LEM: Semester Project / Student Choices

Because I used my existing courses to do the Learning Environment Model design challenge for today, I decided to put the post here. Unlike the LEM challenge I did yesterday (see post), this time I did the drawing first and then wrote the narrative to accompany the drawing. The semester project has a lot of elements I cannot capture with the modeling tools, but I tried to surface the key aspect of the design challenge for today, which is the element of student choice. You can see that multi-stage choice process running down the middle of the diagram. See below for a narrative to explain that choice process.

(or click on image for larger view)

Exploration/Planning. What I tried to show here is how there is a brainstorming process that happens in the first few weeks of the class in which students brainstorm and plan their semester writing project (downward arrow flow on the left of chart; this process can last for up to 4 weeks), and then they create the project through an iteration of writing stories and revising for the rest of the semester (11, 12, or 13 weeks, depending on how many weeks they spend on the planning process — the writing process is on the right side of the chart). 

Project Choice. Each student creates either a Storybook Website or a Blog Portfolio. The Storybook consists of a set of interrelated stories on a topic of the student's choice (see Storybook Archive for examples), while the Portfolio consists of a curated section of the student's class blog, containing their best stories. I started offering the Portfolio option a couple years ago when it became clear that there were always a few students who were not really enthusiastic about their Storybook project (for all kinds of reasons); the Portfolio is a way to create the same type of semester-long writing project with the flexibility of choosing new topics/styles every week. The challenge, then, is how to help students choose which type of project will be best for them! As a general rule, it has turned out that about half of the students choose Storybooks and half choose Portfolios.

Iterated Choice. As students go through the 2, 3, or 4 weeks of planning, they are pondering a big choice, which I show in the middle of the chart; there are three vectors as it were that they can follow as they go through this iterated process. Since the Storybook is an entirely new kind of idea for most students in the class, I ask them to spend some time in Week 1 and Week 2 exploring Storybook possibilities. Then, after they get feedback from me about the Storybook topics they have proposed (I focus on connecting them with useful online resources), they can decide if there is a topic that grabs them... or not. If they really don't have a topic that grabs them, they can start their Portfolio in Week 3. If they do have a topic that they are excited about, in Week 3 they start planning how the Storybook would actually work (stories to include, styles to use). They then get feedback from me again, and again they choose: if things are not falling into place, they can start their Portfolio in Week 4. If the Storybook plan is going well, then they build their Storybook website in Week 4.

Writing Project. By Week 5 of the semester, everybody is engaged in their writing project. The Storybook and the Portfolio have the same writing "experience" — writing, feedback from me, feedback from other students, revision, more writing, more feedback, more revision, and so on. The difference is just the content (semester-long topic in Storybook versus weekly topics in Portfolio) and the medium (Storybook is a separate website while the Portfolio is a labeled section of the student's class blog). Everybody ends up on their own schedule since they might start the writing part of the project in Week 3 or 4 or 5, and any give story might require one or two rounds of revision. By the end of the semester, a Portfolio might have as many as six stories in it; a Storybook might have as many as four stories plus an introduction — but it varies a lot; there is no fixed requirement about how many finished stories each student might write.

Themed Portfolios. One really nice surprise that happened as a result of the students exploring the Portfolio option was that they started creating something like a Storybook inside their Portfolio, pursuing a theme over several weeks or even over the whole semester. That was not something I suggested, but the students started doing that on their own... so now I also suggest that in my comments on their Portfolio stories! Unlike the advance Storybook planning, these Portfolio themes evolve in an ad hoc way as the students react to the stories they are reading for the class or as they discover through their own writing a style and/or character that they use to connect their Portfolio stories.

As you can see from all the elements in the drawing, there is a lot that goes into this process, and I'll return to this drawing with more narrative in future posts... which will probably help me improve the drawing too! But for now, I am really happy with how this version of the drawing surfaces the element of student choice and how there is an overall learning process that the students can share together while each going through their own discovery process to launch their own project.

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