Sunday, January 24, 2016

Making Work Public: Follow up with Ms. Heide’s Government Class

In my December 17, 2015 blog, I highlighted Ms. Heide’s Government students who were writing children’s stories about Supreme Court cases.  This was an excellent example of a lesson implementing the four C’s:  collaboration, creativity, critical thinking and communication. Not content with stopping there, Ms. Heide arranged for her students to share their stories with a group of eighth grade civics students from Smithfield Middle School.   

Using a roundtable format in the middle school library, groups of 8th graders rotated to tables with the high school students who shared their stories with them.  There was an exciting buzz throughout the room as seniors were running through their presentations, punctuated periodically by applause from the civics students.  There was also nervous energy from the seniors as they experienced a different sense of pressure and importance about the work they had created. It’s one thing to have created a story, but how would it be received by students not familiar with the case? As expected, the morning went great and both seniors and eighth graders enjoyed the experience. To see an updated video of the project, click on the link a the end of this blog.

Like many students, I had no audience while doing my work when I was a student, except for my teacher.  The routine was to turn in the work, get a grade, maybe a stray written comment or two from the teacher, and then start the process all over on the next assignment. The importance of the work to me was to please the teacher.  There was no relevance to my work and no connection that the work had a greater significance beyond a grade in the gradebook. 

Imagine a culture where every final draft a student completes is done for a wider audience. It may be for a group of twenty-five eighth graders, which was the case for Ms. Heide’s students, or for an even larger audience in the community. Technology allows the audience to even be on the global level now.  What if the role of the teacher was not to be sole judge of the work but to be more like a sports coach or a play director? Teachers guiding students and assisting them with the preparation necessary for displaying their work to the public.  The motivation for doing great work is that it will be judged by a wider audience, with authentic feedback, and no longer evaluated by just the teacher.

I’ve watched Mrs. Beatty-Riffle’s class at Windsor High School get ready for their production of Grease.  The students and teacher have put tremendous effort into producing an enjoyable, quality performance for their audience. This same effort can be put forth in all classes if we connect the work students do to a wider audience. Of course, not every assignment or project can have life importance. But when students know their creations will be displayed, presented, appreciated, or judged by the entire class, other classes, families, the community or even the world, then there is an entirely different purpose to the work.

As we look to build a culture of excellence around beautiful, quality products from our students, we must remember that punitive actions that impact a student’s grade will not produce change for students who are not doing quality work.  We need to give them a reason to care. The pressure of preparing for their work for display to a wider audience, and the daily focus on continuous review and modification until it is worthy of presentation to the community, will become the reason and the motivation for creating quality work.