This semester is coming to an end, and my second semester of experimenting with peer-driven learning was largely (once again) a success. This semester, I gave students the choice of either doing a traditional presentation over two classes or building something that they talk about for one class that the rest of the students could “play” with outside of class. While I was still disappointed by the reliance on PowerPoint presentations filled with lots of text and poor design (next semester, I’m sharing EdTech Hulk’s advice), I was once again blown away by my students’ creativity, dedication, and inventiveness.
One group wrote a song and produced a music video (don’t worry, I have their permission to share). I’d especially point you to their (ahem) PowerPoints (shared on Scribd) where they explain how each of them took an essay dealing with human nature and adapted it both lyrically and visually. Another group created a “realistic” Farmville board game, researching the actual costs of running a farm, both “sustainably” and the “normal” way. The question they wanted to explore was both the death of the family farm, but also if green/organic farming was actually sustainable with the growth in the world population. I wish they could have created something like this or this, but unfortunately our collective technical skills were too limited (even with a guy in the group majoring in computer science).
(If you are worried that these writing students didn't write enough, one class chose to do shorter weekly blog posts on subjects of my choosing, while the other class had to submit lengthier pieces on the content and process of whatever their built. Both classes chose to write more than I would ever dream of assigning.)
If you’re really interested in browsing my students’ work, you can visit the document I created here. The problem is that a lot of the time, the richness of what they learned came in the discussion, where I had to think on my feet and push them in their thinking, towards deeper questions and synthesis. One of the advantages of the peer-driven course is that the students know their material, which allows for a more immersive discussion, rather than a lecture that simply makes up the gaps in their informational knowledge. But, I have to be ready to jump in wherever the students are, instead of leading the students where I want them to go. It’s reactive, and I have to be able to react quickly, intelligently, and openly.
Their essays have proven to be another challenge for me. Last semester, I found many of the students still wrote reports, albeit with more complex sources, rather than essays that involved analysis and synthesis. I worked really hard at modeling the kinds of ways to think and talk about various subjects when engaging them in discussion during their presentations. Ultimately, however, when the students were free to, once again, choose their own topics, I had to be ready to push them, develop interesting and enriching research questions to explore, as well as point them in the right direction for divergent opinions, points-of-view, and perspectives.
All of this might seem very obvious, but when you lecture from a set “script” and essay topics are selected from a pre-approved list, it’s much easier to “coach” the students. This is also where it helps that I am quite plugged in to social media; I might not read everything in my Twitter timeline, but I trust my “sources” to at least share the most relevant and thought-provoking headlines which I file away, just in case it’s relevant. I read the headlines of the major newspapers, visit a few news aggregators, and just basically pay attention. I have to because if I don’t, I can’t help my students in their work and research, at least not as effectively as I do now.
I’ve always been curious (and a fast reader) with a memory that is like a steel trap. Actually, that’s not true. I remember things if I actually engage with them. I might not read the article, but I will engage with the titles and begin to form my own opinions or questions based on those titles (a bit like pre-reading, like we teach our students). Sometimes I read them, sometimes I don’t, depending on the time I have and interest. This kind of quick and admittedly incomplete preliminary reflection is my way of remembering, and all it takes is a few key words from my students to bring those references to the forefront.
Besides, if I ever get stuck, I can just ask my Twitter followers; they have never let me down and always provide relevant and useful resources. Sometimes even faster than I can.