Saturday, October 30, 2010

Students Collaborate on Virtues Ben Franklin Style

Benjamin Franklin, Born in...Boston!
Photo by Tony the Misfit
The first thing to understand about collaborative projects is that they are messy.  Everything has to be treated as a learning experience:  from the preparing of students by teaching the tools necessary for the project to covering the background material necessary for students to actively participate in the project.  As with any project, something (or multiple things) will go wrong.  The 21st Century Skills require students to problem-solve issues that arise. Preparing students for that possibility by explaining that there may be unforeseen issues with the project, and students are expected to take a proactive approach to those issues is a mandatory precursor to starting any collaborative project.  Students and teachers must overcome their fears of the unknown and 1) try, 2) problem-solve, and 3) have fun and learn as they go.

The collaborative Rationalism Project between Pleasant Plains High School and Farmington High School American Literature students brought some magic moments.  Project coordinators, John Langley (myself) of Pleasant Plains High School and Josh Piper of Farmington High School, perfected the project in its second year while two new teachers were added to the collaboration, Candi Graham of Pleasant Plains and Marti Copple of Farmington.  205 students partnered up to research Ben Franklin's system for following his personal virtues.  Student partner groups worked in a Google Document where they each posted an initial biographical sketch of themselves and their 13 to 17 personal virtues.  The partner groups then collaboratively selected the seven virtues that their group would follow for a seven day period.  While Franklin had thirteen virtues and followed the virtues in one week segments, the high school students incorporated their virtues into a seven day schedule.  On day one, the student group followed virtue number one, and at the end of the day, each partner wrote a 250 word minimum journal entry in the Google Document described how he/she lived that virtue that day.  On day two, the student group followed the second virtue as well as the first virtue (much like Franklin, adding on one virtue at a time until he lived all thirteen virtues) and then journaled in the Google Document about each virtue.  Each day the next virtue was added until all virtues were practiced on the seventh day.  This Student Rationalism Project document is an average example of student work from this year's project (student names were changed to just the first initial of their names).

Student communication was a dilemma during last year's project.  Mr. Piper and I had assumed that students would think of the multitudinous means of communicating with each other.  However, communication proved to be a stressful concept that diverted student attention away from the focus of the project.  This year, we eliminated most of the stress of communication by identifying possible modes of communication:  cell phone, texting, Facebook, email, Google Chat, chatting in the chat bar of the Google Document, etc.

While there were still glitches in the project, they were mostly related to the everyday glitches of human nature: some students did not post by deadline or did not communicate well with their partners.  Since this was a possibility, students were prepped with the idea that if their partner wasn't following through, then they would have to take charge - similar to what would have to occur in the business world with a business collaboration.  Students faced with this situation did just that, took charge and completed the task.

Most students came out of the project expressing that they had a newfound respect for Benjamin Franklin.  Students also noted that they gained insight into the Rationalism literary period as well as gained insight into their own personal value system.

Rookie teachers Candi Graham and Marti Copple took on the challenge of learning Google Docs tools and reached outside their comfort zones to offer their students the experience of collaborating with a student from a school 74 miles away.  By the end of the project, both teachers were using Google Docs with ease and were troubleshooting project issues that arose.

As the objectives of the project where to not only provide students with a Rationalism experience, but also to provide students with the experience of working with someone from a distance, both sets of objectives were met.