Thinking about my Choices, and yours…

For the last couple of years, I’ve been a little dissatisfied with the structure of my Digital Photography class. I’ve basically taught it with the same structure since the previous teacher moved away 7 years ago and I volunteered to switch from the English department into the world of multimedia and publishing. As I made the switch, the school also switched to offering a Digital Photography course, whereas prior to that it was just Photography. In order to facilitate that transition, and because I enjoy the seemingly magical process of chemical/analog photography, I would teach a few intro lessons and projects to get students accustomed to the darkroom process, then instruct students on the use of a film SLR camera, and basically use the entire first half of the semester-long photography class sharing the basics of exposure, aperture, shutter speed, and composition. Then we would transition to digital photography around the quarter and use the remaining time in the semester translating what we had learned about film and the darkroom to DSLR cameras and Lightroom/Photoshop. Everyone moved through the assignments basically together and everyone had basically the same experiences as they progressed through the class. At the end of the course, I would give students a survey in which one question asked them if they think the course should be structured with more analog, more digital, or just like it was. Only a very small percentage of students ever asked for more digital, but a few wanted more time with film and most thought that it should be just like it was.

Maybe it’s just that I get bored teaching things the same way, or maybe it’s that I’m never really satisfied that I’m covering the content well enough, or maybe I started to feel like I’m losing the battle between myself and student devices for student engagement and attention… I’m not really sure why, but I decided I needed to change something. Eventually I decided to overhaul the structure of the course to see if I could reach more of the outlying students who are on the periphery of engagement. I remember having a college professor for my World Literature course who set his class up completely à la carte, and allowed students to pick and choose which assignments they could complete. Each was worth various points depending on their difficulty and could be turned in at any time. Once students had earned enough points for the grade we wanted, we didn’t have to come to class anymore. I remember how much students seemed to enjoy that style, but I don’t have quite as much freedom as a college professor, and I felt like high school students needed a little more structure than that, so last fall I created a hybrid system which also strangely echoes some of the structure of ED654. I determined that I would utilize the new system for a year, and if I decided I didn’t like it as well I could always go back to the old way the following year.

The new structure involved category-based grading of Mandatory Assignments (50%), Choice Assignments (40%), and the Final Project (10%). For the first half of the semester, I plowed through what I deemed absolutely necessary to understand about photography, while assigning all students work that gave them basic experience with film, darkroom, dslr, Lightroom, and Photoshop, calling them “Mandatory Assignments”. Throughout the second half, students had access to a shared Google Drive folder of “Choice Assignments” that they could complete in various mediums and for varying quantities of points. Additionally, they had the option to Choose Their Own Adventure, and create their own assignment according to a template. If they created something great, I would offer to buy (with points) the rights to their assignment and put it into the Choice Assignments folder so other students could opt to work through what they had created. They had about 8 weeks to complete Choice assignments totaling up to 200 points, but they were only allowed to turn in a single assignment each week during class. In case they were absent or let themselves fall behind, I allowed one extra assignment to be turned in each week by conferencing with me after school during lab time. The class culminated in a project that required students to submit a video detailing one way their photography skills improved throughout the semester.

A great deal of effort went into making the structure swap, and re-crafting my assignments to fit the new mold. As the instructor, I thought it was a nice switch just because it was different than what I had done in previous years. However, at the end I didn’t really feel like my goal of reaching fringe kids more effectively was accomplished, I had about the same number of failing and marginal grades as in previous years. Additionally, I think there was probably more off-task behavior in my room during the 8 weeks of Choice Assignments because I basically let kids choose what they were going to do but offered them help whenever they asked for it. Finally, while the two sections of Photography in the fall semester felt like a success, the single spring class felt like it didn’t work as well for some reason, but I never did put my finger on why… Was it a success? I don’t know. Will I try it again next year? Same answer. My summer has been so busy thus far that I haven’t had much time to scrutinize my efforts throughout the past year. When I saw the structure of ED654, I thought it was pretty interesting that each Collection has a few Choice Assignments that allow for learner flexibility alongside the Required Assignments. It never even occurred to me to pair the Choice Assignments in Photography with the Mandatory Assignments instead of lumping all of each category together, and it makes me wonder if something like that would work for my subject and students.

If anyone reads this long-overdue choice assignment, I would appreciate their thoughts and feedback. If they would like any clarification on the finer points of my Photography experiment, I’d be happy to dialogue with them. I would also be interested to know how the structure of ED654 came to be what it is.

1 thought on “Thinking about my Choices, and yours…”

  1. I’m not surprised to hear that your experiments have led to some design choices similar to mine in ED 654…mostly because I have seen similar things happen in a variety of other classes by both students and colleagues! Convergent evolution, maybe? At any rate, it seems to be the way many people go when they put together a set of ideas about teaching and learning…the interesting thing to me, is what are those shared ideas (and frustrations, circumstances, etc)?

    Obviously, the context varies, and sometimes widely (particularly between K-12 and higher ed), but concerns I’ve seen and share: a desire for more self-organization and direction coupled with wanting to allow a class to be suitably altered/customized for the particular cohort, issues with grades and grading (I wouldn’t have grades at all if I didn’t have to; I planned to do contract grading in ED 654 but it was too unwieldy), and recognition that so much curriculum is doubly-divorced from the learners in being both artificial and disconnected from their real lives and professions.

    The result for me is far from perfect—and far from radical!—but I think it continues to be better and better for everyone…

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