I have been blessed to have spent the last 3-4 months working with eleven 7th and 8th graders as they create projects for the annual PA Middle School Computer Fair. We are now only a couple of weeks away from the Fair and I can’t help but reflect on the way my role working with these students differs greatly from my traditional role in the classroom. I teach a Computer Fair Elective class twice a cycle, and this class is unlike any other that I teach. There are two reasons for this: 1) the students are working on 5 different projects that they developed on their own and that will conclude with a competition against other middle school students across the city. 2) the students and I work as a team to help realize their vision for their project.
While this may sound simple enough, it breaks the mold of the traditional model of having an objective on the board and everyone mastering said objective by the end of 45 minutes. When these students walk into my classroom, they discuss the next steps they need to work on and talk about who will tackle what during the period. I don’t even turn on the projector and there is no class ‘objective’ on the board. They are able to figure out what they will try to accomplish on their own and they delegate work to each other. My job is to rotate from group to group to check in and act as a consultant, making sure that students have the larger picture in mind and that what they are working on will help them meet their desired target. When they need someone to critique their design or double check their code syntax, or re-read their narrative, they ask for help. If they need to learn something, they may use YouTube or even each other. During the 45 minute period, students are working, discussing and giving each other feedback. There are little to no behavior issues and I rarely have to tell someone to “get started,” or to make sure that they are engaged or have “mastered the material.”
Things did not start this way, however.
At the beginning of the project, students had to reflect on what they worked on the last class and create a manageable goal for the class period. I worked with students to rephrase goals like, “work on project,” to “finish the buttons for the game.” I stressed the importance of choosing a goal that is manageable and attainable in 45 minutes. I also gave the students a chance to talk with each other to agree on what each person would work on before getting started. Sometimes this meant that I helped them designate and define roles for each other. It has been magical to watch how teams are now able to see how the work that each person is doing plays into the larger goal they are working towards.
Things are not always rosy, however.
This kind of learning is messy. Since I am no longer the expert in the room, when we hit a snag, students may be derailed from their goal for the day while they search YouTube for solutions or while they solicit feedback or ideas from their teammates. While traditional behavior problems are nearly non existent, we do run into normal issues that every team, no matter what age, run into. Disagreements abound when students are passionate about what they are working on. Sometimes coming to compromise can take an entire class period.
Experiencing learning in this way has been eye opening and energizing. It has also made it clear to me what real student-centered, hands-on, authentic (though I vowed never to use that word again) learning looks and sounds like.
It is messy, time-consuming and unbelievably rewarding.