This last semester, I taught a Masters class called Explorations in Literacy. A major part of this class was engaging in something I called the Explore Project. The Explore Project was relatively simple. I based it off the concept of Google Fridays (this piece is an example of how the concept plays out in the classroom). Google used to have this concept – I’m not sure if they do anymore – that employees could allocate 20% of their work time each week to exploring a concept that was of interest to them. It fostered many innovations including gmail and adsense. You can read more about it here, and find some great resources here.
I wanted to take the concept and put it into my Masters class. So I did. I mean, the class is called Explorations in Literacy. So I thought it would be worthwhile for students to explore anything – anything – they wanted to learn more about that was related to the class. The class is about literacy. Really, we explore a vast array of topics over the semester including:
- Digital Tools in Literacy Learning
- Social Networking in Literacy Learning
- Literacy Learning Beyond the Classroom
- What is “Good” Writing?
- Writing Differently in School
- Learning to Love Difficult Readings
Their project did not have to fit inside the topics I listed above. You can see how vast the topics are. A critical purpose of the class is to dig into and explore ideas/research/teaching in literacy. So you can’t really go wrong in identifying a topic.
Getting It Started
How do you go about getting something like this started? Well, it’s not that difficult because there are simply not a lot of directions. I told my class pretty much what I have already explained to you. I gave them a date in which they had to have a project decided on (two weeks seems to be plenty of time), and I gave them a due date. Of course the question becomes – what’s due on a due date? I didn’t have set criteria. I didn’t require a paper or a presentation. Ok – I required something presentation like, but I wasn’t set in what that had to be. I told my students to identify a topic and dig in to it. And they did.
Now, I’m not going to say that this project was easy for them. I think overall they enjoyed it and got a lot out of it. However, I know it made some students uncomfortable. I did have a couple of students talk openly with me about how they were uncomfortable with the lack of specifics. I assume they mean things like specific tasks they need to complete and specific products they need to produce. I didn’t give them any of that information. Some loved it and some found it put them in a space they weren’t used to – but they were open about their lack of comfort, and I asked them to trust me and trust the process.
Overall, students had no difficulty identifying a project. One or two changed midway, and I allowed it. They had a clear vision of what they wanted to do and why they wanted to change their project. It worked out fine.
The Process of It All
I had students spend 45 minutes of class time working in their projects each time we met. Sometimes we shared what was going on, and sometimes we didn’t. I really just went with the flow on this since it was my first time. However, I do think having students share on a regular basis is important. It can provide them some clarity on their work, get questions answered, and inspire others. This spring, I plan to use the Explore Project again in an undergraduate class I am teaching called The Politics of Reading. This time, students are expected to share three times over the course of the semester.
Sharing starts in Week Four of the semester and goes until the last two weeks. Students have up to five minutes to talk about their work, and their is a maximum of five minutes of discussion time. Five students can sign up on a given week to share. The only rule with signing up is students cannot sign up on back-to-back weeks. I want them to at least go every other week so they have time in between to process and make use of the feedback they have been given.
You can see that if I allow 45 minutes of class time to work on the project and then we add up to 50 minutes to discuss the work that a good amount of time has been taken up. I think it’s time well spent though. The projects are an extension of the class which means that sharing/discussion is further exploration of the ideas being examined in class. I’ll let you know how it goes, but I do think it’s critical for me to think more mindfully about this sharing/feedback component.
The Presenting of It All
A few weeks before the end of the semester, I asked my students to start thinking about what they wanted to do on the last day of class. We needed to share our work, and there were 17 students in the class. I asked them to consider:
- Is it important that you hear from/interact with everyone in the class in some manner?
- Is it necessary for all presentations to be done in the same format or can formats vary?
- Do you want to share resources with each other?
- How long should presentations/interactions be?
Students decided that they wanted to hear from everyone. They were very interested in everyone’s work! However, they also didn’t want to be there all evening. All presentations were capped at 5 minutes. The rule was you could talk for as long as you wanted, but you could not run over 5 minutes. If you only wanted to talk for 30 seconds, that was fine.
Students also did not come up with a set way for presentations. It was decided that you should share your work in whatever format made the most sense to you. The only hard and fixed rule we had was the five minute rule.
When the day came for presentations, I have to tell you the truth: I enjoyed every single one of them. Students worked hard to share their information with their colleagues and to share it in ways they believed would benefit each other. In some cases, part of the talks were spent sharing information about a particular tool used to create the presentation. For example, several people used Haiku Deck for their presentations, and at least one person gave us some relevant information about how and why to use Haiku Deck.
I made a page on our class wiki for resources, and people agree to post their resources there for each other. I wish I could share the projects with you, but for the most part they are private. There was one presentation that is public. One of my students wrote a BuzzFeed article about community book clubs. It was fantastic. Not only did she share what she learned with us, but she walked us through the creation of the article. Do check it out.
Is It Worth It?
YES! I’ll use this project for awhile in every class where it makes sense. Like I said, I’m tweaking it a bit in my next class to include regular discussion of projects. It takes a lot of time, but the students get a lot out of it. The one thing to keep in mind is that it’s an explore project. Students are exploring an interest they have. I don’t expect them to leave being experts. In fact, they should have more questions. I also don’t expect students to devote a lot of outside class time on this project. If they get into it and want to, great, but this is mostly an in class work in progress.