It had been a long year. I knew what I was signing up for when I decided to take on the role of inaugural science teacher at a brand-new school, but by this time, late May in New Jersey, I and maybe every other teacher in the school (world?) were running on fumes. The thought of pleading with kids to complete just one more assignment or cram one more piece of knowledge into their heads seemed daunting.
I decided to follow the lead of the author Robyn R. Jackson and her book Never Work Harder Than Your Students and ease us all into the end of the year. So, I let my students choose their own final and everything about it—the subject, how they would represent their knowledge, and how they would be graded. I did this through a series of conversations via a Google Doc, and it turned my end-of-year exhaustion into excitement and a ton of individualized learning.
Students Choose a Topic and Demonstrate Their Knowledge
On the first day of work on the final project, each student’s job was to pick a topic and choose how they would demonstrate their knowledge on that topic. The topic could be anything as long as it related to the class (biology for my ninth-grade students and chemistry for those in 10th grade). Most kids chose to dig deeper into something we had already discussed and explore it more, but a few ventured out into new topics and explored other things.
As for the knowledge demonstration, I was blown away. I had one student who had built a cell in Minecraft earlier in the year. He had enjoyed the work so much that he brought it back for his final and used it to make a model of DNA. I had another student who did well in chemistry, but her real passion was art. Her final project was on the chemistry of photography.
Collaborate With Students to Adjust the Rubric
After students chose their topics and project styles, I responded back to them with a rubric. This was where the real magic happened. For each student, based on the type of project they selected, I pulled the rubric from that project we had done earlier in the year. Then, I modified the rubric based on the student’s new project and abilities.
By this point in the year, I could estimate approximately how much I could push each of my students. My students who grasped concepts quickly and easily were given rubrics with more nuance. My students who needed more processing time received more-straightforward, streamlined ones. Students had time to review their proposed rubric from me and agree or disagree with their assigned point values.
Some students accepted my edits, while others had excellent ideas for additional changes. “I really love doing art—can I have some more points if I put some drawings in my presentation?” versus “I am not artistic, and I don’t think that should be represented in my grade. Can I eliminate the neatness portion of the rubric?” I almost always said yes. Kids were learning how to advocate for themselves in respectful ways and to learn what worked for them.
Over the four days of work time, the rubrics continued to be edited. Students who bit off more than they could chew approached me asking if they could cut some things out of their rubric. I said sure. Students who finished early dug in deeper. Almost every student worked the whole time because the stakes were low. They knew that if they needed to, they could modify their rubric until our last in-class work period. Students were also excited about what they were doing, and there was no comparison with anyone else. Each student charted their own course and enjoyed what they were learning about.
Don’t Require Presentations, But Keep STUDENTS Accountable
At the end of the project, I was left with a set of projects in each class that were wildly diverse in style and content. To alleviate the stress of presenting, I put everyone’s project in a Google folder and gave students the opportunity to view everyone’s work. There was no monotonous repetition of the same presentation over and over, no nerves of having to present to the whole class, and a whole lot more learning.
Kids were able to view the presentations that they were interested in and spend time on those, even viewing projects from other classes. My students and I loved seeing the bits of individualized flair that so many students put into their presentation—“Of course he made a movie about cell replication; he loves writing scripts!”
When the time came for grading, I could see that my students trusted me more too. Because they had a say in how they were graded, my grading no longer felt like a system they were trying to game, but more of a contract to hold them accountable. If they did what they said they were going to, which essentially was “Show me you’ve learned something you care about,” they were able to earn their points. I felt so much more connected with my students, and I hope they felt more connected to me.
If I wasn’t convinced before, I am now, that students know what’s expected of them—they simply look to you as their teacher to enforce it. By removing the piece of me telling them what they already knew, they blew me away. We need to give them more credit.