Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Project Based Learning - Guest Bloggers Ann Harris & Stacy Brine

Earlier this semester, my colleague Ann Harris and I embarked on an attempt at project-based learning
with our Social Studies 9 classes.  Nicole had presented a wonderful explanation during a recent Professional Day that inspired me to think about adapting a current project I already used.  Nicole's presentation was full of templates and ideas that could be directly applied to a variety of courses and topics.   

So, in collaboration with Ann, we adapted the First Nations project.  We did some KWL charts and brainstorming ahead of time.  Technology played a major role as the students were to be using the i
Pads and presenting with Prezi.  We added an essential question to guide the students in order keep the larger issues present in their minds; the students were required to address this essential question throughout their presentation.  And we really wanted the presentation to be much more dynamic; where the students would not be reading their notes, but rather using what was in their Prezi to guide them.  We expected them to truly know the material and speak confidently about it.  And since we had required them to present in the first person - as though they were actually there studying these First Nations groups - we hoped they would be comfortable with the information and be able to engage the class.      

Ann and I acted as advisors, having students fill out work reports along the way to maintain accountability.  The reports included a group contract, a project management log, individual and group work reports, and self-reflection.  Thankfully, all of these had been provided by Nicole during the Pro-D.  Even though this created extra paperwork and organization on our part, I found it to be very worthwhile in assessing the students.  It was straightforward and kept students on track as they moved through the project.  It kept them accountable to each other as well and didn't allow anyone to get away with doing little work and then receiving the same amount of credit as the other group members.           

Here's what actually happened:

  1. The research went well.  Our teacher-librarian, Roger Hayward, prepped the students in the library with a presentation on how Prezi works and how the students were able to share and work on the Prezi from different locations.  The students took the job seriously and filled out their work reports along the way.   
  2. The presentations were a disappointment.  Both Ann and I observed that there appeared to be a real disconnect; many students simply read off their notes during the presentation even though we had specified that was not acceptable.  Upon reflection, Ann and I hypothesized that there could be many factors at play: the students were uncomfortable because they didn't know the material well, they were  uncomfortable speaking in front of the class or perhaps students were simply doing what they were used to doing during presentations.  Reading off of cue cards was obviously something that was acceptable throughout their school career.  Our solution: specify to the students that they may not use any notes during the presentations.  Instead, they would be required to speak about their content by using their images chosen and/or a few points to help them along.  And most importantly, we would have the students actually rehearse the presentations ahead of time.  Students would be required to rehearse using the pictures they had selected with no notes.  Ann did this when she did a similar project with her Socials 8 class after we did the project with our grade 9s.  She found that it helped greatly. 
  3. The feedback from the self-reflections was generally positive.  Many students wanted more time to prepare for the presentations.  Some still complained about a lack of effort from some group members and felt as though they did the majority of the work.  This was an issue us when deciding on how to assess the students.  I varied the assessment and in some instances, gave individual marks for work done, while Ann gave a group mark only.
  4. My students often failed to address the essential question about how geography, climate and natural resources affect the way people live.  They seemed to stick with their given topic and not go back to the big picture.  In the future, I would provide more support and guidance around this.  The students are used to a certain pattern and structure around presentations and it seems they weren't able to break from the mold. 

All in all, it was a worthwhile experience.  In the future, Ann and I agreed it was best to keep the topics . specific.  When Ann tried this format with her grade 8 class, their topics were 'Ancient Civilizations' and it was much too broad.  Keeping the students focused is the key and allowing them the time to practice in order to meet the expectations of the presentation is critical.  I know I took for granted that the students understood what a 'good' presentation looked like.  Engaging the students in setting the criteria for an engaging presentation would have been helpful.  Ann also felt there are many applications for individual students to do Prezis on their own.  Since the group project, she has assigned a Prezi to students to present on their own.    And, as always, practice is key for the process as well; the more the students work through project-based learning, the better they will get at it.  And the same goes for us teachers.

Thank you ladies for working so hard for our students

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