As a high school English teacher, I am constantly looking for ways to help my students engage with a text. Recently, I taught the play Twelve Angry Men to my sophomores. While the play has valuable themes and ideas to explore, it takes place entirely in a courtroom and doesn’t have exciting plot twists and turns. Day after day, I would watch my students’ eyes glaze over as they read and watched the play. Because of their obvious boredom, I realized that I needed to change the direction of my lesson plans.
To fix this problem, I stopped dictating my students’ every move throughout the unit. I decided that they needed to tell me what they needed to do to demonstrate mastery of the standards. To do this, I explained to my students that they were going to create their own rubric and project.
I gave students 10 California State English Language Arts standards for 10th grade on a Google Doc. I explained to them that these were the ideas and concepts they needed to master and demonstrate in their projects.
Understandably, they looked at me with blank faces. In groups of three to four, I instructed them to talk about each standard and try to figure out what each one meant. After they felt confident with their interpretation, I told the students to put the standards in their own words in a Google Doc. In order to ensure comprehension, I also had each group verbally explain the standards to me.
Once I was confident that each group understood the standards, I told them that they needed to generate a rubric that consisted of six categories. Each category had criteria that could be classified into four levels of proficiency: advanced, proficient, basic, and not yet. The students were given examples and resources to help them with this. I explained to them that once I OK’d their rubric, I would use it to grade their projects.
Each group took their rubric and were told that the next step was to create a project that demonstrated mastery of each of the standards listed in the rubric. The students were taught how to use ChatGPT and Google to brainstorm project ideas. Once their creative juices were flowing, they refined their ideas and developed them into concrete project proposals.
Students understood what they needed to accomplish, and why: At the end of the project, students could tell me what part of their project matched each criterion on the rubric. This familiarity with the standards showed me that they understood the material on a deeper level.
Students were engaged and enjoyed the learning process: When asked to do a reflection, one student said, “English is normally my worst subject, and I find it really boring. It was nice to have the teacher back off and let us do what we wanted to. It was really hard to find an idea, but once we overcame that, my group had a lot of fun.”
Student scores exceeded expectations: In fact, all groups performed so well, there was no need for students to fix their projects to show mastery.
The project took a considerable amount of pressure off of me: I didn’t have to worry about creating a project that was engaging for the students. This freed up a considerable amount of my time because I no longer needed to repeatedly give directions or constantly remind my students about the purpose of the project. I found myself able to collaborate with them and exchange ideas. This, in turn, led to more meaningful interactions.
Because this is a group project, there will be issues with group dynamics. This is to be expected with any assignment completed by a team. To be ready for any problems, I had each group complete a contract.
Due to the complexity of the project, each part needed to be chunked or scaffolded for the students. To accomplish this, I divided the project into parts one through five, with each part focusing on a specific aspect of the project.
The most difficult part of this project was getting students to come up with a project idea that was innovative and creative. My students wanted me to tell them exactly what to do and how to do it. To get past this, I had to allow time for students to brainstorm and bounce ideas off me, their peers, and ChatGPT. It was difficult for me, as their teacher, to give them time because I wanted to move through the curriculum. However, I quickly learned that if I wanted quality projects, I needed to give the students adequate time.
I also needed to regularly reinforce the idea that “there are no dumb ideas.” This proved crucial in empowering my students to freely express their thoughts. As a result, they began to take ownership of their projects. The assignments reflected their passions and their interests. For this project, I received a teen magazine, a themed-birthday party, a fashion show, a scripted play, and a master class taught by characters in a play.
Even though it takes additional time, I intend to use this approach with every major project. Through this process, I have learned to get rid of assignments that are considered busywork and instead focus on how I can help students master the standards in ways that will fully engage them in the process.