Either I’ve started my prep day really well, or very poorly. I cannot decide. After reviewing my plans with my substitute (guest teacher… like I invited her in to contribute), I grabbed a laptop and headed to the staff room; the only available work room in the school. As I was occupying a corner of the table it was brought to my attention that we were out of coffee. That prompted a quick trip to the store. While I was driving back I thought about my lesson plans for the day and how one element of them parallelled my conversation with Kathy Cassidy last night. We were exchanging impressions of our second year experience exploring problem-based learning with Powerful Learning Practice. As a culmination to that experience we were asked to publish our reflections and share outcomes of our research. I feel challenged by this task, and wonder if my fourth grade students will feel equally challenged by the similar task I set them: to blog about their collective creations. I wonder if we will all feel challenged for the same reasons. I wonder if I have started my prep day well by buying coffee and blogging, instead of organizing my end of year assessments as I had planned.
I divided my twenty-four fourth graders into four random groups, gave them a cardboard pillar, told them they were to agree on a theme, and then represent that theme through colour, images, shapes, words, and movement. I then stood back and watched. Originally I had planned to limit the themes to curriculum we have studied this year. I decided my project might be more authentic to them if I left it open-ended. They settled on mythology, space, ocean, and fast food; then they set to work with all the enthusiasm I might have hoped for. They impressed me with their ideas, construction skills, and collaboration. The groups sustained engagement for about four hours (5-6 periods over 2 weeks). Predictably, there were varied levels of engagement. There was also a good deal of negotiating. The project did allow them to work to individual interests and strengths. Many of them took ownership of their work in as much as they are fighting over the right to take the finished project home. It turned out to be a success, except I’m not sure what it has achieved.
I created artificial groups. They had no opportunity to discuss themes and products, before moving into groups. Their themes were mostly compromises. I constrained the form of publication as well. So I don’t feel the result is authentic as I interpret the word as it applies to learning. Learning in school creates so many boundaries and expectations: curriculum, policy, time, resources. Then too, the process held value, but the product is a limited exchange of learning. Now I am asking them to briefly describe what they did together and share their thoughts.
This connects with my experience with PLP this year. I was grouped with five others around a general topic and we were tasked with developing a collective creation. Our problem, storytelling, was a compromise. Like my students, I think I learned something about the process, and unlike my students we did not complete our collective creation. Perhaps if we had accomplished our plan in the time we had available, it would have connected to the flow of learning in my classroom. As it is, it feels all unfinished. Is an incomplete journey. The students’ collective creations are displayed in the hallway now. Some students don’t feel they are finished, and I share that view. I’m not sure what we built.