The 150 point project: an annual experiment in academic freedom

During my first or second year of teaching AP English Language I showed my class the beginning of the movie Patton as an example of rhetoric. Well, later that year we had some free time so we watched the whole movie. In talking about the movie I found myself hooked on the following quote:

Never tell people how to do things. Tell them what to do, and they will surprise you with their ingenuity.”

Now I’d like to tell you how my stunning brilliance led to an immediate epiphany of profound depth, but instead it was just one more episode of me stubbornly searching for a solution to a problem that was possibly beyond my abilities. But I’m stubborn and competitive in nature. Kind of like this scene in Patton:

***

See I was never a great student in high school and by great student I mean I never wanted to do what I was told. (I’ve always liked learning, just not school) Tell me to read Catcher in the Rye (of course now I regret not reading it) and I’ll read Stranger in a Strange Land under my desk. I barely remember doing anything interesting in high school except for two assignments.

The first was a research paper on violence in America. I focused on the hardcore punk movement of the early 80s using articles from various punk fanzines as my sources. I even included a comic from one of the zines as a graphic.

Then there was my attempt at some much needed extra credit. I didn’t do as well on the CITR test as I thought I would. “Shocking,” since I only read the back cover. I can’t even imagine my ability to ignore the required reading with Litcharts and Wikipedia at hand. )

I approached my senior year English teacher and asked him if I could write some original poems and perform them at a local bar where they had a regular open-mike night. This was no coffee house poetry reading. It was Safari Sam’s in downtown Huntington Beach, pre-commercialization. Here I was a seventeen-year old standing in front of a packed house of pre and post-drunks getting ready to read the pitiful poetry that all young teens produce (think Joy Division mixed with Ezra Pound) I closed my eyes, got down on my knees and started to speak as the din of drunks blended into the sound of the surf and cars outside.

I will never forget these assignments because they were mine. No teacher told me what to do. I created my objective, my parameters, my materials, my methodology.

I began to do this whenever I could. If you gave me a paper to write, or project to explore in college or grad school; I was busy looking for a way to make it mine, to bend it to my personal needs, to make it real and useful and not just some hoop to jump through.

Part of why I became a teacher was to never cease in the attempt to make school memorable; to give students a chance to fit themselves into the process as instigator and developer.

So on that day, while watching the movie Patton, a “Minor Threat” to the world of objectives, standards, and lesson plans came to life. I created the infamous:

THE 150 POINT PROJECT

Sometime in the fall or early winter I tell my students the following:

“Hi everyone. I need your attention because I’m going to tell you about a project that will be worth 150 points.” (At this point I have EVERYONE’s attention) “Here is what you are going to have to do. I want you to do something that involves reading and/or, writing and/or, speaking and/or, listening that you think I will think is worth 150 points and it must be communicable to me. You can’t just do it somewhere and expect me to telepathically know about it.” I then repeat the last two sentences a few times. Then I say “I’m not going to tell you any examples from previous years, nor am I going to mention this again for the next four weeks. In four weeks I’m going to ask you to write down any ideas you have for doing this.” After collecting these ideas I may decide to tell you some previous examples, or I may not. This project is worth a ton of points and you can earn extra credit so please feel free to go above and beyond and also feel free to think outside the box.

And that’s it.

I usually do give them some examples after four weeks. I also tell them that my least favorite 150 point projects are some type of scrapbook (but I still end up getting about 4-5 scrapbook style projects anyways.)

So what do I end up getting from other students? Well here is a 150 point project from last year.

This student researched a ton of colleges that she was thinking of visiting. (She’s just a sophomore) She created pie charts of important information, pictures and other facts and created this GIANT laminated poster of her research. It’s so cool it’s being installed in our college and career center.

Another student of mine created a Tumblr blog. Here was her first post:

My first idea is to make a blog chronicling my life as a teenager in 2012. I’m kind of cringing after reading that because it sounds a little boring and self-absorbed, but hear me out. In an article about the female teen brain (http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-teenage-mind/201010/the-female-teen-brain-is-brizendines-book-science-or-opinion), it says that an “in-depth analysis of individual girls shows moods fluctuating rapidly from negative to positive several times each day.” …With that being said, I thought it would be really interesting to see how the female teen brain, specifically my brain, copes with daily life

And here was one of her last posts:

I can take notes, memorize, and test all I want. But the results are a tad disappointing. Maybe I’m not studying hard enough or maybe that’s the end of my intelligence. I’m more inclined to believe in the former (mainly for my pride’s sake). And honestly? I rather be hospitalized than to be average.

Some days I ask why I’m trying so hard. I see some people going to community college and taking the basic classes and they seem pretty happy with their lives. In the grand scheme of things, is getting a D on your AP European History quiz that important? My academic goals aren’t that unattainable:

  • Get a 4.0 this year
  • Wear the white robe at graduation (I’m not going to lie, it would kill me if I didn’t get it)
  • get accepted into at least one of my top 10 UC’s
  • get my master’s in education so I could teach high school one day/get my degree

Maybe I’m over-reacting. After all, “average” and “smart” are just words. How can one determine if being smart is better than being kind or patient? And isn’t self-worth measured by oneself instead of society? There are more important things in life than having straight A’s, right?

Right.

And deep down, my real goals would be:

  • get my parents to be proud of me
  • have someone use more good words to describe me than just “nice”
  • love someone
  • be loved
  • be healthy
  • be happy”

And in between these posts she:

  • started following 75 blogs
  • liked 322 posts
  • had 435 posts
  • gotten 32 followers
  • and written 35 drafts

I’ve also had students who:

  • Created a sixty page Pokemon Cookbook that had a Pokemon adventure written through-out to hold every recipe together.
  • Created and ran a 24 hour read-a-thon in the gym over spring break to raise money for a local library
  • Produced an album of original songs with a cool CD insert and artwork, recorded with an old 4 track recorder in his bathroom with his two brothers playing instruments.
  • Directed an hour long version of Romeo and Juliet with costuming and filmed it, burned it to DVD with three different versions of  movie trailers.
  • Invited my family to her parent’s house for dinner. She had taken one meal item from each book we read that year and created an eight-course dinner cooked entirely by her, with handmade menus that included a scene from each book where the food appeared. The food was so good my son ate too much, threw-up all over their dining room and I spent a good deal of time hosing off furniture on their lawn outside. Memorable, to say the least.

And look at this one below. These two young students made an amazing model of Sophie’s house from the book Sophie’s World and then created a fifteen minute YouTube stop-action movie documenting the final scene in the book. It was way cool.

(To see any photo in greater detail just click on it)

Are there some projects that are less than amazing? Sure. But without the freedom of the project I don’t think I would get the memorable moments that I get every year. I was speaking to a fellow co-worker the other day about another project that I do and she doesn’t do those types of projects anymore because of the number of disappointing projects that she ends up with.

So often in life we use a rubric or expectation on what we expect. Even if a coach says “Our goal is to win the Super Bowl this year!” What if his players want something more? What if they want to be the greatest team of all time? What if they want to create a season so magical that people will talk about their artistry and team-work for hundreds of years?

I’m going to err on the side of the optimist here. I’m going to borrow a bit from someone perhaps not popular right now but the idea is somewhat similar when I think of the 150 point project I think of “the concept of man as a heroic being, with his/her own happiness as the moral purpose of his life, with productive achievement as his noblest activity.” I’m going to ignore scaffolding and pacing in lieu of the possibility of greatness.

So that’s it. My best project every year has the most ambiguity, the most initial confusion and uncertainty, and the most room for a student to find themselves and their place in my classroom.

Good luck. I hope you try it.

 

PS- I’ve been doing this for 16 years and it’s still working.

13 responses to “The 150 point project: an annual experiment in academic freedom

  1. Interesting. Been thinking of doing a “20%” project second semester (this semester is chaotic with doing the flipped thing). I really like the idea of giving all the students complete freedom to do something/anything “scientific” for one fifth of their grade. I know some of the kids will flake and produce poor work, but that’s part of my learning process as much as it is a part of theirs.
    Quick questions: in the end, how much does “150 points” actually impact their grade? and what is the total time spent on this project?

  2. It’s probably about 10-15% of their semester grade. I can only guess at how much time it takes to do the project. Based on what I’ve seen I’d say some students hash it out in about eight hours and others probably spend one to two hours a week for months.

  3. A group of flipped English/Social Studies teachers are trying something like this. We’re calling it Blank White Page, and it’s an ongoing student project where they choose the topic, method and product. It’s been some of the best moments in our class so far.

    Thanks for posting this! It’s cool to see what other people are doing to bring student passion in to the classroom.

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  6. Thanks David…I’ve been looking for something to possibly replace the dreaded CP III Final Ism essay. I just happened upon your page researching book report pedagogy…serendipity! I student taught with Minnie at FVHS a long time ago…I’m at HBHS now. Thinking that maybe they have to prove they know the isms and how they are reflected in the works? Could be really interesting. I really like what I’ve seen here…thanks.

  7. Are we–adults, educators, ‘busy people’–capable of creating memorable projects? I want to make these, but there’s no one to push me to do them. I need that push.

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  9. i’d like to hear about the challenges and how they were resolved; often great ideas / teachers face students / families who don’t want to put forth the effort, yet believe their effort (or the lack thereof) warrants a very inflated value; disregarding objectivity and the position of the teacher.

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  11. I am a college professor. I give vague instructions for my writing assignments to encourage students to do what you are suggesting. They often resist. They want predetermined rubrics. They don’t want to be “wrong”? I am always surprised by what some students create. It is amazing what students can do when they are both free to think and forced to think. I wish more of my students had such experiences in High School!

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