Raising the Bar

My Christian Ethics 10 class started a project last Monday exploring the Church’s opinion on a variety of moral issues, ranging from gun control to abortion to gay marriage to cannibalism. The students chose their own topics and their partners. For the most part, I simply explained the project to them, gave them a week to work in a computer lab and hoped for the best. Really and truly, I pretty much let them have free reign so long as they (1) defined their topic, (2) gave relevant information, and (3) explained the Church’s opinion by making direct references to specific teachings (ex. Ten Commandments, Consistent Ethic of Life, etc.).

They worked pretty diligently, asking a few questions here and there, for the whole week. Most students spent a little bit of time over the weekend putting on the finishing touches, but for the most part, they had plenty of class time to complete their work. They were tasked with creating a presentation in some form–a slide show, a video, whatever they thought would get the message across–and a handout for their classmates. Many chose a PowerPoint presentation, since they are comfortable working in that medium. Many chose other mediums, such as videos, simulations, prezis, and the like. It was really remarkable to see their projects coming together so well.

We started our presentations on Monday. The first few groups were very strong, and I was blown away. Tuesday rolled around and they were again very strong. Today, we had a substitute IA (instructional assistant) in our classroom, and the presentations went swimmingly again. She came up to me after and asked what grade level these students were. I said they were in grade ten and she was floored. We talked a bit about how well they were doing and perhaps why.

One of the key points we stumbled upon in this impromptu reflection session was the media. I know that the media, as of late, has a pretty bad rap with educators for disintegrating the next generation with profanity, highly sexualized content, and the like, but I am taking a different stance. The quality of television, websites, posters, social networking and so on is much higher than it was, and continues to improve at an astronomical rate. With this, media has also stepped up students’ expectations for student-generated content. Because technology is emerging so quickly that makes generating valuable and professional-looking work at home easy, students have set high expectations for themselves in terms of what is reasonable for them and what “good” truly looks like. Unknowingly, my students significantly exceeded my expectation for the quality of their work.

Furthermore, they knew that they weren’t getting marked on how they presented the material–they were getting marked on what they were presenting. They managed to step up their game on both. Perhaps this is because they think that having low quality information on a high quality presentation is funny looking, perhaps because having high quality information on a low quality presentation devalues the effort, or perhaps they are just awesome. I can’t decide, but I do know that I’m highly impressed.

One other plausible bar-raiser might be the change in what teaching and classrooms look like at our school. Each teacher has an iPad, as well as a computer. The quality of lesson presentation is vastly different than what was available when I was in high school less than a decade ago. I hardly use my whiteboard as a whiteboard, while I fondly remember writing notes for half the class copying from the chalkboard. Doing something remarkable for a presentation was a really awesome slide show or perhaps a video (which took hours to create and required a video camera with film in it), whereas all this technology is available to students on something that fits into their pocket. The “really-awesome-presentation bar” is now way higher because of the availability of this technology. Searching for something new and innovative is both challenging and easy–there are so many options, but you also have to find something and use it in a unique way.

For instance, a group of students used and XBox and Mine Craft to simulate drunk driving. I going to be honest–the execution was not quite right; however, the concept could have been developed into something remarkable. Perhaps Mine Craft was not the right medium, but a similar, more versatile second-life type program may have served the students better. 

The other key point that our discussion stumbled upon was the amazing confidence the students showed while they presented. We theorized that this is likely to do with the awesome work they poured into their projects. The students were each genuinely proud of the work they did. I was proud of the work they did. Their classmates were intently interested because of the great work they were doing. All this built into awesome confidence, even from a few of the shyer students. 

To be completely honest, when I envisioned this week a few weeks ago, I saw myself sitting through and marking slide show after slide show. I was planning on the students doing a good job, but I had no idea what a treat I was in for.

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