To introduce my class to our semester-long creative activism project, I shared Candy Chang’s poignant TED speech, “Before I Die . . . ” It’s a great example of how simple creative concepts can make a big difference in the life of a community.
The class was the first time out of port, the “shakedown cruise” we called it, for ECI 509, “Creative Inquiry Through Digital Storytelling.” Designing and teaching this course seemed the culmination of a lifelong obsession with the study of creativity and a recent inspiration from the infamous DS 106 open course .
The semester-long, collaborative creative activism project was designed to give students the opportunity to take what they were learning about digital storytelling and creativity to reach out beyond the course to the real world and make a worthwhile contribution in preferably the areas of sustainability and/or social justice. The challenge was to work with two others to design, implement, evaluate the results, and create a video documenting the project. The course was small — only two groups.
Steps I took to scaffold or support the assignment included:
1. Designing a “workshop/playshop” with lots of helpful resources, including a Creative Activism Tool Kit.
2. Developing a detailed rubric with criteria clearly listed.
3. Implementing a Feedback Badging System used by Cathy Davidson and modeled after the Stack Overflow system that asks peers to reward team members with badges for contributions to the team effort.
4. Assigning a two-week collaborative project, “This Creative Life Radio Show,” due at midterm to help familiarize students with the Feedback Badging System and give them a chance to rehearse their team collaboration.
5. Including the creative activism project on the midterm conference agenda. I meet with each student individually for an orientation, midterm, and exit conference.
6. Checking on progress with weekly tasks (Exit Slips) at the end of class with students tweeting responses to questions like “What’s your group’s topic?”
I had also originally intended to conduct the Feedback Badging System three times throughout the semester and actually meet with the groups to keep them on-track, but the first collaborative projects with the radio shows went so well that I opted not to. One group truly enjoyed working together and was very successful while the other did have one team member whose perfectionism (inability to trim her portion of the show down to the required limit) proved problematic for her group. This student did critically reflect and was eager to serve as a more effective group member for the next project. I was proud of her for thoughtfully confronting the challenges of perfectionism to creation as an individual and as part of a creative collaboration.
When the projects were presented, the concepts were commendable — “Promoting Graduate Student Tree-Planting to Celebrate National Arbor Day and Earth Day” and “Creating an Inner City Reverse Graffiti Project” with students cleaning away grime to write/draw art with positive social messages.
But the activism part was missing because neither group moved beyond our class to implement or promote their projects in the real world. The explanation given was the time crunch at the end of the semester and much complaint that not enough time was given for “implementation.” From the busy grad student’s perspective, the week given prior to the due date for completing the documentation of the project was to be the time allowed to implement and document the project.
I mourn those potentially phenomenal projects that never really got off the ground, and I’m grappling with what steps for project design and implementation that I need to take to ensure that future students are successful with these projects.. These practices range from creating templates for a Google Sites Portfolio that each team would be required to complete at intervals throughout the semester. I’ve seen these templates used with undergrads for group work and with Masters students for semester-long practicums.
But I am of two minds. As a grad student, I would be a resisting learner as Ilene so well described in her reflective writing post if I had to fill out a template to document progress. I’d prefer to offer the template but give the teams the option to develop their own and a proposal and plan of action with specified due dates. That’s what I’ve done in the past for semester-long action learning projects for individual students.
When the goal is to encourage self-directed, self-determined learning in a space that is open and participatory, it is difficult to balance the need to scaffold and require strict adherence to arbitrary benchmarks. Perhaps offering the scaffolding as optional and that students can create their own plan of action would work best. But how participatory and open can a captive audience feel? Sometimes that’s the sense I get from many graduate students who are working way too hard between real job and multiple courses to enjoy and value the process.
As for the Feedback Badging System, one group (the relatively happy and successful group) seemed to thrive with this system and critical reflections on its value included:
The other group basically used the feedback system to explain what they had contributed to the project. One did comment that she liked the system but felt there needed to be more team members so comments were not so obvious. I also got some excellent feedback that perhaps tying the project to one of the creative aptitudes that we study earlier, probably symphony, would create an opportunity to focus on the creative activism project earlier in the semester. I could either omit the radio production or find some way to tie it in with the creative activism project.
All in all, what I think I’ll take away at this point (there’s still more feedback to come from the official ClasslEvals) is that I need to design a system that gives students enough rope to explore and create and make their own way while not giving them too much rope to hang themselves when the crunch inevitably comes.
I’d love to hear from any ECI 509 students who would like to share his/her perspective on how best to scaffold a semester-long project. You’ve all been so generous with your feedback throughout the semester, and I am grateful. The “shakedown cruise” was no Love Boat but it was no Titanic either.