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.