One great thing about teaching now is that I get to try all the things that I suggested to teachers whilst I was a coach. One that I continually got excited about was the prospect of students having to “earn” their way into groups. I had envisioned students keeping a sort of resume, where they kept their collaboration grades, and any other evidence of their ability to do well in a group, so that they could effectively “sell” their services to other group members. With this most recent project, we wanted to try the idea.
For this project, students are:
- Identifying an issue that addresses biodiversity (like species extinction, or loss of habitat, etc)
- Identifying a non-profit that supports something like that issue, and contacting that org to work with
- Developing a policy statement and legislative strategy with and for that non-profit
- Using a correlative study to support their position on the issue
We started the project by looking at species extinctions starting in 1900, and had them look at this data. They were tasked with using the data to extrapolate, making predictions about the number of species that disappeared from the earth by 1957. Then they had to make predictions for 1989. Most came very close to the actual number for 1957; using linear reasoning, they came to an agreement of somewhere around 49 or 50 species (I was using just animals), and the actual number is 51.
They then had to guess for 1989. In general, in the class, they guessed around 78 extinct species. Actual number: 127. Showing them the actual number, as I had hoped, shocked them, and created some good discussion, which led into a conversation about “Should we be concerned about this number? Should we consider advocating for the preservation of species?” – and both questions led eventually into our driving question: Why and how should we advocate for the preservation of biodiversity?
We asked them to talk to each other, and start a list of questions that they would need to have answered in order to answer the driving question. (Thank you, Nadirshah Velasquez, for this idea). From there, we pushed them into a learning log, where each student wrote down the questions that he or she had, and explored for a while. We did 2 or three rounds: Research & record in the log (15 min), then share out (5 min).
Here’s an example learning log
. This is not live – I made a copy of a student’s, so that anyone can view, and that student doesn’t feel like he is being spied upon.
All of that is background. Back to this idea of “earning” the possibility of being in a group. Students worked on their learning log, exploring questions of their own for a class and a half, in the hopes of identifying some issue that they could start to address with the help of a non profit. As more students seemed to hone in on issues that piqued their interest, they were given the opportunity to apply to be a “group captain”, like the captain of a team.
Those that had clear ideas for their issue applied, and became captains. They pitched their ideas to the rest of the class, so that there were 10 different groups to possibly join. The rest of the class then came the next day, with hard copies of their learning logs, one copy for every group that they hoped to be picked for. Most kids brought 2-3 copies. Before selection, we laid out signs for each issue/idea on the table. Students dropped their learning logs (scrubbed of names) on the issues to which they were drawn, and then went on to continue research. With the stacks of logs ready, captains then read through the logs, and prioritized who they wished to invite, based upon the quality and content of the learning.
Once they were ready, we chose in rounds, each captain choosing one log at a time. After each choice, we identified a log by the first question, and all other logs that were the same, but in other stacks, were then discarded, to avoid the same person getting chosen twice.
How did it work? There were a couple of students not chosen, and we found that a tad troubling – but we met with them at the end, and they joined a couple of other groups, or formed their own group with a new idea. In the end, we all had groups where people were chosen by (mostly) the merit of their initial work.
We posed a few questions to the students along the way:
“Is the learning log useful?” – Universal response: YES
“Was choosing groups a valuable process?” Some responses: “I liked that it was anonymous.” “I liked that it was based upon the logs.” “I felt awkward about the leftover kids who weren’t selected.”
Doing this again: Lots of lead time about the selection process, with a Google doc with a going list of issue ideas almost from the get-go, so that there are plenty of captains to begin with, to avoid the lack of selection. But we’re doing this again, to be sure. We found that the initial structured research has paid dividends throughout the project, and students are studying their topic deeply, in part, we believe, because there was some choice about the issue they are approaching.
Interestingly, a couple of groups found that they needed to change their topics mid-stream; one started out as wanting to create legislation to fund the search for dna of extinct species, and bringing the species back from extinction. Not many non-profits out there that could help out with that, amazingly enough! They changed to reintroduction of the Mexican Gray Wolf to southern New Mexico.