Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Success and Failure

I finished up teaching earlier this week, an experience that is full of both sorrow and elation for me, and just like in years past the year finished with my students working on an independent project - a six page research paper.

Let me be clear: this project had been the bane of my existence. It is necessary and important because they need to learn research skills and put them into practice, but finding the right formula to guide them through the process has been onerous and fairly thankless. It had been a miserable way to end the year, because it hung over my head all year and ultimately left me questioning just how much my students had really learned. 

The truth of the matter is that there is no silver bullet that would suddenly make 7th graders able to perform sophisticated historical research. Let me go a step further and suggest that I've never seen a silver bullet solution for any significant problem; they just don't exist. Undertaking the research project with my students this year, however, led me to consider the nature of ambitious projects and how to see them through to success, because this year I sat down to read the work that they had produced and found myself delighted by their progress. I wasn't surprised either; throughout the process I had seen signs that this year they were actually learning and applying exactly what I wanted them to learn and apply.

The way I see it, there were three crucial ingredients to their success this year that had been lacking: preparation, resources, and support.

Honestly, I thought I had prepared them well in the past, but the finished product always made it evident that I had not. Actually, I could usually tell by the time they were producing their first rough drafts. We had spent 30 weeks together studying a wide swath of world history, and I was asking them to focus in on one part to explore in depth for 6 weeks. They knew it and had learned it, but by the end of the year they didn't have all of the specifics perfectly in order in their minds.

This year, I began by having students identify the unit that had been most interesting to them, and I gave them review materials of that unit to help them refresh their memories. We then went through picking topics and writing research questions based on those review materials, and oh how remarkable it was. Their curiosity had been fired up, and the questions they wanted to research were true areas of intellectual curiosity. As something of a research nerd myself, I was thrilled to see students of every ability level inspired to truly think about the material they had learned and engage with it critically.

So, yes, preparation matters.

Next, my students spent hours and hours in the library perusing reference books and on the internet scouring databases. I had done something new for the first time this year - our school was equipped with several of those subscription based databases that are chock full of resources, and I had used the Denver Public Library's website to find the best publicly available databases to which I could direct the kiddos. I pointed them in the right direction and let them go, and again my inner research nerd was overcome by the warmth of happiness. I saw students throw themselves into their research. Again, it wasn't just the academic all-stars. Again, they were pushing the limits of their own curiosity and critical thinking skills.

Finally, throughout the process I made a more concerted effort to give individualized support to each of my (gasp) hundred students. Every student got class time to conference with me every week, and we looked together at what they were working on - whatever step they were on - and they asked me questions about how to do it and I asked them questions to get them thinking deeper. I put together mini lessons on some of the finer points of performing research (how to catalog notecards, how to create an outline, how to write a citation and bibliography). I opened up the computer lab after school to give them more time to work. I set deadlines, but I also gave them flexibility to work at the pace that would allow them to do a thorough job rather than a rushed job.

In terms of providing support, I think flexibility can't be stressed enough. Most of the support I offered them wasn't planned in advance. I knew I would need to do mini lessons and conference with students, but the actual content of what went into that only revealed itself as the students actually engaged in the process, and it wasn't "one size fits all". Different students needed different levels and different types of support. The ones who were receptive to it flourished.

That, too, is an important point. Most of my students grew immensely in their research skills through this project. I read some papers that would have floored a high school history teacher. Not all of them were successful though. A handful of students failed the project, and a handful of them didn't complete it at all. The common thread that I found was that students who made use of the resources and support available to them flourished, and those who didn't struggled. There are always some people who can't be motivated, and sometimes I just had to live with that reality.

Why am I writing all this here rather than in my own personal courage journal? One of our primary values for Cornerstone Friends is to empower people to self-advocate and become self-sufficient. As we move forward, I think many of the lessons of teaching and promoting student independence will carry over into our work in southern Sudan.  Prepare well. Find the appropriate resources and disseminate them. Release people and support them.

I'll keep you posted on how it goes.  

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