My Little World was an exercise in historical analysis and interpretation that addressed specific California social science standards as well as national thematic standards for social science and technology.* The project was an example of student-led learning as there were no precedents for the sort of cross-period collaboration the project demanded.
Goals and Standards
The curricular goals were for students to be able to analyze a problem in nation-building and international relations while using the Internet and technology tools to collaborate and self-instruct. They had to be able to:
- Reach consensus in large groups
- Research specific precedents and examples in four historical areas
- Apply different writing styles to create appropriate solutions
- Use multiple intelligences to solve problems and create deliverables
- Apply oral presenation skills
- Synthesize their learning to react to game-based scenarios
- Demonstrate fluency in the general use of technology, specific software programs, online research and information managment, and online collaboration.
These objectives addressed a number of California and national standards for history, social science and technology.
My Little World was a collaborative project designed to have the one hundred and forty-seven 9th grade students who took my International Relations class work together in six large cross-period groups to invent and present their own country, and then to react to various scenarios that put them into potential conflict with other imaginery countries in their world.
Throughout the year, the students completed units on geography, economics, culture and government, and then a large unit applying these ideas to understand the development modern International Relations, including the identification of national interests, writing of constitutions and the development and application of foreign policies. They participated in a course-wide online community (ID: groupguest411 password: visitor), completed several collaborative online exercises, made three digital videos, multiple PowerPoint presentations, conducted extensive web-based research, used a folder/file system to organize and label information sets, etc. They also worked extensively in groups, grading each other's contribution and, during cross-period projects, the contributions of people in other periods.
These experiences set the stage for My Little World, the first step of which was to group the students by their political values. You can follow this process by viewing the PowerPoint presentation I created to introduce the project.
Based on their personal beliefs, students were asked to choose and then rank six potential national interests from a list of fifteen, five economic, five security, and five ideological. The combination of their choices were given a numerical weighting. Student ended with "numbers" between 19 (highly defense oriented) to 56 (highly ideological). They were put into a line--a real political spectrum--and divided into six groups containing people with similar values (the lowest numbers, then the next, etc.). This exercise was repeated for each of five periods, and each like group in each period was given a name, like Grinkles or Yabadabas (see the map at the top of this page). In then end, there were six cross-period groups with about 25 people in each.
Classes were told that they were taken by aliens to a new world and that they would have to build their own countries along with their 25 other group members. Their mission was reach consensus on their national interests, develop a Constitution (a Preamble, rules for making laws becoming a citizen, making war, and if appropriate, a Bill of Rights), a foreign policy, a flag, and a national anthem (that they would have to perform). They were to do this collaboratively; when each country presented in each period, they were to use the same flag, constitution, etc. To execute, each country was given a Yahoo Group (ID: groupguest411 Password: visitor) to use for collaboration, and a set of principles the class generated on how to work effectively on collaborative projects like this.
Collaborative Carrots and Sticks
A challenge with group work is how to ensure participation and workload balance. This is particularly true in classes with mainstreamed special ed students and no tracking for "ambitious" students. Now imagine those same challenges multiplied in groups of 25 spread over five periods.
My solution to this was two-fold. Over the course of the year during out group exercises, students rated each other's participation high, medium or low based on whether a member contributed to their LEVEL of ability. I found that if 50% of the points were associated with participation, people collaborated more willingly, complained less, AND produced more, better output. With My Little World, the twist was that the 50% was divided in two: 25% for participation among members of a group in a period, and 25% awarded by each group in each period to their partner groups in other periods. I didn't get a single, "This is unfair" complaint.
My Little World was a self-directed exercise during which students applied what they had learned during the year about International Relations and technology. My role was to explain the assignment and give general boundaries on the deliverables, but I gave them freedom to figure out how to get it done and exactly what they wanted to do. During the project, my role was to mediate conflict, spread "best practices", teach mini-lessons on the deliverables, and be available for individual help. But pretty much I left them on their own to discover how to work with each other, delegate and manage work, package the deliverables, and organize the presentations.
The students were given a rubric to help them understand the objectives of the project. Since I believe that techology is a tool and that people use different tools in different ways, students were rewarded for the deliverables and for evidence of collaboration; there were not few guidelines for the use of technoloy in particular. Some people made their flags using digital tools, others contruction paper, scissors and glue. All were wonderful!
Assessments were made in class during the presentations, after which each group, anonymously, rated each other's participation.
The outcomes of this project are covered in this site's section on student work. Overall, the outcomes met the objectives: Students created a common set of deliverables using various skill sets and technology tools to invent their own country.
While they had common deliverables, the personality of each group in each period still shaped the outcome. Some groups added "historical" vignettes, others tried to recruit new citizens from other countries. And since part of the exercise had the groups responding to contrived conflicts, their resolutions were clearly shaped by the personalities in each group.
Additionally, as a bonus, I asked students to reflect and write a follow-up on the collaborative process: What worked, what didn't, and what they would do differently. Some comments:
"In my opinion, the collaborative project worked really well. I think My Little World was really much better than our first collaborative project because everyone knew what was expected of them in the group after experiencing it once before. As for the points for participation, i think it motivated a lot of people."
"...for organization, file structures and categories should be established to sort the information we compile. Dividing the work among periods means less work for each team"
"...the collaborative process in my opinion didn't really work that well at all. There was a lot of chaos."
"Posting and sharing research links significantly lowered the amount of time it took research a topic."
"We didn't use the site Mr. Gross set up. Instead, our group created a website of our own. It worked pretty well but it was a confusing work with both sites."
This project worked out pretty well. The students enjoyed it and got a chance to apply what they learned during the year. They continued to improve on their collaborative skills and felt like they were part of something new and special. I was pleased with the outcomes and feel, as the final exercise, that it left the students with a memorable experience.
*The full-year version of International Relations a new course piloted by two California schools--mine and another--during the 2004 school year. It was pre-approved as meeting UC standards for a Social Science elective and is in the final stages of the full approval process (it may already have been approved). There are no official published California standards specifically for this course; the other teacher and I used published California and national History and Social Science standards as the basis for developing the course.