Why I am proud of “unpresentable” projects.

In PBL we often talk about the importance of an audience to drive students to produce high quality work. But I think that we need to consider the goals for each project. I believe there is a time and place for a polished, final product and a time for more of a “rough draft,” conceptual, final product. We need to consider the learning goals behind each final product rather than judge it by how shiny it is.

A case in point was our American foreign policy monument project that we just completed. We spent five weeks on this project building up background knowledge that we will refer back to for the rest of the year. Even though we spent weeks on the project we only gave students one week to design and build their monument. We did have an authentic audience of architects, engineers, and designers come and look at the pieces while students explained them.

But the thing is, most of them weren’t pretty. They looked more like craft projects than careful designs. To be clear, I am not criticizing the students here. They did exactly what we wanted them to do. We focused very intently on symbolism and looking at American foreign policy from multiple perspectives including a non-American point of view. We were ok with designs that didn’t look perfect as long as they had some depth in symbolism to them. The picture below is a great example.

Hands for Humanity

Hands for Humanity

It is not all that impressive visually, but if only you could listen to the students who made it. It was one of my favorite pieces and the students showed a depth of understanding of how America acts in the world. Check out their artist statement:

Our monument is inspired by Greek architecture, the WWII fountain, and the 9/11 memorial. Full scale, our monument would consist of marble pedestals, granite benches, bronze inscribed plaques and bronze hands. Our proposed location will be in the Ellipse Circle, in front of the White House, where it can be a reminder to future presidents of both the triumphs and mistakes of their predecessors.  The hands in the fountains represent the US foreign policy, a fist for brutality, an offering hand for kindness, a thief hand for greed, and a hand holding a flag representing the peoples’ nationalism and America’s want to spread a democratic government. The fountain is symbolism for the US having equal parts of both the good and bad things we’ve done. Inscribed on the fountain are various quotes: (Bold emphasis mine).

You’re not supposed to be so blind with patriotism that you can’t face reality. Wrong is wrong, no matter who does it or says it. -Malcolm X

Maybe we ought to consider a Golden Rule in foreign policy: Don’t do to other nations what we don’t want happening to us. We endlessly bomb these countries and then we wonder why they get upset with us? -Ron Paul

Foreign policy is like human relations, only people know less about each other.   -Joe Biden

Many American pundits and foreign policy experts love to depict themselves as crusaders for human rights, but it almost always takes the form of condemning other governments, never their own. -Glenn Greenwald

We did not talk about any of these quotes in class. The students went out and found them. These students understood the nuance that we were trying to communicate that America is neither a hero or villain in the world, but a country that sometimes does great things and sometimes makes horrible mistakes.

I would argue that this “rough draft” monument is amazing, not because it looks great but because it represents a deep understanding of America’s complex relationships in the world. So rather than focus on the shiny, focus on the purpose that you have for the project.

3 thoughts on “Why I am proud of “unpresentable” projects.

  1. Trevor

    Interesting perspective.

    I found great value in the first project my class did this year, which were debates that did not really go beyond the classroom. They learned and practiced skills that they will use the rest of the year on projects that carry much more weight. However, I hardly ever get AS MUCH buy-in with the debates as I get on the projects that have real meaning to my students. The students who like debating or public speaking didn’t need authentic motivation to work hard on that project, but there are many students who just work harder when they know there is more on the line.

    Would adding an audience that requires final products to be shinier and more polished lessen the critical thinking that took place or maybe add even more?

    Would the students who did not engage in the monument project, the one’s who totally missed the point of the unit and activity- and also created not-very-good end products- might have engaged more if the project left the classroom in some way?

    I’m just finding that the more students pour into making their projects visually impressive, the more critical, creative, and collaborative thinking they do as well. I think that is why the buy-in is so high when kids get to serve something beyond themselves in class. When they’re working hard to create something for something bigger than themselves, they’re inadvertently developing skills they might not have been interested in developing without the motivation.

    That is why I love MyParty14 and WaterProject so much. It pulls in those kids who otherwise watch from the sideline.

    1. Michael Kaechele Post author


      I am of course, not arguing against an audience but sometimes it is difficult or unrealistic time wise to create something worthy of display. Creating more polished products is time consuming in the class room. One of the sacrifices I make sometimes, is to focus more on the meaning behind the product than how nice it looks.

      For example we could have used professional design software that we would have to learn how to use and draw up detailed sketches of the monuments. They would be “professional” and would look sweet on the one hand. On the other hand it would add two weeks to the project without really adding anything to our learning goals. It would add design skills and some math but with the limited time we have it would not be worth it in my opinion.

      I also think that there is a time for a great end product that gets shared widely. But I think it is unrealistic to make everything students do a professional level of product (at least in the format of schools that we have with set standards to meet, scheduled classes, etc.).

      You may disagree, but I honestly don’t think displaying the monuments would engage students much more. I think some students that “totally missed the point of the unit and activity” would still miss it anyway for various reasons. Some of the videos for #MyParty14 missed the point and were poor quality even though we had the important audience.

      Finally it is important to note that we did have an audience of experts who critiqued them. It wasn’t public, but the students were very interested in being recognized for their work, hearing expert critiques, and showing off their work.

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