Saturday, June 4, 2016

This Year's Google 80/20 Project

A student was fascinated by Agamemnon's mask and
chose to recreate it in ceramic.
I think I've talked about my love for Google before. That hasn't changed. I hope to be a high-ranking officer in the Google army when it gains sentience and takes over the world more effectively, efficiently, and effervescently than Skynet ever dreamed, with a cheerful Google Doodle to commemorate the event.

Part of Google's success is its business model. Google dictates only 80% of its employees' time, and leaves 20% of their work time free for employees to work on any project they are interested in--as long as it can be tied back into the company. That is where most of the April Fool's Day jokes come from, and it is the source of the innovation and creativity of the company. Once Miriam and I heard about that model, we immediately wondered how to bring it into our classrooms. We haven't honestly finished figuring it out (Miriam started two years ago and I started last year), but I thought an update is due. We did some good things this year and have already started discussing what we want to do next year.

I thought it would be easiest if I broke down what I did last year and this year by topic, then discuss what Miriam and I are thinking about for next year.

Introducing the Project
This year, I handed out this paper to each student that outlined the project, my expectations for the project, and focused in particular on the idea that it needed to be an actual product, not a poster or a powerpoint presentation, plus my expectation that the product would reflect real research (not Google Images) and would have taken ten hours to produce (in specific, it would show that they had not wasted the ten hours of instructional time I had given them to work on these).

There were several differences between last year's handout and this year's handout:
One student created constellations that could be viewed
as just stars in the dark (see inset image).
A student recreated the Parthenon and included a scale model
of the statue of Athena Parthenos, which can't be seen in
this picture, unfortunately.
  • I eliminated mentors. I love the idea of students learning how to seek expertise outside Google, and was committed to helping students find mentors in their topics of choice, but in a regular school class, without a school initiative, it just proved to be too difficult to incorporate expert help for every student in six different classes.
  • I replaced discussion posts with conference sessions. Last year I required a discussion post (on our school's learning management system, of which we were required to show use) every week to update me on students' progress, thoughts, and needs regarding the project. Students were unable to think of new things to write each week, so I ended up coming up with topics for each post, and even then it was not only a burden on them but on me, who had to read 180 discussion posts, make thoughtful answers, and grade them for following the requirements I had set--every week. This year I conferenced with each group, sitting with them, asking the questions I needed answered to be sure they were making progress, answering their questions directly, and checking their resources to make sure they are authentically related to ancient Rome and Greece.
  • I added a conclusive video requirement. I decided last year that I preferred to have students present their projects in a gallery, like a mini science fair, rather than formal presentations. The format left something to be desired, though, that presentations would have included: a formal discussion of the research each student/group undertook, how the research related to the products, and whether they found their ventures successful. So I added a video, and wherever a product was placed, I put a laptop with headphones, so the videos could be viewed by anyone.
During the Project
A student worked to recreate the Antikythera device. He
had planned to use a 3-D printer, but the printer broke
down. He was able to show me his plans and adjustments
to incorporate the modern understanding of planetary
Last year I hosted each "20% day" in the computer lab so students would have easy access to information for research. This became an issue later in the project when fewer and fewer students needed computers to complete their projects, and I was afraid to allow students to bring art supplies, etc., to the labs, so many students just did nothing during those days.

Thankfully, my school got laptop carts this year and I was able to check one out each Friday. The cart does not contain enough computers for my classes (only 16 per cart), but since most students were working together in small groups, that issue was easily resolved: only one computer per group.

A student studied ancient music and musical instruments.
She created a working pipe!
Groups who were doing something creative were able to bring supplies on Fridays, because we worked in my room instead of the computer lab. Students filming were able to film. Basically, this allowed students to complete most of their projects in class.

Each group turned in a proposal for their project that included their topic of choice, planned product, and a timeline for each week in class. For some groups this took several tries; I would get their proposal, give them a correction (often "Timeline doesn't mean due date--it means everything you are doing and when between now and the due date"), and have them fix it and resubmit.

This process helped clarify for students what steps they would need to take to complete their projects on time and what expenditures might crop up (something many students don't think about).

It also helped me intervene when students were clearly headed in the wrong direction (most commonly when students were mistaking modern things for ancient things--like food).

A group worked to recreate ancient foods for their classmates.
Each Friday I met with around half of the groups, and kept track so I would be sure to be meeting with everyone in turn. I used their proposals to remind myself what they were working on and where they should be by that point. The proposals were really just a guide; sometimes the projects took an unexpected direction that required a completely new timeline.

The conferences, like the proposals, gave me the chance not only to spur students on who were dragging their feet on their projects, but also to further check for misunderstandings or false research--this has been a good opportunity to teach students about websites as resources and how to decide whether a resource is fallacious or not. Romans and Greeks are very popular and there are innumerable websites dedicated to false information about both.

The Due Date
The day the project was due, I pushed all the desks in my room against the walls to make a sort of gallery where students could place their projects and the laptops showing their videos. After they set up, I roamed the room watching videos and grading projects with this rubric.

A couple of students were interested in ancient
surgery and decided to recreate one of the
tools. They took progressive images to show
what the surgery would have looked like and
posted on tumblr.
There were mostly projects that blew me away, but there were some that, even with conferences and oversight and constant reminders of what I was expecting, produced items copied from a Google Image, or from their own conception of what Romans or Greeks were like.

For Next Year
Overall I think that it's been a good thing to let students explore their own interests. That said, there are several things that Miriam and I have been discussing for next year.

  • More due dates along the way. I already had students turning in proposals, but there are other items we could have students create along the way to make sure they are progressing toward a meaningful project, like a bibliography of sources (solving the problem of students still getting around me and using Google images as a source).
  • Focus the project around Products, Practices, and Perspectives. This would help students think about what culture is and how it relates to the Romans and ourselves. This would also help them figure out what they could create as a result of their research and how it could be considered a true product (I outlaw powerpoints, posters, and speeches because they are used to slapping those together for everything and can do it with minimal engagement).
  • A couple of young men composed music dedicated to the
    gods; one also composed music to accompany our book!
  • Focus the project on a problem, and how to solve it. This is Miriam's idea, and I'm really excited about it. Students would have to research actual problems the Romans faced and create solutions using only materials and resources that would have been available to the Romans. This seems like it would require meaningful research and creativity just to start
I think the projects have been very good, overall, but I don't think I've figured out how to do this project very well yet and I am continuing to work towards a goal of perfect student engagement and valuable products.

I'll report in next year with changes to the project and results!

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