Projects: make classwork like a little project, and projects like big classwork. But cooler.

kittenthornThere’s a saying: practice like you’ll play, and you’ll play like you’ve practiced. Generally, this is about the need for teams to take their practicing seriously – with discipline and intent – allowing game day to feel like a well-prepared-for challenge – and not a scramble headfirst off a cliff.

In class planning, too often I see (and have written) projects with high stakes based on skills that have never been practiced in class.

This is not to say that we shouldn’t be planning awesome projects. One of the five things I remember from High School was a mythology project, wherein I created an epic radio drama. Did it contain computerized music, voices, hilarious non-sequiturs, and scraps of information from class? Yes.

Did I use it to bring learning I’d been doing all semester to the next level?

No.

Here are some guidelines to help your projects be, truly, scaffolded opportunities to “connect-the-dots” and stretch out, creatively – and not, well, hilarious non-sequiturs.


  • porkylolcatDeconstruct the various skills required to complete the suggested project. Can you guarantee that the students will know (or will have learned) how to do those things? If not, you need to build training time into class. Example: I’ve seen classes where a formative assessment is a mock courtroom scenario. I wonder: did the teacher teach how to cross-examine? Or classes where the final project is a website: did the teacher spend time in class on the basics of website design?
  • Notice some of the practices you are habitually working on in class. Is there a way to incorporate that into your project? Example: I teach reflective listening all year long. Only recently have I begun to include an interview project as part of the curriculum – but unlike most interviews where the interviewer is silent, In my class, the student reflects the main kernel of the subjects’ statements. (For more on teaching reflective listening, click here).
  • If you are having trouble composing a project that is truly aligned with the core skills of your class, not to worry. Consider this approach: use the project as a low-stakes (not graded or given a completion grade) venue for creating rich content. Students work together without fear of their project getting a “bad grade.” Students play with materials and content.  Then, after show-and-tell and critique and second drafts, teach a unit on how to interpret and evaluate other students’ work. Students get practice in comparing and contrasting, asking generative questions, and brainstorming improvements or “next steps.”
  • Finally, as a final assessment, in pairs or alone, students write an evaluation of other students’ work – using all the skills they have learned. In other words, the project is the content but the written evaluation is the assessment.

For a deeper dive into classwork as a “pooled resource,” see blog 23.

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