It has been a fast and furious first few months of the new school year. Lots of new things have changed too, namely the move to block scheduling, and my efforts to develop a sound method of project-based assessment.
Firstly, lets talk project highlights.
The 6th grade has come in with an incredible energy level and excitement for working with technology. They have devoured lessons on basic HTML web page coding, creating really wonderful reflection blogs where they collect their thoughts on the work we have been doing. They then took to the laser cutter, designing toy planes in Sketchup. We got to cut out multiple revisions, and finally raised $180 for Maker’s Care and The Make-a-Wish Foundation. I could not be prouder of their efforts to make a difference with this project!
The 8th grade has dove head first into a semester long design thinking challenge. This project is poised to be the capstone project for the 8th grade, where they get to take their skills and apply them to whatever project they choose, so long as we follow our design thinking workflow. The project has been taking a bit to get rolling smoothly, but we are on a good track now. The students struggled with the relatively slow and deliberate preliminary phases of the design thinking workflow, namely empathizing and ideating. Now that we are in the prototype phase, with defined goal, we are rolling. There are lots of problem-solving social media applications being built on BuddyPress, a few apps being built in App Inventor, a handful of robots being built with our Makeblock robot construction set, and even a jetpack. I’m super excited to see how these projects all turn out.
Now, lets talk the trials & tribulations.
The projects that are going on in the 8th grade are awesome. Well thought out, and well intentioned thanks to the design thinking process. However, I have really seen the extent of trouble the students have with self-directed work, and self-instruction. The real challenge of the projects in the 8th grade is that they are on their own to discover resources, learn about tools, and keep the project on task. It seems at times however that that challenge is a bit too great. Students have been quick to give up on challenging components, quick to change their goals to avoid a tricky tool that they’d need to learn. With 14 unique projects going on between all of the 8th grade, it is incredibly difficult to keep motivation high in each group as they face difficulties.
There are lots of things I think I could to do solve some of these issues. Namely, constraining the type of projects more tightly. If the projects are more constrained, either being build and app, or build a robot, it would be easier to ensure there are robust resources for the students, and ensure that I have enough time to keep all groups moving forward.
The biggest trouble I am having this year is with assessment. It sits on my mind nearly all the time. I spent a great deal of time this summer trying to determine the most authentic, useful, and efficient form of assessment and feedback for our entirely project based classroom. I was given the opportunity to grade on a pass/fail basis last year, as it was the first year of the lab and the program. This year however, I have made sure that I am providing more productive feedback to my students.
I decided to stick with something simple this first year of assessing, in the form of rubric based assessment, just as many educators use in PBL. This solution works pretty well. My rubric consists of primarily soft skills, and no focus on content knowledge. I wanted to provide feedback to my students on how well they were pushing themselves through challenges, how well they are collaborating with their peers and how well they are participating with the projects, not whether or not they know what .SVG stands for, or if they know exactly how to use the arch tools in Sketchup. The issue however with the process is ensuring I have collected enough observational data to use as the basis for where they scored for each rubric. I will walk the room, clipboard in hand writing down small notes for each of these soft skills, maybe writing quotes I have over heard, perhaps just plus or minus marks. However, when I sit down to grade, I still feel like I don’t have enough evidence to put a student into one category or another. I’m looking to collect more data moving forward, and have turned to Classdojo as a way to quickly give plus/minus marks for each of the soft skills. I am thinking I’ll have to turn more to the numbers than to anecdote as evidence tools moving forward.
The year is off the a good start though. The lab is a mess, things have been made, things have been broken, and I have watched frustration turn into outbursts of ‘I did it!’. I find myself stressing over assessments, ensuring my students are motivated in their project, keeping kids from the depths of frustration, but I always remember that my kids are doing awesome things in my classroom and having an an awesome time doing it. Perhaps my assessment isn’t perfect authentic, but at least I know the experiences my students are having sure are.