Pondering Project Based Learning

As I discussed in my previous post, zoom teaching posed many challenges to students and teachers alike.  When we moved to zoom most of my students were either not attending class or almost completely passive.  I was heart sick at the learning opportunities they were losing.  I thought to myself, maybe I could ask them to perform a virtual musical or play even though they would have to work on these assignments virtually with their peers and read the information at home with all the noise and distractions that they faced?  Many of them had never heard of a musical, let alone seen one.  I couldn’t show them one, but I did play them a rap of Lin Manuel Miranda performing alone one of his famous raps on Hamilton and we discussed the power of pop to persuade people to care about political issues.  I asked them if they could compose their own raps or musicals on Andrew Jackson who we had been studying.  The biggest catch- they had to take on the identity of a segment of the population who lived during Jackson’s time.  Their choices were to become merchants, slaves, farmers or Native Americans.

Breakout rooms were helpful, but in the 30 minute classes we had with all the glitches and challenges that these posed, the students who dove in spent hours working outside of class time to create plays where they spliced each of their independent videos together to create a whole play.  Other students wrote political poetry and even performed them for the class.  Here are a few lines from one group’s rap:

My name is Jamal,

I’m a slave to Mr. Hall,

Jacksonian Democracy is a big hypocrisy,

He said all men can vote,

But he really ain’t meant what he wrote,

He’s a liar, he set fire to my dreams,

Now I can’t aspire to anything great,

Jackson is a man who I really really hate!

Not only was this rap cute, and incorporated the important details of the information they had learned, it conveyed something far more important than simply information:  they had taken on the perspective of a group of individuals who suffered who they might normally never think or care about.  I mean that in the most non-judgmental way possible.  Truly, how can any of us expect to see something from someone else’s perspective when they lived hundreds of years ago, and ostensibly have very little in common with us?  Not to mention any other factors that might make it hard for a young yeshiva student to see the perspective of the suffering of a Black slave.  This was truly monumental for me.

This past year I have used rap writing and other creative writing styles to encourage the boys to learn challenging vocabulary words as they read through their history packets.  They do not inherently enjoy learning new words like Socratic method, sarissa or submission.  However, when I tell them they can write a rap or a short story using these new words then the creativity and enthusiasm for learning astounds me.  Yesterday while my students were creating a beat for their peer who was rapping, a student from another class stood at the door begging me to come in so he could partake.  Here is an example of one group of students performing their rap to the class.

I played the video of my former students rapping the rap about Andrew Jackson once, and every once in a while, my current students break out into rap quoting these former students’ rap verbatim.  You just don’t get that from test taking and rote memorization. This past year the raps and poetry my students have produced are even more impressive and robust than last year’s raps.  Here is one example:  

Greek is so great they invented democracy, now woman don’t have to follow the policy

Now let’s move over to geography we got the black sea, Asia even Olympia too,

Why don’t you come to Greece to learn something new?

We also have Troy and Europe, they so close we confuse the two

We got jobs galore you can be a farmer or a soldier that fights in the war

You can be a tenant farmer and rent the land and sell the produce for the same demand

The forger that forges and the salesmen sell

I think we’re going to move back to achievements sorry that fell, so now you listen and I’ll tell

 We got the alphabet that allows us to spell and coins so we can buy and sell so the phalanx can let the enemies just go to (pause) gehenim. 

If education is to impact our students for more than the few months we get with them, then let’s pay attention to what our children are telling us about how they learn best.