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If you’ve been following my posts this semester, you know I’ve been working on getting my students to look at research in a different light. I wanted to make the process more real world applicable to my students, so I designed a “Teens Take Action” project with my school librarian to give students the opportunity to use what they learn through research to ultimately propose a solution to an important societal issue of interest.
We began by choosing an issue and a research objective, then did academic research on that issue and reported our findings. We expanded on that by creating infographics out of some of the data collected during research and analyzing what this data tells us about the issue. You can read more about the beginning of the project here, here, and here.
Today, I’m going to tell you how the end of the project went, and at the end of the most frustrating, difficult school year of all of our careers, I just want to keep it real. It did not go as planned or expected. It left me with a very sad feeling in my teacher heart that I still feel as I am writing this post and closing out the school year. However, I feel it is important to reflect, no matter how badly it hurts, and I am going to use this space today to work through and rationalize some of my frustrations in hopes that I might inspire others to do the same.
Before diving in, it’s worth mentioning that I was on maternity leave from mid-March to early May— the exact time during which students completed the final three pieces of the “Teens Take Action” project. My sub was phenomenal (not exaggerating), and although she understood the goal of the project and conveyed it to students, my absence was a definite obstacle for students. And when we add that obstacle on top of all the other obvious obstacles of the 2020-2021 school year (I don’t need to lay them all out… you know them), the learning situation was pretty far from ideal.
With that said, today I want to break down what I wanted to happen with what actually happened so I can make decisions about how to move forward.
Case Study Expectation:
I was most excited for this portion of the project. To better understand how the societal issue each student was studying affects people in daily life, I had them choose a recently published young adult novel that showcases the issue. With grant money, three copies of each novel were purchased so students could read at the same pace as two others. The goal was for students to have rich discussions with their group members that could deepen their understanding and provide other perspectives on the issues they were studying. When students were finished reading their novels, I wanted them to come away with a “human perspective” of the issue in order to help them better consider how to minimize it.
Case Study Reality:
This ended up being the part of the project students were most excited about, too. Because they got to choose their novels, they were invested and engaged in the stories. However, the discussions proved to be a huge challenge. When I originally planned for the project, Wednesday was the one day during the week where students were all in one spot (Zoom). When our school decided to allow students to come back to school on Wednesdays, some of them were in person and some of them were online. There were very few groups that had all members in the same place on the same day. My sub and I attempted to use Flipgrid to have students record their thoughts via a posted video and respond to one another, but there ended up being so many issues with the app posting student videos. So while I do feel my students got a human perspective on the issues through reading, this experience would have been so much better if those discussions were easier to conduct.
I also feel this portion of the project would have been more impactful if it came before the academic research. My librarian friend and I agreed that students would have been more invested in reading academic articles about an issue if they understood the human element first. Putting academic research first also required students to choose the issue they wanted to study before the project even started. Encountering many issues in a novel and choosing the one that is most compelling would likely lead to a higher level of engagement in the project. This was something we anticipated when we planned the project. However, because I knew my absence would come in the middle of the semester, we decided to attack the research portion of the project first since it would have been more difficult to leave that task to a sub. Next year when I’ll be there for the entire semester, we will definitely start with novels!
Plan of Action Expectation:
This was the ultimate goal of the project. Once students proved through their writing that they understood a societal issue on an academic and human level, I wanted them to apply this knowledge to the greater good. Students were to create a proposal for a project that would work to minimize the effects of the issue within the local community. They were given different ideas of types of “community improvement” projects, such as fundraisers, marches/demonstrations, and volunteer opportunities. I wanted them to select a project they felt would truly help combat the issue they studied on a local level and provide a rationale.
Plan of Action Reality:
I found that many students did not understand the goal of the action plan. They looked at it as an isolated assignment rather than as the pinnacle of what they had been working toward the entire semester. Some expressed bewilderment that an English teacher was asking them to plan a community improvement project, which they felt would be more appropriate in a business or civics class. Others felt the assignment was not applicable since they were not actually going to carry out the project in real life. While most students completed the assignment, it was obvious there was not a lot of passion and investment.
It became evident to me that many students missed the purpose of the action plan. I wanted my students to understand that writing is a vehicle for us to study problems and find solutions. However, as I mentioned above, they seemed to view the action plan as “just another task.” This shows me that the purpose needs to be made more clear throughout the entire project. Perhaps next time, I will have them begin by thinking about how they can combat the issue and then revisit their ideas as their knowledge of the issue expands throughout the project. This would place the goal of the project at the front and center. I also feel my presence during the entire project will have a great impact on students understanding the goal of assignments and how each of them are connected.
I always end my class with student reflection. I think it is so important for students to learn to do what I am doing here in this post— examining what happened and using that knowledge to plan out how to move forward. I always ask each student to look at their journey as a reader and a writer throughout the year in my class for two reasons. First, it helps them identify their own strengths and weaknesses. Second, it helps me make adjustments to my practice in order to find better ways to help my students.
Asking students to reflect requires a high level of vulnerability; anyone who works with adolescents knows it’s a big risk to ask them for their opinions. However, I like to take the risk because it’s important to me that my students know I respect them and what they have to say. And most of the time, they respond to reflective questions in very constructive ways.
There was still some of that this year. Some of what my students said in their reflections made sense, like their failure to understand the goal of the Plan of Action. However, I’m not going to lie— reading some of what they had to say this year really hurt. It still hurts. Some students used the reflection as an opportunity to air out grievances rather than to use the space to really think and grow. What they said was not always fair to me and was often based on misunderstandings of my intentions and the constraints we were all under as educators.
These reflections that hurt me also made something very obvious: the most valuable tool in a teacher’s classroom is the ability to have strong relationships with students. That was lacking this year. It’s difficult and downright impossible to get to know kids when you’re talking to them through a screen full of black boxes and no faces. And when you don’t know them, they don’t know you. And they don’t trust you to help them become passionate about something completely new to them. So they do your assignments one by one, but they never actually become invested in the learning.
As I move forward, I’ve decided I definitely want to try this project again, even if it didn’t have a smooth ending. It encompasses a variety of types of writing— narrative, informative, and analytical. It teaches students to consider what others have found through research. It encourages them to learn about human perspective through reading and discussion. There is a lot of valuable learning that can happen under the umbrella of striving to make the world a better place. No, it didn’t go as well as I had wanted. But I’m proud to say I didn’t allow COVID and hybrid learning to prevent me from taking a risk and trying something new in order to better reach my students. I’ll use the summer to heal and go at it again next year, hopefully with fewer restrictions and the opportunity to build better relationships.
What’s something new you tried this year, despite all the constraints? In what ways did your reality not meet your expectations? Tell me about your experiences on Twitter @TimmermanPaige!
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