Students worked for over 5 weeks to become experts in their historical fields. They self-selected groups from all different course sections, chose their own topics and then.. dove in.
One of the biggest differences with this project was the freedom students had to create. Usually there are rubrics that outline skills and content to be mastered. All of the projects this year included rubrics for a project and a writing piece and Celebration Criteria that students used to backward design their projects. They knew the specifics of the end goal, and created their own path to get there.
In our American History Museum project students know they must create an interactive, hands-on exhibit that will engage middle school students and teach them at least one big idea from the time period. The largest difference is that there is no rubric.
This is both freeing and a bit anxiety inducing for the students.
There is an eruption of cheering when it is announced there are no teacher generated rubrics and even some celebration as I tell them they will be creating their own. The euphoric feeling of elation soon leaves the room as students come to the conclusion that they will be held accountable to their own rubrics.
This project is a capstone to showcase the agile skills students have been building all year. The intention is to give students real independence and let them take control over the entire project. That is not to say that students will not be held accountable, or there are no checkpoints and touchpoints to ensure that proper work is being completed and there are deep levels of understanding.
I am working within a basically traditional school. Grades are how parents and administration measure success and I must ensure that they are authentic and reflect the work that is being done in the classroom.
To clarify, my rubrics are all skill based and my celebration criteria are more concentrated in content and connections. This is because the majority of the grades are based on the acquisition and application of skills instead of memorizing facts. This shows students know that I value building skills, but I know content is mastered when the two develop together.
Scaffolding the Experience
When we began building rubrics we had a mini lesson where we discussed the rubrics that we used all year. All of my rubrics were shared onto the white board. We discussed how they were formatted, what were the words that appeared more often, what domains were always present. Students were asked to analyze and examine the rubrics in order to pull out their own main ideas and values that were written into each one.
After our mini-lesson examining my rubrics we brainstormed how they could build their own. First this was done together, much like the last mini-lesson on what makes a great museum design. Students share ideas, the excitement rises, conversation bubbles over and then it is time to record their ideas.
Using their kanban boards students create a card for rubric and brainstorm ideas. This is perfect for students who chose group members outside of their class, but need to maintain transparency and communication. The ideas come fast, until they do not. There is a struggle here because this is a task unlike any that students have ever faced before. They are used to someone else getting the goals, putting them on the path and guiding them through. They have never before had the independence to set the goals themselves.
There is some anxiety in this. Students want to do it “right”, but in this moment they determine what is right. I do not have answers for the best path taken, the physical features of their exhibit or how interactive is enough. The groups must determine these goals themselves.
For the students designing an accurate rubric is now the challenge. What are the skills that they feel are necessary to build their own museum exhibit and what content will be featured? What will be interactive and what will make them engaging to 8th graders? The directions are that an administrator should be able to find their exhibit based on their rubric alone.
Building rubrics is difficult. Determining what the end goals should be and setting measurable and attainable expectations is deep critical thinking. As educators we know that setting up accurate rubrics can be frustrating.
What matters in this exercise is that students can break down their work and backward design their path. They have to plan where they are going, set their own goals and determine what they will be accountable for. In an effort to make it a bit easier, they are creating angle point rubrics. Instead of creating four fields of criteria students only have to develop the “Proficient” column. I want them to deeply think about their task and develop strategy, not waste their time thinking about how the project may be subpar.
When asked, students expressed that they had never built their own rubric before…. They are 13 years old and never had a say in how their work would be graded.
Although this was a stressful exercise students were able to work their way through it. In some situations it took several iterations. Others were able to navigate the task rather quickly.
The work through the rubric was a slow slog for most students, but the benefit was a huge rise in momentum after the rubric were completed. After this task students were able to launch off into their project since they had created a clear path and worked out strategies ahead of time. The teams were in lightning mode. Moving quickly through the design and development of their exhibits.
In their reflections many student expressed the deep level of frustration over the task of creating a rubric, but once it was complete they appreciated the ability to develop their own way to be assessed. They valued the freedom to make their own decisions and appreciated that I trusted them to plan their own path. Many expressed that the freedom of the project was stressful until they built their own rubrics, but once they were forced to put their learning goals into writing the entire project seemed to crystalize.
While the process was a struggle, the results were fantastic. The students emerged with even more skills, and the self-confidence to know they could handle a complex and difficult task.
This is a capstone project. Could you imagine that 8th graders could master these skills in August? This is the product of an agile mindset.