Does the idea of grading projects fill you with dread? I love project-based learning, and typically assess projects with a rubric that includes all of the components of the project. It is time-consuming, but I have always felt like I’ve needed to set clear expectations and assign a score for how skillfully students met all of those expectations. I have recently discovered an alternative method of designing my project. It focused on my targeted skills, allowed students to shine, and as a bonus, consumed less of my time and energy while I assessed the work.

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The Project

Through the book How Many Days to America? by Eve Bunting, I guide my students through lessons on how illustrations and words work together to convey the mood and reveal the theme of the story. In the past, I’ve asked my students to recreate one of the illustrations (or a similar piece of art) using pastels. We’ve talked about blending, lines, shading, and tint. Students had time to design their artwork, and we used phrases from the book to caption the artwork. (Find a detailed explanation of my project here.) Students loved working on the project, but it was difficult for me to determine if they had actually thought deeply about what their illustrations were trying to convey. Some just loved to create, but couldn’t connect their beautiful ideas to the literature which was my objective.

Refining the Guidelines

I met with an instructional coach and explained my dilemma. After bouncing around a few ideas, we settled on the idea of using a guided artist’s statement to drive the art. This would require students to be very thoughtful in the creation of their artwork (meeting my arts standards) and simultaneously improve students’ writing. Our district has been dabbling in the Collins Writing Program, with the idea of assigning three “focus correction areas”, or FCAs, for students to strive for when creating a piece of writing. I created three categories that I wanted my students to focus on when creating their art and paired those with three writing components that would structure the artist’s statement.

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Implementing the New Guidelines

After introducing the guidelines, students created a “first draft” of their art. They worked with a guest artist to learn about sketching, as well as how to blend colors to achieve the effects that the illustrator did. Then, we dove into the writing piece. We created a list of all of the artistic vocabulary words we heard and posted it for students to refer to during their prewriting time. In addition to the writing frames listed above, the students worked with a graphic organizer, dividing their writing into three main sections:

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  1. Hook the reader, and introduce your theme. Support your theme with evidence from the text.
  2. Explain the significance of an object you’ve included. How does it tie into the theme you chose?
  3. Invite your reader to notice the artistic technique that you used.
  4. Conclude, and tie your ending to your beginning.

The Importance of the Process

Some students found that they couldn’t explain their thinking because they hadn’t actually completed part of the requirements, so they went back to their artwork to revise. This process of going back and forth between the art and the writing helped to increase the level of both products. It truly highlighted the parallels between the writing process and the artistic process.

Streamlined Assessment

Now that our projects are complete, I am able to assess multiple standards in one place. I am not trying to assess every single aspect of the project, I am targeting my three specific focus skills. Three sections of writing show me if a student has understood the concept of theme and the artistic skills I was looking for them to explore. Once students have master those skills, we can build upon the in the next project.

The Finished Product

I’ll leave you with a sample of student work. Look and listen for the way this 3rd grader explained her theme and connected it to the art she created.