Today, I took a risk. I’ll present it to you in the same way I told my 6th period (who all have iPads).
“That was the bell. Sit. Fergie; you didn’t ask if you could get water. Sit. Maria, eyes over here.
[Dramatic Pause] Today… you will begin… for the first time… ever… your Twenty. Percent. Project.”
A couple “huh?”s, a chuckle, then a few started clapping. The whole class gave a round of applause for something they knew nothing about.
This is clearly a safe class to take risks.
Accustomed as I am to a class full of adoring, applauding adolescents, I waited until their awe subsided and I said, “Go ahead. Ask me.”
In unison, they chimed, “What’s a 20% project?”
Akin to Kate Petty, I said, “You’ve got iPads. Figure it out. Do some Googling.”
So they did. After about 12 minutes, I killed the mood music and asked, “Okay; what did you find out?”
Belinda: It’s a Google thing.
Louie: It involves 20% of the time.
Kathy: No kidding!
Harrison: [reading off the screen] Employees will dedicate twenty percent of the work day toward–
Vaudrey: BORED! Somebody else, who isn’t going to read it.
Destiny: Like… um… you look up stuff that isn’t part of school.
Vicki: [reading] Students will create a proposal and a presentation–
Vaudrey: BORED! Somebody else, summarize what you’re reading.
Vicki: Hey, you didn’t say ‘summarize’.
Louie: We research anything we want?
Vaudrey: Let’s watch a video.
Vaudrey: Okay, what did you see?
Vasily: Raising money for cancer.
As veteran teachers will tell you, there’s a fine line between baiting the hook and stringing them along. One of them gets them interested, the other gets them frustrated. This group was approaching the threshold. Time to bring it home.
Vaudrey: For 20% of our week–every Friday–you get to learn about whatever you want. You get to pick something that interests you and learn about it.
Kathy: Anything we want?
Vaudrey: Anything that is interesting to you… and school-appropriate.
Two idiots: Awww!
Vicki: Like… what do you mean?
It’s notable that Kate and Kevin executed this project with 16-18 year-old students. My students are 11-13 and in a Math Support class (with iPads as part of the strategy). Developmentally, it was unlikely that they would understand the concept without some prodding and leading.
Vaudrey: Okay, Vicki. What’s something that interests you?
Vaudrey: What about soccer?
Vicki: Um… the cleats.
Vaudrey: Keep going.
Vicki: Like… how are they made? Some are made from carbon fiber.
Vaudrey: That sounds like something that you could research and then teach us about.
Louie: We have to present this?
Vaudrey: Yup. At the end of the Trimester to parents and teachers.
[Cries of distress and gnashing of teeth]
Vaudrey: …but the final product isn’t graded. You’re graded on your work along the way.
[Blank, confused stares. I’ve hit the overload. Time for some exploration.]
Vaudrey: Take the next 15 minutes. Do some research on something that is interesting to you. What do you want to learn about?
And they were off. After checking with a couple groups, I was stoked. Photography, engine design, taking risks as a professional athlete, anime, sound engineering, art therapy; they were diving in, and it was pretty sweet.
Also, there were a couple of these:
Vaudrey: What do you have so far?
Vaudrey: Okay. What’s something that interests you?
Vaudrey: Okay. What’s something that you like?
[I wait and stare at her until she cracks]
Anna: I donno… like… music?
Vaudrey: Okay. What about music is interesting?
Anna: I don’t know.
Vaudrey: What’s on your iPod right now?
I’ll have mercy and spare you the rest, but there’s probably a reason that this project is done with high school students instead of middle-schoolers.
Same reason that we let the dough rise for a while before we make pizza out of it.
Questions I Didn’t Expect
Beatrice: Are we allowed to change it up?
Vaudrey: Uhh… sure. Because you’re probably having a hard time committing to one thing and you’re more likely to lighten up if it’s temporary in your head.
Vicki: Some of those students were in pairs or teams. Can we work in teams?
Vaudrey: Once you’ve decided what you’re researching, you might pair up, yes.
James: Mark! Me and you!
Vaudrey: Nope. That’s not how it works. Stop. Stop pointing at each other. If two people are interested in the same thing, then I might group you together.
Anna: We can’t pick our own groups?
Anna: Why not?
Vaudrey: I forget. Whose class is this?
Students: Mister Vaudrey’s class.
Vaudrey: So who is the boss, the divine ruler, the king?
Proletariat students: You are, sir.
Louie: Can I do SpongeBob?
Vaudrey: What about that is interesting?
Louie: Uh…why’s he so happy?
Vaudrey: Well… that’s a silly question. I could answer that with 4 minutes of searching on the Nickelodeon website.
Louie: Awwwww, What?
Vaudrey: Also, if you pick an easy thing, I’m going to make sure that you still have to work hard.
Louie: Oh. I’ll pick something else.
Vaudrey: Good idea.
Recent days at work have been great. The first month of school was tough; within the top 3 frustrating Augusts of my teaching career, but recent developments (and freedom to do whatever I want with 6th period) have freed me from the chains of canned curriculum, and given my tethered wings…
…eh, that’s enough.
~Matt “SpongeBob” Vaudrey