What do you do when a project fails before it begins?

This question was buzzing and thrashing through my mind all weekend thanks to the ‘honesty’ of my Year 8 class. They are a great bunch of kids but I have the most unfortunate timetable with them – I see them first period and last period on a Monday, then I don’t see them again until second last period on a Thursday and right before lunch on a Friday. Let’s face it, that’s a tough timetable to have a bunch of 13 and 14 year olds.

Last week I introduced them to our latest project. The ‘hook’ lesson was heaps of fun, involving the students getting outside to do some improv skits in our little makeshift amphitheatre. The students really enjoyed the activities and started thinking about what makes people happy in life – happiness being the focus of the project. On Thursday I handed out the project outline (see below) and there was much uproar about the requirement to make videos and put them on YouTube. They just weren’t keen on the idea and felt like I was asking them to do something they didn’t want to do … they didn’t want to be ‘put on the Internet for the world to see’.

I must admit, at this point I got a little grumpy inside. I felt like my hard work had been ignored and that my students weren’t thinking about learning beyond the walls of the classroom. One student also questioned why we were doing a ‘PD’ topic in English – the driving question of the project being ‘What is true happiness?’. I just couldn’t understand why my class were being so negative about the project – a project that I thought they would be super excited by. But they weren’t. Humph.

I wasn’t in class on Friday so I left them some vids to watch about Shakespeare and the Tudors. That gave me the weekend to try and work out how to salvage the project – after all, I had carefully planned it so as that a whole bunch of syllabus outcomes were covered. I knew that through their responding and composing they would master heaps of new skills and cover required content. But I also want to do PBL the right way … where students are excited and involved and engaged with their learning. Not feeling like it’s just another boring project …

So yesterday I went into class armed with 30 copies of the English 7-10 syllabus, got my class to sit on the floor in a circle and we chatted about subject English – what is it, why do we do it. Then I showed them the syllabus and had them read through and highlight the outcomes that I had decided needed to be met by them by the end of the term. Admittedly this took a while and involved quite a bit of paraphrasing and explaining terminology etc – a syllabus is no easy document to read. Then I asked them this question: What project do YOU want to do that will help you meet these outcomes?

My students were well confused by this. OK, maybe they were more freaked out, especially since I ripped up a copy of my project and told them we wouldn’t be doing it anymore because it was MY project and not theirs. I must confess, I was just wishing they would scream, ‘Don’t do it, miss! Your project is awesome and so are you!’ but really they were just entertained and very curious. I sent them off in their project teams to design their own projects. The only two requirements was that they needed to include engagement/mastery of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream and the project had to ensure the selected outcomes are met.

To cut a long story short, by the end of last period yesterday, my students were excited about THEIR project. Some had modified aspects of my original project outline – using the DQ but changing the product. Others came up with their own DQ (preferring to focus on humour rather than happiness) and focused on different products and audiences – one group is now doing a series of joke books answering the driving question, ‘What makes you laugh?’.

My way of dealing with a failed project may not have been perfect (honestly it was perfectly frightening and we have now ‘lost’ two periods of class) but it has taught my students that being involved in the learning process and true engagement is hard but important. They can have a voice and choice in how they learn – it’s not enough to just do as you’re told.

Let’s see how their projects turn out …

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25 thoughts on “What do you do when a project fails before it begins?

  1. This is awesome. What may have seemed like a failure to you, ended up being the best lesson you could give them: having them engage with the outcomes and coming up with their own projects. I think that as teachers we can be sometimes accused of doing too much for them and hoping it’ll be engaging all the time. Let’s take stock of what you have achieved here: student engagement, deep understanding, student voice, choice, and more. Good on you!

  2. Whoa! Go you and your year8s – this may be one PBL none of you will ever forget.

    Not sure if it’s a year group/age thing. Last year, I worked with an English teacher to set up a class blog for her Y8 class. The class specifically asked it to be open just to their class, and me (I set up a Sharepoint blog so it sat inside the portal/intranet with strict permissions). Though I doubted its success, it turned out to be a really good action-research on blended learning….and for me, peer-coaching….and listening to students.

  3. I think it might be an age thing Bianca… They seem to be interested in very few things, and that varies among individuals as well… I think it’s amazing you were flexible enough to scrape the whole thing off and keep with the “spirit” of PBL not just the mechanics. A great lesson for us all to learn!

  4. I love how you dealt with this. The pressure that is placed on you by timetable constraints is obvious – not just the weird class times, but the terrible feeling you write about having because you have ‘lost’ two periods of class overall.

    But despite that, you did the thing that feels almost impossible for most of us, most of the time – you stopped and made people wait while you re-planned. Sometimes I feel like I have no freedom to do this, but then I remember that I am in charge of the class, not my Head Teacher, or my Principal, but ME! If I think that some time needs to be ‘invested’ somewhere, I want my choice to be trusted, not called a ‘waste’, or ‘lost’ time.

    Besides, I defy anyone to argue that letting students watch a documentary on Shakespeare for a lesson in between units/projects is a waste of time. I hate the idea that our yearly lesson sequence is supposed to be so finely planned that we can’t afford to loose a few lessons each term. Things happen! I reckon each term a teacher should plan to ‘lose’, say…five lessons? What do others think??

    • Hey Kelli,
      I definitely was happy to lose the periods, but mostly I think about the content to be covered and the limited time to do so … the pressure of exams at the beginning of Term 4 that they need to be prepared for. It can be so hard to do things in a relaxed way.
      I think too that I ‘lose’ multiple lessons each term with each class because I like to chat and reflect and have fun … but I’m cool with that ;)

  5. OMG how many learning experiences can you pack into a week Bianca. I would regard this whole process not, (as in your words), having “‘lost’ two periods of class” but more being one huge opportunity realised. I hope your students, (well some of them at least), are aware of the many processes and exemplified practice you’ve presented them, (and we the readers), with. It’s salutary to realise that just because young people use something, in this case view YouTube, that it doesn’t necessarily means everyone wants to appear on it. You’ve also so ever excruciatingly exposed the folly of so much of the forward planning admin and bean counters like to see driving education. At the same time you’re honest enough to share the natural feelings of rejection we too often get but rarely show, having invested large amounts of time and energy in otherwise non-events. I must admit I love the imagery of ripping up your project documentation, I just wonder at what must have been the conversation after class amongst some of the students :). The best part of this story for me though is that your students are doing THEIR project so for me this is the sort of “failure” that every students should experience, the one that does minimal harm but has maximum payoff. Would that all failures were so spectacularly effective :).

    • Hi John,
      Thanks so much for your VERY generous comment! It really was all impromptu and the decision to scrap the project stemmed from me being genuinely hurt that they felt my project wasn’t interesting – not from an awareness that I would be helping them learn new skills. I do think that it was a happy accident and the process will have made them think differently (if only for a moment) about the role they can play in their own learning.
      I will let you know how it all goes :)

  6. Hi Bianca,
    And what do your students see you modeling? How about courage and risk-taking (throwing out that lovely project plan to step into the unknown), empathy (caring about what matters to them), respect (expecting students to be up to the challenge), and confidence (admitting you’ve taken a wrong turn but have a plan to get back on track). Like all proper comedies, this one is bound to turn out well in the end (with everyone a little wiser for their troubles). Look forward to updates.
    Cheers,
    Suzie

    • Thanks Suzie! I think tomorrow (when I see them again) I might give them all some lollies for being so awesome about the project change … will get them to reflect on what the process taught them about learning to :)

  7. Negotiated curriculum??? What is this, the ’70′s? Bianca, you are in danger of becoming an unreconstructed hippie!

    Just kidding, of course. I’ve always been happy (perhaps a little too happy) to let a lesson go off in its own direction. This dynamic and engaging approach is something we need more of.

  8. Pingback: What do yo do when a project fails before it begins? | On Libraries, Learning and the 21st Century | Scoop.it

  9. Hey Bianca,
    I read this post last week, but it’s taken me time to mull over over it. I reckon every teacher probably faces the dilemma of planning not translating into a lesson the way they want it to, but not as many have the courage to do what you did – go to a Plan B that ultimately centered the students in the learning. I know a lot of teachers that would have blamed the kids, not changed their strategy and hammered on. Great thinking, great practice and awesome execution! :-) Jonesy

  10. Pingback: #OZPLBLCHAT 28th November: Significant Content & Student Voice and Choice |

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