Props or no Props, Open ended or Guided

Props or no Props, Open ended or Guided

As a high school science teacher that uses SAM, this is a topic I think about often. When I am designing an activity or even planning to implement an activity that I have done in the past, I ask myself:

Should I use props or not? In other words, should I provide pre-made artwork for backgrounds and provide objects that will be the stationary and moving elements in student made movies?

The question is more complex than I had originally assumed. I am definitely in the “USE PROPS” camp. In my seven years of using stop motion techniques for student projects, my experience points me toward using props for students’ work. Students are able to make movies that are typically more visually engaging faster (see Brian’s earlier post regarding the importance of visually engaging movies). This observation is no surprise. With props, students do not have to take the time to make the artwork. Plus, many high school students have developed an art phobia and are not very confident with their art skills. So, props allow students to get started with a visually engaging movie faster.

HOWEVER, lately, I have been rethinking things based on recent student observations. I have noticed some SAM projects done with props that lacked the enthusiasm I am accustomed to seeing in my student’s work. Sure, they were able to get to the movie making faster and work out a response to my assignment faster. But they were not as enthusiastic about it. To me student enthusiasm is critical. It is the canary in the mine. If the canary goes…

So, I have been asking myself, when does the use of props in moviemaking reduce my student’s enthusiasm for their work?

I think the issue of enthusiasm centers on how open ended the project is or rather, how playful it is. How many openings does the project provide for some level of creative expression. Is their room for humor? Is there room for the unexpected and will these things be accepted by me as the teacher or will I facilitate the assignment in such a way that discourages this kind of play. This is always the balancing act in a classroom. For me, this is a big part of the art of teaching. How playful can the classroom be and still meet the goals of the individuals in the classroom as well as the individuals outside of the classroom (parents, fellow teachers, administrators, school boards, taxpayers, etc)?

So, as I move forward with the 2nd half of my year, I am reassessing my SAM assignments. I am looking at the “duds” from last semester and asking myself if I discouraged “play” by guiding the activity too much toward a specific learning outcome or if I constrained the representation of ideas too much by the requirements of the assignment. I will look to see if I can create some openings for humor, the unexpected, and alternative ways of representing ideas. Perhaps I will keep plenty of props and backgrounds available to students but make sure that they have materials for making their own. Or, I will design storyboarding time into the class periods before a SAM activity and encourage students to make props and backgrounds on their own. Or I will make sure students know that my classroom is available before school or after school for some prop making time.

I will keep you posted on the results of my tinkering. Props or not? Open ended or not? When do props work well? What role does the facilitation of the activity play in the enthusiasm of the assignment? How do I keep things playful but still “on track”. How far “off track” can we go but still wind up where we want to be? These are certainly not new questions and questions not only for SAM activities. These are questions that, for me, are at the center of teaching and learning. I will probably never answer them but will always enjoy the challenge of where these questions will take me and my classroom!

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