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Tuesday, April 19, 2011

So you're working on a project? When does your project become meaningful?

There is a lot of talk these days in education on authenticity.  Authenticity means essentially being real, real life useful, or having a real audience.  So much of what we say in education as teachers pays lip service to the idea of authentic assessment, but often we don't carry through.  It does take extra effort to create a real forum for a student to showcase their work.  But is it worth it?  I think it really is.

So when I start thinking about these things, I try to self reflect by asking myself: when I have a real audience, does it help my final product?  Is it important to me?  Does it give what I do meaning?  The answer to all of those questions sure enough is yes, it does.  I want to give a couple of examples of what I mean:

Last week I made a website for my basketball club.  It took a while, maybe 7 or 8 hours in total, but I enjoyed the process because I knew at the end, I could make something that a lot of people who are looking for communication about Sonics basketball, camps and other things would be using it and getting something out of it.  When the first few people responded to my request for feedback on the site responded, I was secretly delighted.  It was authentic, it was valid, and therefore, it was a confirmation that I had done a good job.

Last year I completed many projects and papers in order to complete the diploma program I was enrolled in.  Out of the many assignments, I have to say that the ones where I worked the hardest were the most valuable and memorable learning experiences, even if I wasn't crazy about them at the time.  The ones I worked the hardest on corresponded with what I identified as being authentic:  One example was the paper about a friend of mine who's family came from another culture and another continent; it meant a lot to me because that person took a copy and shared it with their family.   So just to re-iterate, I wrote about them based on an interview with him and research I had done, and they read it and actually appreciated it.  It was totally nerve wracking, but it was totally worth it!  I got a great mark on it, but I know that is in part because I was so concerned with doing a good job so these people whom I respected would approve of my paper.

Other everyday examples:  
When you put more effort into cooking a great meal for company than for the everyday folks at home.
When you have to get up and present your project in front of the class.
When you perform what you've been working on.
When you change your clothes for a party 5 times because you know someone you care about (or care about what they think) will notice and maybe comment.

So what does this all mean?  Simple.  The best major projects have an authentic audience at the end.  I encouraged the students in my small afternoon class to seek out projects for their major group project that will be authentic.  I can't take all the credit, the curriculum encouraged the same.  I was delighted to know that they are looking for ways to conduct a real life project, with a real audience.  One group will be conducting a real fundraiser for a community cause.  Another group is going to find a way to publish their product so that their peers are exposed to it.  These projects have a couple things in common:

* They will be finished with a better product, they will complete it closer to meeting the deadline, and their projects will be more detailed than those of their peers that decided to do a more garden variety project.  The authentic nature of what they have chosen will ensure that.
* The other thing they have in common is that these students are pumped about their projects from the start.  They are enthused about doing something unique, something to be proud of, something that will be an accomplishment.

So your project, essay, website, whatever, becomes meaningful the moment you are able to share it with people who's opinion you care about.  It's a simple idea, but it is awesomely powerful for creating learning moments that will stick with you in a positive way.  :)

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