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You’re Going to Need Some Poster Board….

Yesterday I wrote about one family’s failure to produce an adequate Animal Cell Made of Food for a seventh grade science class. (That would be my family; I just find a little comfort in distancing myself from it all). In the comments on that post, a wise man, the parent of children who are not yet of school project age, raised an interesting question. Why do teachers assign projects? He suggested that it might, perhaps, be for purposes of generating greater parental involvement.

My reflexive answer to the question is that they assign projects because they are inadequately medicated psychopaths who hate parental figures, and unconsciously seek to kill them over a period of years by forcing them to run out and buy poster board, markers, glue dots, candies, string, sugar cubes, beads, binders, foam letters, yarn, wiggly eyes, ball bearings, Pilgrim hats, plaster of Paris and papier-mache, or the ingredients to make An Ethnic Food, A Healthy Food or Something the Indians Ate. I have also considered the possibility that teachers are receiving some kind of kick-back from Michael’s, Joanne Fabric, and/or Office Max. I know that I am not alone in my dark thoughts; other parents (mostly mothers) have been commiserating with me on this topic since first grade, and a recent episode of “The Middle” focused partly on the efforts of an exhausted, working mom to help her youngest child complete elaborate school projects that he had failed to tell her about until the night before they were due. All over America. mothers nodded their aching heads in recognition.

I am not a teacher hater, by the way; both of my parents were teachers. My father, a college professor, had little occasion to demand the creation of “projects,” and my mother taught English in an urban district where she was well aware that many parents had neither the cash nor the time to supervise tri-fold posters about Flowers for Algernon at the end of a long day. Both of my parents were aghast when, in the ninth grade, I informed them that I had to make a diorama about The Old Man and the Sea for English class. Their suggestion, based on their collective years in the classroom, was that I ask the teacher if I could just write a paper instead. I asked, and was refused; the teacher informed me that “there had to be a way for the students who had trouble writing papers to get a strong grade during the semester.” At the time, I grumbled and threw something together involving a shoe box, a doll and a gummi shark. In retrospect, I see that part of the answer about why teachers assign projects may lie in that experience.

We have also seen many good and useful projects over the years, and I do not believe that any good teacher assigns such things without care and consideration about the purpose of the work, and accommodations for children whose parents are not likely to be willing or able to assist. Sam’s third grade teacher, a model of energy and organization, assigned several projects, but each one came with a clear set of instructions and a rubric so that we knew whether we had done everything that was asked of us. Most involved nothing more than a large piece of paper (generally provided), a set of colored pencils, and some focus. These were projects that an eight-year-old could complete entirely on his own, and while there was more parental intervention at our house because I had the time, and Sam doesn’t like to draw or color, that was my choice. He could easily have done his own, unaided “best” and gotten an acceptable grade. My older nephew showed me a project that involved creating an image of water in various forms; he was working on a beautiful illustration involving an airplane on a runway, precipitation and de-icing. He was working on his own, he was deepening his understanding of the substantive material, and he was (I think) enjoying the process.

I also know that the Animal Cell project that bedeviled us is assigned elsewhere, and used far better as a teaching tool. My niece was assigned the same project in a neighboring district, and apparently understood and completed it without a hitch. A friend (herself a teacher) has told me that her children have all done the project in their district, but that it was done in the science lab during class time; this format relieves parents, reduces drama and inequality, and neatly preserves the point of the project, which is to help students understand the composition of an animal cell.

That is, I think, the main goal of a school “project.” Parental involvement may be a collateral benefit (and I would love to know from any teacher-readers whether that is even a consideration), but it seems that the Big Idea is to give students an opportunity to deepen their understanding of a book, an historical event or a scientific process in ways that take more time or materials than a classroom teacher can allow, to assure that a student has a grasp of material that allows her to present it in a different context, and to create something that can be shared with other students through display or presentation. Also, based on my Old Man and the Sea experience, I can allow that projects of a more artistic and/or mechanical nature are a boon to students who are perfectly capable of understanding the material, but struggle with tests and papers. Although I hated it at the time, I now think that there is more than one valid way to communicate ideas, and that it doesn’t hurt anyone to think outside the box.

So, I’ll give you that there are reasons for projects, that they can be great experiences, and that in the hands of a skilled educator they have enough purpose and value to outweigh the aggravation of driving around looking for macaroni that is the right shape for the minarets on a 3-D model of a palace. I will also admit that, if I am too involved in my kid’s projects because I am concerned about the fact that he cannot draw anything, procrastinates and is generally work-avoidant, that is not the teacher’s problem, but my own. In general, over the years, there have been few projects that were not assigned far enough in advance to allow adequate preparation and materials-gathering, and that could not, really, have been done by an unassisted kid. Loveable? No. Doable? Absolutely.

There are still some issues, though. For a project to have any usefulness beyond busy work and parental aggravation, there should be a crystal clear rubric. I learned yesterday that one of the students in Sam’s science class, who had designed and decorated a beautiful animal cell in cake form had lost 10 points because, in the absence of an actual, written assignment rubric, she had made tiny flags to mark the parts of the cell represented by her cake. The same fate befell at least two other (good) students who believed they were enhancing their finished products by marking the cell parts, but were marked down by the teacher on the basis that such labeling was essentially a “cheat” when it came time to present their project to the class. There should always be a clear outline of expectations, of what one has to do to receive an “A,” and (in this day and age) if the school uses an online grading and assignment system, the assignment and the rubric should be readily available during the time between the giving of the assignment and the due date.

There should also be the possibility of allowances and special dispensations based on family situation. I am pretty darned sure that Sam’s third grade teacher knew exactly whose parents were unwilling and or unable to buy extra things or spend hours planning and assembling a model of the Pentagon made out of bottle caps. Although the much-hated Animal Cell Project was issued with a directive to use “only food that you already have in the house,” who are we kidding? Do you have, right now, in your refrigerator and cupboards, suitable ingredients to construct a decent model of an animal cell that could be transported and hold up for three hours in a school locker? I did not, unless one could be constructed using raw meat, crudites and exotic spices.

There are good reasons, maybe even great reasons for a teacher to assign a project that requires completion outside of school. The fact that the project is part of the curriculum, included in a textbook, or “has always been done that way” is probably not a good enough reason. I will throw my heart and soul into any project that is explained thoroughly, administered fairly and based on a palpable desire to connect students and subject matter. Otherwise, I’m back to gluing gummi sharks to a shoe box and rolling my eyes.


About imagineannie

I feel like I'm fifteen - does that count? I'm lots of things, I get paid to be the Managing Editor for a local news publication, and I love my job. I am also inordinately fond of reading, animals (I have four), elephants, owls, hedgehogs writing, tramping in the woods, cooking India, Ireland, England, avocado toast, Sherlock Holmes, Harry Potter, Little Women, Fun Home, Lumber Janes, Fangirl, magic, Neil Gaiman, Jane Austen, YA books, not YA books, classical music, Salinger (OMG SALINGER), Brahms, key lime pie, indie music, podcasts, sleeping in, road trips, marmalade, museums, bookstores, the Oxford comma, BBC, The Miss Fisher Mysteries, birdwatching, seashells, kombucha, and stickers. Not a huge fan of chewing gum, jazz, trucker hats or dystopian and/or post-apolcalyptic fiction (but I'll try anything).

18 responses »

  1. Many things here! First I did have all the ingredients we used in my house. I made sugar cookie dough (from scratch) and made different size circles, so we had a smaller circle for the nucleus on top of the cell in the center, the glaze was water and confectioners sugar, and probably because I’m a baker I had several colors of piping gel in a tube, (and I mixed them together for a third color). But probably most people did have to buy things.

    I found the comment of “there had to be a way for the students who had trouble writing papers to get a strong grade during the semester.” Because, as we know, I have a kid who can’t write papers and changing a project in a way that allows a child to still display his knowledge of the subject is called an “accommodation”, and can be done on any assignment. That’s an excuse.

    Do you think teachers are trying to get the kids who procrastinate, and fight it to get better at planning? I don’t know? Let’s hear it teachers. My youngest, recently 10 and at the age when you have a book report project a month, has it planned and done WAY ahead of time, every month, with no intervention from us. This time we assisted him somewhat bc he had to write a “news report” and he is VERY detailed, it was hard for him to stick to the facts. He said he chose this option “to challenge himself” because he knew it would be hard for him. But that is VERY uncommon don’t you think? In the end I think he better understood how to pick out the important facts to keep it between 3 – 5 minutes. His report back to home said “everyone chose the wanted poster option bc it’s easiest. Exactly.

    • Michelle, I would have more stuff in the house when I still baked, but now I tend to have mostly raw ingredients, cheese and nuts. It’s kind of sad.

      I agree with you about the project instead of a paper, but my-mom-the-teacher thought at the time (and i think she was right) that the project was probably a standard part of the curriculum for that class, which was required and difficult for non-lit types.

      I wish I thought teachers were trying harder; I thought that when Sam was in 5th grade doing the projects you are seeing these days, that the Marble teachers did a great job of reminding them, keeping them on task and “checking in.” I didn’t see anything quite that great before, and I certainly haven’t since. I think it would be REALLY VALUABLE for them to focus more on breaking things down into bites over time, and getting them done at or before the time they are due. It is pretty amazingly uncommon to have a kid like you have. (We did the “wanted” poster. :)).

      • I personally think that they break down the projects, having them check in etc, so they learn how to do it on their own and the thinking might be they need to learn to plan it out themselves, but I am no teacher. That is FOR SURE.

        Daniel did the wanted poster too. Zach is not normal 🙂

  2. Ann,

    Im thinking Sam should try the “excuse” next time he cant identify something in another class.

    “I would have marked them, but my science teacher says thats cheating…”

  3. Elizabeth Ramos

    My little Cake Boss would be so pleased to know that her experience made it into your blog – even if it was, sadly, to document her sad tale at being labeled a “cheat” as opposed to the overly neat and tidy Cake Boss that she in fact is! Funny that the teacher told the kids they had to use ingredients used at home…naturally, my little baker took the project as an excuse to run to the store and buy, buy, BUY cool things to put on top of her creation. It goes without saying that without a written or digital rubric, I couldn’t have known that that was part of the project requirement. I like projects. Don’t like them without rubrics and don’t like them at all when my kid can’t do most of it on their own. Casey Bain is a teacher who is a STELLAR example of a teacher who assigns kid-powered projects with crystal clear timelines and rubrics. What a shame she can’t just come for the ride with our kids from 3rd grade through 12th…

    • Your little Cake Boss is amazing, and deserves kdos for her independence and effort. What a lesson she learned. 😦 As for the buying, Sam told me we weren’t supposed to buy anything, and then jumped all over the mass candy purchasing required by our failed project. They are all like that, I’m pretty sure.

      So you figured out the identity of “the third grade teacher.” She is a gem and a wonder, and yes, I wish she could be with them all through school. We all learned from her.

  4. We’ve had some good ones and some bad ones. I do think it is a way to let kids take a little ownership of their learning, use some creativity, and invest a little of themselves in a finished project. I do enjoy viewing the projects when they are displayed and seeing all of the different interpretations of the topic.

    • Totally agreed. I had forgotten how much fun it was to go to an open house or a science fair and see everybody’s “simple electricity” idea, or poster about a country.

  5. Again, I cannot WAIT to attend this school and work my hardest (with my child) to create something amazing only to have a teacher who sounds insane call me a cheat and tell me I should have made my animal cell out of Confit de Conard – good grief!!!!!

    I’m starting to think homeschooling might not be such a terrible option…

    Ann, I’m sorry that not only Sam but YOU have had to put up with this nonsense. I’m feeling like I may not have it in me to get 3 children through high school in this place.


    • Jen, she is one of only two really bad teachers Sam has had in 8 years, which isn’t too bad. The good news is that both of the bad ones are likely to have retired by the time Nick goes through, although I don’t know if Julia’s safe. Ask me, when the time comes (or ask Jenn Rosa, or Michelle) and we’ll steer you in the right direction. You have earned some special “perks,” you mom of three. 🙂

  6. See, the not completely reformed rebel in me would go out and find tripe, kidneys, and heart from a pig or cow to put in a project like the Animal Cell Made of Food, to make a point. The point being? I don’t know…I have to remember to not give in to such impulses when my kids come home in a few years with projects of that type. Actually, I’m sure my wife will stop me.

    In the comments on that post, a wise man, the parent of children who are not yet of school project age, raised an interesting question.

    Thank you, Ann. You are far too kind. Whatever wisdom I might have has been gained through years of mistakes or, as I like to say, “Doing Stupid Things.”

    • That’s how we all get wisdom. I am a veritable sage, at this point. 😉

      I still have those impulses to “push back” when something is ridiculous. I have only done it once, and if I give it away here, i can’t write about it. It was spectacular and satisfying. Mostly, though, you will stop yourself(without spousal intervention) because you will want things to go well for your kids. If something is bad enough that you are not deterred by that, then you probably should go looking for a kidney….

  7. Ann-this project does remind me of the Central Elementary School 5th grade science fair–I totally procrastinated until the night before, took a book out of the library about optical illusions, cobbled together a display and…won an honorable mention (I remember first place was won by the two kids who made an incubator and hatched chicks on the day of the fair and Ann Smykay won a prize for her Japanese Kites) but the real prize was a picture of me in the Lansing State Journal standing next to my display.

    Now, was I rewarded for my procrastination, or my ingenuity? No help from my parents (my stepmother-to-be was one of the judges-she may have recused herself when it came to my project, but I’m not sure). At the end of the day, projects were fun, vexing and a change from the normal “learning” protocol. I kinda liked them, at least now in retrospect.

    • I did some projects that I loved – I liked artsy crafty stuff, and (you will be astonished to know) was very competitive about Being Best. I would never have won anything in a science fair, though….

      Do you still have the clipping from the LSJ? I’d love to see it….

      • Ann,
        I think my mom has it in a scrapbook-remind me if I come to E.L. for the reunion in August (I was a cute 5th grader, I looked so earnest then)

        I was, as you also probably remember, hyper competitive, too. It has not served me well in my later years and has chastened me more times than I’d like to admit. It’s only good on a tennis court, these days. For some strange reason, people tend to prefer a more humble and empathetic Eric. Go figure!

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