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History Lesson: Giving Students Freedom to Create Their Own Projects

By Brison Harvey — May 19, 2015 5 min read
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In Kentucky, there are end-of-course assessments that count as students’ final exams. Unfortunately, since the testing schedule can place test dates a month away from the end of the school year, teachers in tested content areas often find themselves with nothing left to teach and no ending exam to keep students engaged.

But instead of viewing this period as dead time, I found room for a little creativity. My U.S. History students are interested in a vast array of topics, from wars to fashion in different time periods. During our sprint to cover the span of American history before end-of-course exams, we often have to skip over or skim interesting content that students later explore on their own. So I created the “20 Percent Google History” project to combine students’ self-driven search for knowledge with the approach to innovation practiced at Google, where employees spend one-fifth of their time experimenting with their own projects.

The premise of the project is that students select a topic connected to U.S. History and then create a new and unique final product. Similar to Google 20-percent projects that spawned products like Gmail and Google+, the 20-percent project in my class focuses on creating something new that is based on the interest of the engineer, or student.

Boring and uninspired PowerPoint presentations are unacceptable, as are the trusty research papers. Students must create a product that hasn’t been seen previously in class, researching a topic with the depth required in college-level history classes. For some students, the product format is the hardest part to decide, while others struggle to select only one topic from history. Either way, this project forces students to develop something new and stretch themselves during a learning period that might be less impactful otherwise.

Creating a Rubric

One of the first aspects of the project that needed to be addressed was the way students would be graded. It was apparent early in the project that no single rubric would be capable of grading all the different ideas. So I allowed students to create their own rubric, complete with varying levels of acceptability and categories for grading. The only category that I dictated was content, ensuring that students met the minimum of including historical content in their project.

Students came up with some interesting ways of measuring their success. One student who was building a miniature model of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier determined that an accurate representation of the real monument would be important. Another student who was creating an immigrant meal from the early 1900s wanted the taste of the food to be a factor that would be judged by other students.

Choosing a Topic

Next, I had students choose topics. The first year that I rolled out this project, I was worried that students would resist the entire idea. After all, the year was nearing an end, the weather was warming, and there was nothing at the end of the year to keep them focused.

But to my surprise, students were extremely enthusiastic. They immediately began yelling out what topics they wanted to cover or what product they wanted to create. I had completely underestimated the motivation of my students once they were given the freedom to study what they wanted, how they wanted to demonstrate their knowledge, and how they want to be graded.

Facing Challenges

One challenge that arose almost immediately was how to monitor 90 different projects simultaneously. It would be difficult to document and watch every move that all my students were making. My solution was to create a log that students maintained, showing the work that they completed at school or at home. It required a parent to sign off at home, and I would sign off the work that was happening at school. It was definitely an imperfect system, but it helped students stay accountable for their work.

The next challenge came when students realized that their large ambitions would be impossible to meet within the allotted timeframe. At the beginning of the project, students were required to submit a timeline of work, and some found that their self-imposed timeline was too condensed for them to complete everything.

About a week into the project, a handful of students were forced to reboot their project in some way. Most students were able to scale back their project from something like a television show documenting a historical event to a short YouTube clip or commercial that would highlight their vision. Some students decided that the content they had originally selected was not for them, so they switched to a different one after having a conference with me.

Working to the Finish Line

Students’ work mostly followed the same path. They began with historical research and some additional research for how to create their product. Then, as they transitioned the production phase, I quickly realized that many students needed materials to complete their projects. Some were able to compile resources on their own, but others needed help. Slowly but surely, their projects transformed from ideas on a page into really wonderful inventions.

Revealing the End Result

To allow students to celebrate their work, we hosted a fair. It was an eclectic affair that allowed students to learn about one another’s projects and even their classmates themselves. It was a rewarding highlight for all of us.

Despite the hiccups along the way, the end of year turned into a marvelous display of student creativity and skill. One student brought in a scrapbook covering fashion from the Civil War to today, complete with fabric swatches. Another student filmed an evolution of dance and posted it to YouTube with interesting historical tidbits accompanying each dance. Another student programed their own video game about the Great Depression, complete with New Deal bonuses to boost the final score.

In the end, I learned more than my students. When you give students room to learn and build, they create great things. I realized that planning for an entire year of project-based learning can be very challenging, especially with an end-of-course exam that focuses on content as the ultimate goal. But implementing elements of self-driven topic selection and product creation in different lessons was very rewarding for my students—and their teacher.

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