The project ended a few weeks ago. As I wrap up adding images and make a final pass over the project page I will reflect on the project overall.
What went well?
The final constructions were excellent. The majority of students truly spent 2 months on their final objects and their patience and skill is evident in their work. I required that all the lanterns be at least 36" tall which made for really substantially sized objects that were exciting to see in our final exhibition. The process of building larger and larger models, which I have used in previous projects, was also successful here because it served as prototyping of ideas and an opportunity to build skills.
I was happy to find that the math work displayed well. Students described their projects using math they had learned during the semester and took this final opportunity to show off what they could do. Each group was challenged by their shape in ways that seemed appropriate to their level of mathematical experience and I hypothesize that this is because they were allowed to build shapes that they designed; perhaps they designed shapes that were at the growth edge of their geometric conception so they were well suited as a final showcase of their abilities.
I have to celebrate their student originated study projects. Each student picked a topic in which to become self taught. Each week we co-created goals and evaluated progress. They prepared a mid-semester and final report of their progress and I helped students connect what they studied to physics content. The passion showed by students and the variety of topics was wonderful. Favorites of mine include 1. studying middle eastern architecture to attempt to recreate their childhood home and learn about their heritage. 2. contrasting video game movement mechanics with real world examples. 3. renovating a greenhouse and growing plants with friends. Honors students were required to complete a relevant interview and include 4 high quality sources for their study which resulted in rigorous learning. I will adapt what I learned here into my future classes.
What was surprising?
The quality of the light at exhibition was exciting. The glowing room with few shadows was a lovely space to be in. Had I found an off site location with busier walls or colorful walls we might not have had this. I was surprised at how many times students were willing to rebuild parts of their projects. I think that because there are a clear, objective quality standards for our lanterns any short comings were self-evident. I frequently would see students deconstructing their work or unwrapping their lantern without having spoken to me. When asked they would tell me that they had finished only to find flaws and that they had decided to start a certain part again. I have never experienced this before. Usually students will accept a number of flaws and errors and try to convince me that they don't matter. In addition to the self-evident nature of flaws in this project I also believe that the singular nature of the skills we built contributed to this effect. I mean to say that the soldering and metal work skills they began practicing on the first day of the semester were the same skills used to build their final projects so they were deeply familiar with what was possible and able to see areas for improvement in their own work.
What will I avoid in the future?
The singular nature of skills required was both an asset and a liability. While the student work excelled, the liveliness of the work deteriorated and became repetitive. Faced with the reality that 5, 10, or 20 hours of work lay ahead of them and it was exactly what they had already been doing, some students lost interest. I could make a case for the value of this situation, but I prefer what I've found in previous projects. When subsequent drafts of a project require additional layers of complexity and new skills the students are engaged in continuous learning and are always applying something new. This adds momentum and purpose to the project and although they may be trying something for the first time when making their final project I can see that the culture of the classroom is better. I wonder in the future how I can balance these two experiences.
So first of all I want to say that this project has been going extremely well so far. We're in week 5 at this point and there are a couple indicators of high quality student engagement and progress. The first is that our class structure has very quickly gotten to the point where I am not directly instructing students very often. 90% of our time in class consists of students being in the shop and working on their projects. They're back there soldering and cutting wire and drawing plans and collaborating which leaves me free to do my check-ins and walk around giving advice and typing students up about cool things they made.
The other indicator is that I hear students critiquing each other unprompted. A couple times a day I will hear kids ask each other for feedback and they'll tell each other what they would do or what changes could be made to improve their projects, and that only seems to happen when both students feel like they have something to say. They don't give good feedback if they don't have good grounding in what the other person has made so when I see them leave each other feedback that indicates to me that they both feel as if they have enough experience to give advice to each other.
Something that has been really helpful this semester is that I reduced the total number of assignments as much as I could. I can fit the entire semester's worth of assignments on a single four point list. My impression is that this provides a lot of clarity for the students and they can see how we're progressing. Having it written out so clearly as well I hope we'll make it apparent to them the purpose of each assignment. I have told many students 2 remake entire parts of their project or make second drafts of their assignments; I tell them that they will learn a lot by doing this and it will only serve to make their final project even better. The response to this has been positive.
It's also been helpful having so many models. In the past I've had everyone make the same model as a first assignment but this semester I let them choose the model they wanted to make. I find that they are more enthusiastic about the initial assignment when they have a little bit of choice. It seems obvious in hindsight but I'm glad to have discovered this.
What challenges have there been? I almost want to say that the workload is a little light but I don't actually see that as a problem. Last semester my goal was to get students excited about learning again in response to how difficult their distance learning experiences had been. That same spirit has carried over to this semester. I know that because I'm requiring less of the students as far as total assignments. I think this benefits me because when there are fewer assignments I can be more critical and have higher expectations for each assignment. I have become more comfortable having students redo things and make large changes when their assignments are not correct.
Another challenge has been my decision to grade them based on check-ins versus individual assignments again it's not really that much of a problem. Each week I meet individually with every student and I give them a task list for what needs to be done by the next check-in. Then when we meet the following week I give them a point if they completed everything or I don't give them a point if they didn't complete everything. It takes a lot of time on my part to sit with every student. actually it took a lot of time in the beginning because I had to get to know each of them, but now that we're in a flow each check-in only takes 2 to 4 minutes. With a total of 18 weeks and thus 18 points they'll get for weekly check-ins, each one feels important but not critical. I think this helps the stress level in the class and also makes me feel comfortable holding kids accountable. I could see myself being lenient if the individual check-ins were more weighty because I wouldn’t want them to fall behind. As it is, I think they are working pretty well.