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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
in which my seventh graders would dramatically present their learning about the fourteenth century bubonic plague in Europe. When I recall my own learning from that summer, I yearn for the classroom.

Traveling Franciscan Monks in market square.

Credit: Elena Aguilar

I am hoping that this story might inspire, might offer an example of an integrated way to teach and assess, and might invite our readers to share your own exhilarating final projects.

Luring Students to Learn

I usually start my instructional planning with an end product, project, or performance in mind. As we begin a unit and I inform students of our final project, they immediately get engaged and excited. Then I unpack the knowledge, skills, and understandings that students will need to have in order to be successful.

Middle and high school kids in particular often demand to know the purpose of doing an assignment or of learning some seemingly irrelevant skill. (There's always one kid who will ask, "Why do I have to learn this?") It is so much easier if I lure students into an instructional unit by dangling the final project in front of them. Then, they see the purpose of learning discrete skills, they see how the learning will be applied, they know that there will be an audience at the end, and they anticipate the fun.

A mother mourns her dying daughter.

Credit: Elena Aguilar

Depth Over Breadth

At ASCEND, where I taught humanities to grades 6-8, we approached curriculum by prioritizing depth over breadth. Based on seventh grade California History and English Language Arts Standards, I designed a semester-long unit that explored how illness and death were dealt with in the Middle Ages. I focused on two case studies: ancient Mesoamerica (the Aztec and Maya) and Medieval Europe.

For three months, we studied the social, political, economic, religious, and medical systems of the European Middle Ages and how they were affected by the bubonic plague. Students were immediately captivated as they began reading texts that described the stinking pustules that erupted on the necks of knights and nuns, about the healers who applied leaches to the bodies of the diseased, and about the flagellants who attributed the plague to divine punishment and publically flayed themselves. They learned how the serfs who rose up in rebellion against their lords, and about the Jews and widowed women who were blamed for the illness and burned at the stake.

This was obviously juicy content and I exploited it to engage students in developing reading comprehension and word analysis skills, interpreting historical documents, analyzing medieval art, and writing a play based on what they learned.

Medical practitioners are exasperated.

Credit: Elena Aguilar

The Museum Comes Alive

At ASCEND, we integrated the arts into all content areas. With the support of teachers from art, music, and drama, my classes and I planned a four-part dramatic performance. The cafeteria was divided into different areas, transformed into various settings in the Middle Ages. When spectators walked into one of the areas, the actors would suddenly come to life.

Working in teams, my 48 students (divided into two groups) collaborated on the scripts. Students selected the scene they wanted to write and perform, though first they took a written exam to demonstrate a deep understanding of the content matter. For example, those who wanted to be a serf had to explain the serf's role and position in medieval society, what their daily life was like, and how they thought and felt about the plague. They also had to reference the primary and secondary sources from which they gathered their evidence.

For several weeks, guided by myself and the other teachers, students memorized and rehearsed their lines, built the set, created the props, made costumes, and performed a musical composition. Everyone had to have at least one speaking part. Those with minor performance roles focused on the music and art.

In the end, there were four scenes: A serf's house where the men discussed the tragedy while a mother nursed a dying child; an apothecary's store, where members of the medical profession debated cures for the plague; a church, where monks considered causes of the illness while they worked on illuminated manuscripts and where a priest was indifferent to a parishioner's pleas for help; and finally, a central market square where traveling Franciscan monks declared their beliefs about the plague, flagellants whipped themselves and blamed the Jews, and an old woman went crazy as she ranted about "the end of the world."

Flagellant warns townspeople to confess their sins.

Credit: Elena Aguilar

The Learning

Perhaps most important was that while students were deeply engaged in the content and invested in creating the final product, they were also developing historical thinking skills, exploring Europe's history through a critical lens, applying their reading comprehension skills to difficult non-fiction and historical fiction, interpreting primary sources, writing in a number of genres, and developing their oral language abilities.

This living museum was performed eighteen times and visited by hundreds of children, parents, and community members. I had never seen my students as invested in their learning. But then again, there's nothing like the prospect of an authentic audience, plus a little blood and gore and injustice, to mobilize middle schoolers.

Several kids discovered a passion and talent for acting. Shy girls discovered that after some practice, they could deliver a compelling monologue loud enough for everyone to hear. Everyone learned that a project like this took a lot of time and was really hard and there were unexpected challenged. Yes, at times, tempers flared, but we also learned that such hard work is definitely worth it. And it was really, really fun.

How have you made final projects enriching and engaging for your students? We can't wait to hear!

Comments (10)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Dr Pearl Lewis's picture
Dr Pearl Lewis
Science education consultant: www.drpearllewis.com

Engaging students in the learning process in such a practical way as you have described is certainly exciting. Thanks for sharing your interesting experiences. I have used a similar approach with much older Physics students. The "project" at the end of the semester took the form of a Survivor Game, where the 2 "surviving" teams had to out-think each other in front of the rest of the class. Opportunities were given for teams to obtain help from the rest of the class, so everyone (including those who never qualified to enter the final show-down) was involved in this final "challenge" to put their knowledge to work. The game focused on the practical application of knowledge acquired during the course, so the challenges each team had to complete were very "hands-on" and sometimes not obviously related to textbook theory. Four years after the first class survived that final semester "survivor game" challenge, I bumped into students from that class who were still proudly wearing their very worn and tattered Physics Survivor Game finalist t-shirts.

Stephanie's picture

What a fun project! I'm a new teacher so haven't yet had a chance to do such exciting things but this is really inspiring. You gave me a lot of ideas, even though I teach science. Thanks for telling this story. I'm excited to have time this summer to plan.

George Martinez's picture

This is interesting and gives me many ideas. I would like to know how do you plan something like this? I am in my 3rd year teaching and I never received very good training in how to plan instructional units like this. I am also at a school that is very focused on test preparation and uses standardized curriculum so I wonder how you navigate those kinds of pressures. But this project looks awesome. I would love to be in your class!

Haley Johnston's picture

This was very inspiring to read. As a teacher prospect, I am always looking for new ways to incorporate fun into my future lesson plans and your ideas are very creative. I love the way that you capture your students attention by pushing them to learn so that they can have fun when the learning is over. I feel like you have to do these things with children in order to keep their interest because if they lose interest they will not learn anything.

Sonia's picture

What a great story! What I really love is how rigorous the academic instruction is, how grounded in standards this project was, how much higher level thinking kids were doing, how they took their learning and applied it to a meaningful, engaging project. You can just see in the photos how excited they are! This is fantastic testimony to the ability to integrate curriculum, teach a rigorous standards based curriculum, teach at high levels of Blooms, and engage students. Oh, and the art too! Fantastic! This is real, powerful teaching and I don't doubt that your students scored well on their exams.

I have a few questions: How do you think a principal can support her teachers to do projects like this? What would the steps be for a teacher? Thank you.

Brad Flickinger's picture
Brad Flickinger
Elementary Tech Teacher, Tech Integration Specialist

I have felt this way for the past 5 years and last year I did something about it similar to what you did. My students worked so hard and their learning was so deep I felt justified in my extra work.

Thank you for your inspiration.

Brad Flickinger
Tech Teacher
Timnath, CO
Blog: http://www.SchoolTechnology.org

Haley Johnston's picture

Dr. Lewis,
Thank you so much for sharing your instructional strategy using a "Survivor" game to intrigue your students'. I appreciate reading teaching strategies from experienced professionals like you and Elena. It helps me understand and create creative things to do in my classroom once I graduate and start teaching.
Thank you for sharing your experience with us!

Mr. Mark A.. Ludwig's picture
Mr. Mark A.. Ludwig
4th grade math and science inclusion teacher from Roselle, NJ

Before I begin I just want to say, "What A Wonderful Project!"
It took a tremendous amount of planning and effort.

One summer four years ago, I came across an article in a local newspaper in NJ about a program for teachers named "Trout in the Classroom." I decided to investigate further and see what the program entailed. Basically it is what the title says, raising trout in a classroom environment.

The organization that assisted me with the program and my principal helped with start-up costs. A huge 55 gallon aquarium tank sat in my classroom, ready to go in October waiting for about 250 brook trout eggs to arrive from a fish hatchery. When they arrived students interest in science took off. They had so many questions, most of them I did not have any answer to. Together we learned.

Throughout the school year we observed the life cycle of the brook trout, which by happens to be the state fish of NJ, from egg to the juvenile stage.

Students kept journals on the growth of the trout, maintained the tank, and wrote stories about them. There was an activity/lesson weekly.

As a culminating activity at the end of the year, we planned a class trip. The trip took on two parts, First the release of the trout into an approved freshwater stream and second a visit to the hatchery from which came and learned in more detail about the trout. While at the river we conducted a macroinvertebrate study. We able to determine from our study by the types of organisms living there, the health of the stream.

The students took ownership of these trout from when there were eggs to the time they were to be released and they took ownership of their learning.

That was four years ago. I have participated in this program every year since and every year I brainstorm to ways to teach this concept in more imaginative and creative ways.

Mark A. Ludwig

Caitlin Estep's picture

I am currently a substitute teacher who is eager to have my own classroom and implement creative learning in my classroom. I was inspired by you story to go big and encourage students through the motivation of a live audience. Thank you for sharing!

Ashley Berrios's picture

I loved reading about your final project! It was great to see so much creativity and learning in one unit! I worked at a school where they had a Greek Festival Day and for a month prior they chose a greek god, goddess, or mythical creature and research them. The day of they dressed up like them, gave speeches, and acted like them for the whole festival. It was quite an exciting day and gave the students a sense of accomplishment, as Im sure your students felt as well.

Thank you for your story!

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