March 31, 2008

Researching Projects

As you may recall, I recently taught Shakespeare’s King Lear to a group of homeschooled teens. And you might like knowing that Zach, the subject of a previous article, did get his act together enough to boost his grade – from a low F to a solid C!

But much more important was the attitude adjustment Zach made in the process. The quality of his last reading responses demonstrated that he’d read and “digested” the material; he maintained his focus throughout his three-hour-long final exam; and he went above-and-beyond for his culminating project, a crossword puzzle.

A crossword puzzle? Yeah, a crossword puzzle – one of about a half dozen project options I offered, just as I did when I taught in the public schools. And – accounting as it did for 20% of each student’s grade – the project was no small potatoes.

I know the traditional “English teacher final project” is a research paper, but I staunchly refused to offer that possibility. Why? Well – full disclosure here – I hate research papers! Hate writing them and especially hate reading them. Because, really, is it actually possible to spit back other people’s ideas in a truly engaging fashion? Yawn.

Now, before you bombard Celebrate Kids pleading the case of the research paper, hear me out. I acknowledge that they do have a place – and not just as cat box liners. I’ve dutifully written many in my life, have assigned them to other people’s kids, and will do so with my own children in due time. But to me the beauty of the research paper is not in the paper itself; rather, the purpose is the research. And so I’ve assigned research papers when the goal was to teach kids how to do research. A paper was just a by-product of the important part of the deal.

Since my purpose for assigning literature-response projects has always been to engage my students in the literature itself, research papers don’t fit the bill. But Zach’s crossword puzzle? It caused him to mine the text for important plot points, characterization issues, and thematic elements. And – added bonus! – Zach engaged his logic- and word-smarts (and maybe even his picture-smarts) to create the final product.

The board games (Lear-opoly and Lear-anium) created by three students; one boy’s Jeopardy: King Lear Edition (complete with his impersonation of Alex Trebek!); and the acting scene two young ladies prepared functioned in similar ways, drawing out each kid’s multiple intelligence strengths through the content.

Other project possibilities abound: writing a children’s book version of the story; building a table-size diorama of the setting; writing and performing a song based on the plotline; creating an oil painting or sculpture, to name a few.

What other ideas come to mind? Whatever your subject area, if you want to provide a way to see your students’ cumulative understanding, try something like this. And, by the way, research on this method’s effectiveness is astounding.


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