On Monday, I visited the STEAM Fair at our local early years school. My oldest daughter is in kindergarten there, and my wife teaches there. My wife had shared what her students were doing, and my daughter was vibrating with excitement about the chance to show off her work.
My obvious highlight was watching my oldest share her project with us, patiently answering her little sister’s questions. However, moving around the gym, watching students share their projects, listening to parents brag, and getting steered towards projects by excited teachers, I was moved by the whole experience.
I spent some time talking to one of a teacher there, discussing our shared belief in the importance of the A in STEAM, the Arts. We divide the disciplines a lot more in high school, and each of those letters becomes the responsibility of a specific group of teachers. If you work with older students, and you’ve tried to sneak the arts into class, you’ve likely had a student remind you that you’re not teaching Art.
So, we don’t have a STEAM Fair. When we do celebrate things in a high school, the displays are traditionally full of pieces from Art class and projects from the shops. As an English teacher, I often felt kind of left out, because a bunch of essays, or stories, heck, even poems don’t generate the same kind of excitement as parents mill about.
I have the advantage of having taught Art as well. If you’ve read enough of my posts here, you know that I’m always on the lookout for a way to incorporate the visual channel in my classroom. Almost every course I teach now has a project that leans on a significant visual piece. I’ve taken to calling these Showcase Projects. To me, these are ways for students to share their learning in a more creative fashion, something that engages a casual viewer, but also gives them something to show off.
This is something that I’ve developed over time. I too have done that thing where the students create dioramas or artifacts from their reading. True, many of these creations are influenced by a critical reading of texts, and show the students’ ability to use their skills to share their learning and interpretations. That being said, when that’s an option for, say, Lord of the Flies, you do wind up with a lot of roughly made spears.
I work hard to craft projects that have a sound base in the outcomes of the curriculum, that engender critical thinking and exploration of our themes. I’m actually blessed with a curriculum that contains outcomes related to presentation, which I feel is important. We work hard to see that these projects are not simply flashy things to show off on evenings when the public is in the building, but pieces that are constructed to convey meaning and engage an audience.
Some are simple. I’ve evolved Austin Kleon’s newspaper blackout poetry to what I call Illustrated Blackouts, in which students create an illustration to complement the poetry they’ve created, using a text they’re studying. After Leonard Cohen’s death, I was inspire to start using what I call ‘The Cohen Rule.’ Inspired by his Book of Longing, I ask poets to make sure a corresponding doodle adorn their poetry. If the visuals get the poems read more frequently, it’s worthwhile.
Other projects are more time consuming. I’ve written up a couple here at Moving Writers, like the OUPA and the Nebraska Project, an I love my Rebel Project. They’re projects that begin by catching the eye, but engage an audience, and are catalysts for conversation with their creators. This year, when my Grade 11 students were working on multigenre projects related to global issues and social justice, we spent some time talking about protest art. Each student then created a piece of protest art on a canvas, and we effectively made the canvas a big folder that held all their written pieces. In fact, I just shipped a handful of these off to our division office as part of our school’s showcase.
These projects are engaging for students to work on. Some of the times I enjoy most in my classroom are when we’re deep in project mode. People are doing different things, at different stages in the process. They’re helping and supporting each other. Since these are “showcase” projects, the audience feels changed, and there is a deeper consideration of all aspects. Writers work hard to have a piece that will be worthy of the visual they’ve crafted for it. Mentor texts are studied in an effort to do our best work.Their pride in the finished product is justified.
I love the buzz of industry in the room, and I move throughout it, offering support where needed, but often, just hanging out and talking to students. It’s a wonderful side effect of a classroom that’s cutting and pasting, drawing and painting. The stresses are different, and different encouragement is needed. The ability to actually physically help someone with their project is nice for all of us who take advantage of it, and is so much different than supporting a writer. The room is often quite relaxed, and I am able to have conversations with the students that aren’t directly related to teaching, building relationships.
So, yes, visiting the STEAM Fair made me think of the work that happens in my classroom that I love to show off, but it also made me realize how rewarding that work is. As I wrap up the first few weeks of a new semester, it’s a nice reminder of what I’ve got to look forward to with my new classes.
Do you have a showcase project that you love? When do you showcase your students’ work? What do you want to showcase?