I lost a war this past week. My partner and I designed a PBL unit around the driving question “…cuz MD?” for a unit on the Spanish American War. We plan on having students each tell small parts of the war by creating short Common Craft style videos. At first students were hooked trying to figure out what “MD” was. But after they did our project seemed “destined” to failure.
We have found that when students have a good basic background on a topic such as WWII or 9/11 that they do a good job on inquiry. When the topic is more difficult students tend to focus on basic “what” questions instead of deeper “how” or “why.” On top of that they can not even ask good “what” questions unless we lead them to the topics. This is logical when they lack background knowledge, so we end up creating fairly structured activities to “guide” them. In the past if we do not do this they miss many important concepts on their own.
So this past week we created a number of structured assignments to “help” students. We created an activity where they compared Howard Zinn’s description of the Spanish American War with a more traditional approach from the Library of Congress. They were supposed to make a Venn Diagram comparing the similarities and differences of the texts. Students struggled with the reading level and with how Zinn’s writing was not structured like a normal textbook. They had not read Zinn before and could not recognize the “big story” that he was telling of the struggle of women, labor, and minorities as a counter to big business and government. This was the first time we have asked them to compare texts like this. Our selections were too long, too unfamiliar, and the task was too unstructured for the first time attempting it.
The next day we had students analyze the poem “White Man’s Burden” (not an easy read). Again this was the first time that we have looked at poetry this year and we mostly asked them to do it on their own. Students were not curious or engaged. They were bored. We were looking at primary sources that were not easy reads and students gave up because they had no buy in in the project. They called us out on it on Friday. (The irony was I was proudly wearing my new shirt for the first time.) They called it irrelevant, “busy work,” and “worksheets.” They called it “vomiting up information.” They said they saw no point in what we were doing. They were struggling and frustrated. It hurt because it was true.
One student reminded me of promises I had made in the past not to teach like this and gave examples of better learning that we had done in the past. Once students find their voice you can’t take it away from them. I listened and did not immediately respond. That alone is really difficult for me. I processed and talked to my partner. We recognized mistakes we made in not showing students the relationship between the assignments and the essential questions. We apologized and explained the connections to the class. We went through the essential questions with the class and checked off the ones that we had addressed. It was also clear that students have a good understanding of the key concept of Manifest Destiny after the week’s activities.
We communicated the objectives more clearly to them and it ended on a good note. Students left feeling less frustrated. Problem solved.
But it hasn’t really resolved for me. I was boring. I sucked. I have to do better. This represents my deepest struggle with teaching to the standards. I am not happy with this project and never have been. I am teaching it because I have to for the standards. I recognize the lack of relevance to students but was unable to come up with a way to make it matter to them. We have no authentic audience for the videos and choose them because we thought they would be fun for the students around this boring topic to them.
This tension between what I have to teach and what students want to learn has been the biggest internal struggle for me this year. To be continued…