Taking the road less traveled by: Reflecting on class projects

 

“And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.”

Robert Frost (1874-1963)

It’s the beginning of the semester and you are still getting to know your group of 10-year-olds. You have only just begun to set the ground rules for the group and you are still in doubt whether you should assign them homework or do the first homework assignments together in class so that they get the hang of it. It takes time to form a group and you know it, but before you forget, you need to implement a class project with this group as soon as possible as you have been handed a schedule with the steps of a project involving some web tool chosen by your school. You can see that the project contains a list of requirements, including the activities to be carried out at some point, deadlines for the students to hand in their written work, and ultimately, a deadline for the students to share their projects with their parents and peers. You might think that everything has been well thought out and planned for your convenience so that you don’t need to spend sleepless nights sorting things out, right? Wrong and here’s why:

First, what you should be asking yourself is why you are carrying out this project and why your students need it. Any project however small needs to make sense for your students and it needs to make sense for you, which means that the whole community — teachers and students, should benefit from it and apply what they have learned in their lives.

Second, schedules may look neat – they really are! However, what they usually reflect is the lack of teacher autonomy in the project. Someone has done the job for you rather than give you the space to consider your students’ profiles, needs, and routines. It is a one-way road in a one-size-fits-all scenario. By no means am I saying that only projects that work are the ones designed by teachers for their own classes, but every project should entail an exchange of information between teachers and the school so that deadlines may be reviewed, and the necessary adjustments may be thought out. What works for one class may not work for another. What works for one school may not work for another. We should be entitled the right to say no to a project if we feel that it’s not the right moment or if there are changes that could be made.

Third, you should ask yourself if your students are ready to work collaboratively. A project is a great opportunity for learning and personal growth. However, from day 1 in our regular classes we should foster an open environment in which our students are encouraged to work in groups, listen to each other, and be accepting of different opinions and ideas. If we help our students develop these skills and nurture these values, they will  embrace class projects much more naturally.

All things considered, a project can only work if teachers get involved and feel responsible for it. It can only work if the students feel responsible for it. It can only work if it’s sustainable. If teachers don’t take ownership, projects will probably derail and end up being put aside,  especially when teachers still need to cover the syllabus anduc prepare students for exams and other required assignments.

The only way that we  can take ownership of a project is by making it meaningful to us, which means that this project has resulted from the students’ need to investigate something or to try something out. We should ask ourselves if it is  pedagogically sound,  or if it is meant to market your school. We also should ask ourselves whether it is the right time to implement it and if it will get in the way of something else that is more relevant for our students at the moment.

In other words, a good project needs to instigate, provoke, and urge people to move on. In short, a good project is like a mountain that you have decided to climb to see what’s on the other side. However, it should be up to you — and your class, to go back and take a  side road because well-thought-out plans, neat schedules, charts, and tech tools cannot  always account for the complexity of classroom life.

 

Teresa Carvalho

Teresa holds a B.A. in Linguistics from USP and Delta Modules 1 and 2 Certificates. She has been teaching for over 25 years and has presented at webinars and at both local and international Conferences, including ABCI and IATEFL. She also holds a Specialization degree in English Language from PUC-Rio. She is interested in visual literacy and in language development for teachers of English as a foreign language.

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