This is the sixth in a series of articles from guest writer Stephen Berer focusing on literacies, fluencies, and projects for museums and classrooms. If you missed them, you can access the previous entries in the series here.

The US Holocaust Memorial Museum: Choices We Make—Part 3

In my previous article I outlined a project to discover the Faces of Resistance for students while visiting a Holocaust museum or an exhibit devoted to genocide or racial/ethnic injustice. Students would take on the identity of a victim, and through that lens create a video exploring the ways in which victimized people resisted their oppressors.

I have found that students really enjoy developing these kinds of projects. They provide a wide doorway of creative freedom while allowing students to customize their research to their personal interests. Students are encouraged to use the latest technologies, and showcase their visual and technical fluencies. Because they work in groups, these projects become a means of promoting peer to peer learning. They are also an effective way to create structured social settings to facilitate personal development. Students learn from each other; their learning is social and pleasurable, and it is usually not stressful. In sum, you have an easily implemented checklist for 21st century learning.

 

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Ways to improve projects:

As a teacher/coach, there are many ways you can help your students perform at the peak of their abilities. Here are four suggestions for designing successful team projects.

  1. First and foremost, be sure to prepare a careful outline of the project. Your job is to open the door on a body of information and provide tools and ideas to stimulate critical thinking. In many ways this is the opposite of giving a test. In a test, the teacher determines: 1. the important questions, and 2. the correct answers. In a project such as I’m suggesting here, your students determine the questions and then find the answers they think are best. Your job is to help them focus their questions, and guide them in developing thorough and accurate answers.
  1. Use the project to frame a unit of study. Projects can be a great way for students to learn a short unit, one that lasts a week or so. Use the project to allow students to self-learn the unit. They can work on it in class, as well as at home. Allow three days to produce the project and two days for presentations. Unit done; boom!

However, my preference is to punctuate the year with two major projects, keyed to the two most important units we cover, units that last at least a month. I announce and describe each project as a way of opening the unit. That immediately builds engagement in the material, while giving students the maximum amount of time to work on their projects. I also allocate at least one class a week for students to work on their projects. During those classes I circulate among the teams, checking in and offering comments when appropriate. Those classes also give students time to ‘listen in’ on what other teams are doing, a great way to improve the general quality of work.

3. Use checkpoints. Prior to becoming a teacher, I built statistical models to forecast complex systems. Those models were always evaluated and field-tested in stages. I brought that experience into my classroom. I always divide projects into checkpoints, usually one a week. That gives me an opportunity to evaluate each group’s progress, and to point out areas that need improvement or expansion, or even substantial remodeling, before it becomes a crisis. It is a very successful means of helping students build great projects and avoid last minute meltdowns.

 

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  1. You will find that if your project is a good one, you will refine and re-use it for many years. After you’ve guided your first class through the completion of a project, you will be able to show subsequent classes examples of that project. This will be as important to your students as a good outline in helping them envision the process, as well as the product they will produce. Therefore, save your past projects! (Since they’re digital, they only take up hard drive space.) They will become an invaluable aid to you in refining your design and its implementation, and they will help stimulate your students’ best work.

Other ways to refine projects:

If students are video-recording information in a museum or public location, the soundtrack will most likely be full of background noise and a fair amount of “hemming and hawing”. Therefore, if they have the tools and the time, they should re-record the soundtrack to clean it and sharpen its content.

If the project is not exclusively keyed to a specific museum or location, encourage your students to add information and images from outside sources. However, take note of pitfall #1 below!

To help students understand the relevance of their learning, you might have them include a section on ways they can respond to current events, or ways to market their idea or product.

 

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Two pitfalls:

  1. If students add images from outside sources, they may not focus on using historically related material. They may be thinking, ‘I need a street scene’ or ‘I need a guy with a beard.’ Searching on “guy with beard” will bring up lots of hits, but very few, if any, will be appropriate for a project researching, say, Jewish life in Poland during WWII. This is a great opportunity to help your students:
  • develop visual literacy;
  • become sensitive to historical styles;
  • sharpen their skills in composing search terms;
  • understand that search engines are currently rather crude tools;
  • appreciate the value of archives that focus on specific subjects.
  1. Students often project their own modern values and attitudes into the past. They may ask things like ‘why did she allow her rights to be taken away from her?’ or ‘why didn’t they take up arms and rebel?’ Questions like that present a great opportunity to help your students become conscious of the values and institutions and rights they take for granted. But if those questions aren’t challenged, your students will remain outsiders to history, weak in understanding the conditions through which historical events evolve.

In my next article in two weeks, I will walk you and your students through another great museum. While different museums require different lenses to effectively explore them, some of the intended outcomes will remain the same: to situate students inside the information, and to make the information relevant.

Steve Berer is an educator and author, and founder of Museum Exploration Partners, an independent education company. Visit them at http://musexplore.net/.



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