How-To Have the Most Engaged Class Ever

I had a revelation this week. Which, you know, is rare. . .
This has been a weird quarter.  My students have missed six days of instruction due to snow days, and I missed two additional days due to pre-scheduled professional development.  Due to this loss of instructional time, it has been hard to get the level of “buy-in” I expect from my students. . . And, y’all, teaching 7th grade Art in classes of 35+ is hard enough.
They have been really, really, really decent about working hard to cram all of our content in a much tighter time period. But, I’ve noticed that to accomplish this, the students have had to do more sitting, listening, and small-artmaking than I would prefer. So, for the last project of the term, I decided to de-organize things a bit. You know, because things had just been too quiet, too simple, too organized.
Every year, the Washington Post hosts a Peeps Diorama contest, and I typically have a few students enter.  This year, all of my 7th graders will participate. I have never, ever, in my life seen this group of students so actively engaged in Art. Every. Child. Is. On. Task. Every. Child. Is. Happy.

Not only are they so (so!) happy, they are actively problem-solving, they are creating are on a deep level, and they are driving their own learning experience. And, this is all because I somehow lucked into something they find interesting and significant:  They like to work in groups, and they like to have more choices when it comes to creating.
Here’s what they are doing:
1)      We defined “diorama” (can you believe they didn’t know what it meant even though they’ve been as they “making them things for years”)
2)      We examined the “Peeples Choice” diorama’s from the WaPo contest last year (they loved this)
3)      They were tasked to assemble into groups (Avengers Assemble!)
4)      They received a list of all of the topics they have learned about in 7th grade Social Studies. They were tasked to devise a group theme that relates to 7th grade Social Studies, and construct a diorama illustrating this theme.
5)      Students were told they would receive 2 Peeps from me, and they could purchase more on their own if they wished (they average about 12 for $2)
6)      They had to sketch out their diorama and make a list of all of the materials they expect to use. I provided glue, glue guns, glue gun sticks, scrap cardboard, scrap fabric, construction paper, colored pencils, markers, paint, glitter, sand, sequins, wire, 2 Peeps, and random small pieces of wood.
7)      They began to build their dioramas

We are just two days in, and these kids are on-fire for this project. Several groups even got together after school to work on their diorama (what is this madness?!). Incidentally, this problem-solving method perfectly aligns with how STEAM is being taught across the country (just sayin’).
So, here is my revelation: Sometimes, you have to trust the kids to know how to drive their own learning. You have to give them control. You have to give them choices.  I know this revelation seems a bit obvious; a bit, “duh!” But, we often interpret student obedience and complicit behavior as good and the means by which students learn. . . Yet, students learn best when they are actively involved in driving their own education. This means we sometimes have to take that really overactive class of students (ahem 5th period, I’m looking at you), and give them the opportunity to put all that kinetic energy to educational work.

And, dude, I can’t wait to show you the finished results. 

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