit is one of the centerpieces of this section.  In addition to research of nutrition in concentration camps and ghettos, they’ve included photos of how large a portion of ordinary foods, such as 3/4’s of a Starbucks muffin, equal 300 calories.  It’s shocking. Additionally, on the day of the exhibit there will be a display of foods in portion that equal 300 calories.  Juxtaposed with this will be a pot broth often served in the camps, 3 1/2 centimeters of bread, the ordinary bread portion in some camps and coffee.

The concentration camp section also includes a cot.  Many inmates had to hide whatever few possessions they owned in their sleeping quarters, so they would not be stolen.  A display of concentration camp uniforms is the background, surrounded by pictures of Jewish inmates in striped uniforms.

However, the third “face” is nothing like its original conception.  Originally, the class designed it as being the world’s response to the Holocaust. And in a way, I guess it still is.  But to us, it didn’t seem like a fitting conclusion. We stood and pondered, while looking at blank flats of wood.  And suddenly the phrase, “he who saves one life is as considered to have saved the entire world” popped into my head.  The students loved it. So instead of our original design, the third section is a tribute to those who perished and survived the Holocaust.

It’s 8 feet high, and is painted the blue of the flag of Israel. The display begins with the Nuremberg trials and transitions to the many pictures of Holocaust displays and remembrances throughout the world.  It will also include pictures of many who perished in the Holocaust, some who survived, and pictures and bios of the authors of three novels we read: Night, The Hiding Place, and Anne Frank. At the top of one of the flats is the flag of Israel.

Our Holocaust exhibit opens Tuesday.  Everyone has been invited.  This includes parents, students, teachers, community members, a few of our Superintendents, and even members of the Jewish community. We begin installation Monday, which will include finishing the third “face” of the exhibit.

Improvise. I’ve learned throughout this process that improvisation is essential.  Things happen that you don’t expect.  At the end of painting on Wednesday, one of my students thought it would be a “good” idea to put a big happy face, painted in black, on one of our tan canvases. We needed that canvas the next day.  And I’m not talking any student here, I’m talking an A student.  We primed.  Repainted.  And worked on different areas until that canvas was ready.

On Thursday morning I went into work early to begin painting one of the canvasses. The letters were  fine, and I was painting with black.  With my first stroke the words, “Oh my gosh, is this hard!” popped into my head. It was. I’ve realized as a teacher it’s important that I more frequently experience the things that my students are doing in class.  I finished the letter and handed over the paint brush to someone much more proficient than I.

For the last three weeks, for ELA 10B, all it says in my day book is Holocaust Exhibit — because it’s student-centred.  And although on any given day I have an idea of what we’ll be working on, I can’t guarantee which direction the learning, researching, or work will need to go.  I tend to start each class walking around and talking to each student to see what they’re working on or what they need.   Teacher-centred teaching never allowed me to do that.

One day, three of my students were sitting working, and I walked up to them and said, “What can I help with?”  Stunned, they said, “you’re going to do this with us?”  This question spoke volumes to me. I haven’t worked with my students enough.  Not in this way. And I think it’s like that for a lot of their education. I think often as teachers we supervise, watch to make sure they’re on task, or if they need help,  but how often do we co-learn and co-create with them?

Learn.  I was talking to Dean Shareski earlier this week.  He said that many teachers who attempt this type of thing might do it once, and with all the difficulties not try it again.  I can see why that would be so.  But I will teach every unit I can this way because of the difficulties.  It’s only in doing it the first time that you learn what you need to change. And that your students learn how to deal with difficulties.

I’ve learned that next time I will shorten the initial research period.  My students spent the first week researching and adding sites to their delicious accounts, and the second week I introduced Google Docs, into which they added their research as teams.  I would combine both weeks into one.  So much of the deep, authentic research occurs during the construction stage.  And next time, I will allot more time for construction. So much changes when you’re actually creating.

But I’m not only talking about learning from the process itself, but also from your students.  All of our exhibits are mounted on wheels, so they can easily be moved.  I wouldn’t have thought of that, nor could I make that happen.  It’s really been one student responsible for getting all of them ready, so on Friday, while looking at 8 foot high sheets of wood, I asked him, “how are those going to stand up?”  He looked at me and said, “come, I’ll show you.”  And he showed me the frames, and explained how it will be braced.  Amazing. If it was left to me, they’d all be leaning against the wall instead of beautiful displays.

Want to know the really amazing thing.  This is a modified student.  He’s never done well in a traditional classroom, especially English.  But give him something to build, and he can do it. I wonder how many times in his education he’s had the opportunity to say to a teacher, “here, let me show you how it’s going to work.”  All I know is I need to give him as many opportunities as I can to use these skills and feel successful.

Don’t Regret.  Pretty explanatory.  Things go wrong.  Things get broken. Welcome to life.  One of the things I’ve learned as a teacher is that I have to be kind to myself.  In the words of one of my superintendents, “We don’t expect perfection, just improvement.” Good advice.

I’ve thoroughly inconvenienced many people in my school for this project to happen. They’ve all graciously adjusted.  And I’m pretty sure my students have learned more in this unit, than all of the other units I’ve ever taught.  My students from last year keep asking why they didn’t get to build a Holocaust museum.  They feel a little ripped off.  I told them to wait a year.  When they’re in grade 12 we study The Great Gatsby, which is set in the roaring twenties.  That will be quite the project.

But the really exciting thing is that a few of the grade nines, who only saw a small portion of the installation, asked me, “What are we going to build next year in your class?”  That tells me something good is going on.

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. Furthermore, I am Buck Institute for Education National Faculty member
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14 Responses to Improvise. Learn. Don’t Regret.

  1. Marilyn says:

    Thank you for sharing this important work that you are doing with your students. Your description of the evolution of the project was so thorough that I felt that I was part of it. I’ve just finished reading an inspiring book, “Making Learning Whole” by David Perkins. This is a brilliant book and I notice that you are incorporating many of the principles that Perkins describes. I see that you are inviting the world in to see your work, but I was wondering if you have thought of rolling at least 1 of your displays out to the local library or museum? Great work and thanks for sharing.

  2. David Truss says:

    We used to do a Grade 8 school-wide Renaissance Fair and it was absolutely exhausting to set up! Every year we would get within a few days of the Fair thinking, “Why did we do this again?”
    Then the fair would come and we’d see all the students excited to share their projects and suddenly we were thinking of next year again. We’d have former kids now in High School (and even University) come to check it out… and they didn’t necessarily have younger siblings in the school.
    Your story of the modified kid reminded me of a story I’d like to share. A kid that was in one of my groups (on Leonardo Da Vinci) was one that I had never taught, as he was on the other school team, (we did team teaching, but kids chose topics for the Fair across teams). He had many learning challenges but it turned out that he could write faster, and neater, backwards rather than forwards. He wrote everything on his project backwards and had a couple mirrors with him to share what he’d done.

    Having read this, I can’t wait to see what the 12’s do next year with The Great Gatsby… can I join your class?

  3. Pingback: Sharing is contagious!

  4. trishinottawa says:


    I really hope you will post some pics from the final display. This sounds like it has been an amazing journey for your students but also for you! Inspiring and enlightening!

  5. Hi. I absolutely love how you tell such an honest story about how difficult projects such as these can be. While your project is student directed, it is extremely hard work as you facilitate such an effort. Thank you for sharing this experience. I, too, look forward to seeing pictures (video?) of the special event. Congratulations!

    I shared your post on our facebook page.!/pages/Dive-into-Service-Learning/112725932109897

    • Thanks for sharing our work with others! One of my students is currently editing a video he shot of the exhibit. I’m looking forward to being able to share it with everyone.

  6. Pam says:

    Shelley, all I can say is Wow! I wish I’d been in a class like this when I was in high school studying history – or anything else for that matter. Thank you for sharing this honest reflection of how this unit progressed and the learning involved – both yours and your students.

  7. Nancy C says:

    This is amazing. Your students will forever remember the Holocaust and this project. You have future students already thinking about what they will be doing with you next year. This is what ‘learning’ is all about.

    My favorite part of your story is about the student ‘who showed you’. We truly can learn from our students and it’s important for them to know that – and you did!

    Please post some pictures – would love to see! Thanks for sharing!

  8. Pingback: What Does a Great School Year Look Like? Ask the Students | MindShift

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