Friday, April 5, 2013

Reflecting on Open-ended Projects With Lots of Room for Student Creativity

Spring has sprung. Arbor day has come and gone. Earth day is right around the corner. Seems like a good time to reflect on a class project that revolved around our fine leafy friends.

The first semester of the 2012-2013 school year was incredibly hectic for me. We had a new baby in July, and she was waking up several times a night. I also had agreed (why, oh, why?) to take on an extra class in addition to my four art classes and one yearbook class.

I normally put a lot of time and effort into planning lessons. I develop prototypes, rubrics, detailed step by step instructions, videos, do nows, and so on. I also like to come up with new lessons and projects every year. Only about half my projects are repeats from previous years. New stuff keeps me excited and engaged. But it quickly became clear that I was going to have to (gasp) cut some corners to avoid getting buried in work and exhaustion. So I tried something radical and new. I gave my students a very simple project and gave them six weeks to work on it. 

For six weeks, I told my students to create trees! Trees, trees, trees!

I called the project Explore a Muse: trees! árboles! arbres! 树 (I work at a multilingual school).  The parameters were very basic. The assignment description said this:

Use Photoshop, Illustrator, Sketchup, paper and pencil, paint, tape, markers, pencil shavings, or whatever you want to make trees. Push the concept! Be creative! 

There will be a daily progress grade for this. Don't ask, " How many trees do I need to make?"  You should always be making trees!

At first students were shocked. "How can we work on trees for six weeks?" they asked. I told them to "Push the concept," and "dig deep." Along the way I graded them on their daily progress. If they were working on trees for the entire period, they got their daily points. If not, they lost points. It took them some getting used to at first, because they were accustomed to completing assignments and then waiting for the next one. After a while, they got used to it, knew what was expected, and came up with some really interesting ideas. One student really did make a tree out of pencil shavings. Another made a tree out of a splash of cola. Still another was a tree made from cotton balls on a toothpick, which she photographed then colorized with Photoshop.

Things have calmed down since then. Out little one is sleeping twelve hours a night, the yearbook is finished, and I'm not teaching the extra class anymore.  Happily, I have a fun, open ended project that I can use again and again.

p.s. The seed of the idea for this project came from Speak, an excellent teen novel and movie about teen issues. The movie stars Kristen Stewart of the Twilight saga. I used the novel and movie when I taught high school English.