Over the past few years, I've led my students through dozens of projects. This year, those projects tend to take the form of an original play, performed by puppets. And all have had periods of The Suck.
We've done Origin Stories from various cultures. We've done Battle of the Hominids, where students made plays based on the research they did on one particular Hominid. They've made videos for their Museum Project where they researched one of six cultures we didn't get to study this year. They've also made dozens of individual puppet videos to teach vocabulary, grammar, and even historical content.
Those projects were all fine. The videos were cute, the scripts were collaboratively written, and the puppets (mostly) stayed on screen.
But on this project, about daily life in Ancient Egypt, I wanted to do a whole lot of things better. I wanted to beat The Suck.
Last time, the groups also had WAY more writing time than was useful. The scripts suffered from a lot of over-working on one hand, but under-thinking on the other. More time was spent making asinine comments in group chat than was spent composing and revising.
The groups also had interpersonal meltdowns. They struggled with the task, but more than that, they struggled with the fact that they had to work together for that long of a project. I had various people coming up to me in a steady stream to complain about how terrible their group was at collaborating. That wears on me, and isn't helping them learn to collaborate either.
This time, I made some changes to the process.
First, I gave them just under the amount of time they actually needed to complete each task.
The first step was research, based on eight sites I vetted about daily life in Egypt. I gave them an hour to find information in those eight sites, and then fill out a table summarising their research.
The next step was composing a script. They had about an hour, split between two days, to have a complete script that depicted a story that also was saturated in rich historical detail.
After an hour, it was time for the table read. I paired them up, gave them a google draw document on which to take notes, and asked them to film their performance. They didn't use puppets this time. They just read through the lines in front of an audience (and a camera).
When both groups had performed, I had them do a listening task. Each group prepared the answer to three questions - about the execution of the play, the story, and the historical detail - and then the other group took notes on their answers. The group taking notes and receiving the feedback weren't allowed to talk. I had some clarifying questions for each group to draw out more specific and focused feedback, but on the whole, the feedback was incredibly worthwhile.
Then students got about 45 minutes (again split over two days) to revise their script based on the feedback, and make props, costumes, and prepare other effects.
Next, students performed a run-through with their puppets, and sent the video to their partner group for more feedback. When that was complete, students had a final 30 minutes to finish the script and hone their voice acting and puppetting ability.
Then it was time for the actual performance against the green screen. When students finished, I sent them the file from my camera (which is substantially better than their computers' webcam), and they divided into roles.
The editor, producer, and director worked on editing the video. The Lead Historian and Art Designer worked on a movie poster and a video thumbnail for YouTube. The Lead Historian is involved in that because all the art design must be filtered through an understanding of the historical time period.
Hopefully, when they finish, they will have a video of their original puppet play loaded on YouTube.
As a companion to this project, I also had them blog about their experience of working in groups. This took place about halfway through, when some frustrations were already emerging. The goal was to make them more metacognitive of the way they collaborate. It also is leading into a mini-unit on group dynamics. I want them to be able to listen to each other. express opinions, and not act out destructively when others don't like or accept their ideas.
That whole process - from research to uploading the video - has taken about a week. And that's with zero homework. By keeping the working periods short, students were able to focus more intently and feel the pressure of a deadline. That, along with the reflection and activities about collaboration, thankfully eliminated much of the tension in groups.
So for this project at least, we have eliminated The Suck.