In Praise of Really Long Projects

As a specialist serving all the kids in the school, one of my greatest fears is that one student’s work in progress won’t make it from one week to the next. I have rolling shelves, and a culture of “put your name on it.” This is a far from perfect system, and it is the backbone to deep meaningful learning.

If I don’t allow learning to stretch from one class to the next, or from class to recess, then I am eliminating the choice point so many students need, the choice of pace. I want my students to discover, figure things out, and read directions. I have to give them the time to do these things. Sometimes we have to include enough time for them to change the way they are thinking about a problem.

The makerspace needs a bunch of skill sets, and my strongest ones are writing, the creative process, and puppet building. As I develop my understanding of the creative process my kids need, I schedule more projects that stretch from week to week. I introduce one project before everyone is done with the first. Ultimately, I am trying to erase the idea of “done” that so many of my kids race for.

To a Place Beyond Done

When they announce “I’m done!” there is usually a note of triumph. They have conquered the lesson. This is the best indication I have work to do. Sometimes as I am giving directions for the main activity they will ask “What do I do after?”. If I was giving them a closed activity with a finite answer, blanks to fill in, this would be a good question. Teachers plan for the early finishers, as they should. In the makerspace I am trying to get the kids to create out of their imagination, not mine. I don’t want them to be limited by what I happened to think of. For the kids who often finish early, I was one, this can be challenging because there is not a reward for working quickly. The work in the makerspace is designed to support rework. Often I ask the kids to generate ten ideas before deciding on one. We try to go somewhere beyond done.

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This journey requires their thought and passion. I help out with logistics and organization. We document our work as we go because the pace of work requires notes. We have to write notes to ourselves to keep on track, so we know what to do next.

The Secret is in the Packaging

Long projects are stressful because they don’t all work, not everyone finishes, things get messy and the only thing that can save you is a culture that truly loves and celebrates process. You can’t grade down late work just because it is late. You can grade on time management and communication skills (as long as you are teaching them first). The approach I use is called the six week project in nine weeks. The kids plan a six week project, and the calendar has nine weeks available. Around week three we talk about how we can be in different parts of the process and still be on pace.

Reflection is Planning

This requires my students to always be in communication about where they are in the process. Sometimes things can go wrong and I have to be able to know kids are stuck before I can help. I use google classroom and for project documentation I create a slidedeck with a slide for each day. They create a plan for the day and then write a reflection/ progress report near the end of class. I usually have them reflect at ¾ of the way through class because I found that putting it at the end made it too easy for them to skimp on their writing or skip it all together.

I tried running a makerspace that didn’t have half-done work all over the shelves, it didn’t work for me. If I tried to keep the lessons and activities in one class period, even a 90 minute one, I lost the ability to focus on process. The finite time made it clear who reached the goal of the lesson earliest and best. How dull. Learning isn’t a foot race, yet the praise often goes to the swift. Just listen to how proudly they announce “I’m done.” As a lesson designer, it is much more difficult to create 2-3 choice-rich possible activities for each period that it is to create a learning sequence that opens important choices for the students.

So choice-based learning means I have to try really hard to keep the kids work clearly labeled and protected from recycling. I have projects on the shelf that have been in process for 2 years, and they are not abandoned. I am the keeper of the things. I am there when they claim that “someone took my . . .” and I help them find it on the shelf where they put it last week.

About the author, Sam

Sam is Makerspace coordinator at Echo Horizon School, the nicest little school on Los Angeles' West Side. In the classroom since '02 Sam has taught grades PreK-12. Every lesson is a writing lesson.

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