Classroom content and collaboration with students

I spent much of my life working as a writer in a marketing, journalistic setting, and a fiction setting, so the idea of developing classroom content appealed to me when I became a teacher.

My thoughts on collaboration began to fester a few years ago when I was experiencing and reading about lack of engagement among high school students.

2015 Gallup Poll (I know, old, but the numbers haven’t moved much) found student engagement was at 75 percent in grade 5 and by the 12th grade, it had dropped to 34 percent. That’s amazing! Right at one-third of students feel engaged in 12th grade. That’s an F even in the most forgiving grading systems.

And let us be honest. In most grading systems, engaging 75 percent would be a “D,” or below average.

But it gets worse.

The poll also found direct correlations between student engagement, or lack there of, and chronic absenteeism and academic performance.

Think about those results. We as teachers accept and recognize the importance of student engagement. If we can only get 34, 35, 45 percent of students to engage, are we successful? If you are a subject that is tested by an End of Course test or some other standardized test, and 34 percent of your students are engaged, how do you think the test results will look? How will that impact your annual evaluation scores? How could an increase in student engagement of 10, 20, 30, or 40 percentage points change your class? Your test scores? Your joy in teaching?

Classroom content

Teachers often collaborate, but when they do it is generally with each other.

Taking a queue from content marketing, where I spent many years of my life, there may be another tool to add to our toolbox. What about collaborating with students to create the actual content for your classroom?

This would to some degree be considered user-generated content. In content marketing, user-generated content is created by the customer and can be a powerful tool to not only access new content but to also increase user engagement.

Examples are everywhere. Lots of coffee drinkers among teachers. In 2014, Starbucks developed a campaign where people were given plain white coffee cups. They were then encouraged to doodle their own Starbucks design on the cup, take a photo and upload pictures of their personally designed cups. The winners had their designs released by Starbucks as limited editions.

One of the customer-submitted Starbucks designs.

Eve Online is an online massively multiplayer game set in space. It has thousands of people online playing together at any given time.

If this is proven, doesn’t it make sense to engage your customer or user — the student — in the creation of relevant and interesting content?

The student will know what avenues work best to reach him or her. Is it worksheets? An essay? Interactive notebooks? Students know how they like to be reached and what makes things “stick” with them.

As a teacher, you have a responsibility, so when I say collaborate with students, I am in no way advocating giving up control. Rather, you must ensure the content is:

  • Relevant.
  • Actionable.
  • Meets standards and objectives.
  • Appropriate to grade and/or skill level.
  • Assessed in a meaningful way.

Don’t give up control, because it is also your responsibility to ensure the content is reaching its intended audience — the student.

The tangible goal

I used to teach a digital arts and design pathway program. It was a 3-year program in which students would study with me in 10th, 11th, and 12th grade. The third year had some specialization involved. Students could choose to study animation, digital photography, graphic design, web design, or a couple other areas.

The District goal was industry certification through Adobe.

The student and I would work together. What specialty are you going to pursue? What industry certification are you going to test for? And, my addition to the puzzle – what is your tangible thing you’ll produce?

An animation student might produce a five-minute cartoon or a web design student will create a web page with specific criteria.

Then we’d discuss what skills and knowledge were needed to pass the industry exam and to create the tangible thing. Students researched the classroom content that could be used with the end goal in mind throughout. I prodded to keep them focused and on task.

Classroom content
In a truly collaborative environment, when a student’s input is as important as the teacher’s, students feel more empowered to help one another.

A student we’ll call T wanted to study graphic design her senior year. She chose the Adobe Photoshop industry certification test, which was little problem for her.

Her tangible thing was a portfolio. That wasn’t enough, so with my guidance, she got very specific. She wanted to create a portfolio that demonstrated business marketing (logos, etc.) using a variety of fine art styles – contemporary, cubism, pop art, surrealism, etc.

For eight months, she worked on that portfolio. We spent a lot of time in a one-on-one teaching situation – during class. She found her own videos and notes and articles to help guide her through the processes. This was her approach to learning – very student driven, and guided by me. Accountability fell to me.

I set up assessments and provided a lot of very specific feedback. Of course, this portfolio work intermingled with plenty of “whole class” assignments and instruction, but each student took a similar approach.

The tangible results

T started applying to various art schools and received acceptance after acceptance, thanks to that portfolio. Then the letters started coming from financial aid offices. Scholarships! In the end, she chose an out-of-state art school that offered her an $80,000 scholarship.

This portfolio was her goal. It was her decision to produce it as a tangible thing. She found the classroom content to help her learn what she needed to learn to get to that end goal.

Not all seniors had her level of success, but those who worked with me and collaborated with me, enjoyed their projects more. They were far more engaged than the kids that I had to tell, “this is what you are doing and how you are doing it.”

A number of students received scholarships and a strong percentage passed at least one industry certification test.

My thoughts on using content marketing in general, and user generated content specifically and in a more robust manner than, say, having kids create anchor charts, is still in the works.

You can certainly lecture/read, project/test, assess. Rinse and repeat. Or rather become a collaborator with, and a guide to, the student on their learning journey.

I know which way I’m leaning.

A group of students taking their Adobe Photoshop Industry Certification exam.

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