Project Idea: Research the cabinet ministers of Canada
This project is meant as an introduction to Chapter 1 of the Grade 9 POS in Alberta and addresses multiple learning outcomes. AND it’s student-directed and fun to look at.
I taught Social Studies for the first time last year, and I have to say, it was no piece of cake.
For starters, having no previous experience in any core subject except ELA before I came to this school, it never fully hit me just how content-heavy/content-driven the other three core subjects are. If I wasn’t convinced that curricula are broken before, teaching Social 7 and 8 and Science 7 last year made me a believer.
Now, I’m in my second year of teaching Social Studies (I currently teach two sections of Social 7, one section of Social 8, and one section of Social 9 — whew!) and while the sheer amount of material in the textbooks continues to make me nervous, I’m trying to remember that streamlining is possible and necessary if you teach in the style I do.
The fact is that collaborative, student-directed learning is always going to be more time-consuming than if I were to stand at the front of the classroom and blather on endlessly about history/government/politics. However, the bang you get the for the time you invest in letting your kids discover stuff on their own is practically immeasurable. When I looked at my kids’ Renaissance Facebook projects last year, wherein they made big posters representing a Facebook timeline of Galileo Galilei, Martin Luther, or Christine de Pizan, the last thing that came to mind was, “It would have been a more efficient use of my time just to have them take notes and write a test.”
(By the way, if you, like me, enjoy collaborative, student-directed learning and you live in the Edmonton area, you should come to EdCamp Edmonton on November 2! Want to know more about EdCamp? Go read about it in one of my previous posts. Or check out the Twitter account. Or keep up with the event via Facebook! Online registration is here!)
The fact is, student-directed learning can be messy, and yes, kids can take advantage of the time you give them, but in the end, they work together, they research, they discuss, they ask questions, we conference, they try stuff out and ask more questions.. and that’s a heck of a lot more interesting to both them and me than note-taking and test-writing.
I came up with this project as an intro to discussing Canadian governmental systems, but the fact is that this project could be adapted easily for other topics. In Canada, the Prime Minister’s Cabinet comprises several men and women who have been appointed to specific leadership roles and who then oversee corresponding “portfolios”; some cabinet ministers are assigned to one portfolio while others handle two or three. In Alberta, the grade 9 curriculum opens with information about the three branches of our federal government, describes how bills become laws, and explains in accessible terms how the media and lobbyists play a role in the way our country runs. As we discussed the Executive Branch of Canada, I thought it might be interesting to have the kids investigate our current cabinet, especially following the changes Harper made to our cabinet in July.
What followed was simple: each kid gets a portfolio folder (you know, the card stock-type ones that are in abundance in any school photocopy/supplies room) with a cabinet minister’s name and assigned portfolios on it. Kids may trade portfolios with someone else if both parties are agreeable. My requirements were that the front flap be decorated with coloured, hand-drawn images representing the portfolio contents, the top inside flap had to include an image of the cabinet minister and the logo of his/her political party as well as a brief biography (personal and professional background included), and the bottom inside flap had to feature a brief description of the roles and responsibilities associated with the cabinet minister’s portfolio(s).
The assignment page above is downloadable here for your edits and reuse! The preview in Google Drive looks wonky, but opened in MS Word, it should be fine.
Ideally, the kids write in their own words, though sometimes of course, that’s a challenge. We have a lot of ELLs in my school, so this assignment was definitely tricky for them here and there. The beauty of it all, though, is that because it’s student-directed, there’s time for me to float around and help those who require a bit of extra assistance. I also assigned portfolios to certain kids, depending on their skill sets. As I said earlier, they could then trade with each other if they wanted, but that was a judgment call they would have to make. For the record, no one in my class swapped portfolios. Kids who are strong readers were assigned cabinet minister portfolios that were more complex or that required extra reading/research. Kids who are a little more basic and who don’t understand concepts like foreign affairs were given the finance or transportation portfolios so that they had something more concrete to go on.
You’ll notice that the due date box is blank in the assignment sheet above. I discussed with my kids the parameters of the assignment and the kind of work they would be doing; together, we agreed on a reasonable time frame in which this could be accomplished—three classes, plus a few days’ grace. Three classes’ worth of research/work time is about 2.5 hours at my school, and coupled with the extra four days of at-home work time, most of the kids had their projects done and ready to go. I thought this was the perfect amount of time, and it worked out really well that the kids agreed.
Don’t discount the amount of time it will take your kids to find pertinent information and figure out what it all means — most governmental publications are not in the most accessible terms for young teens. Many of my kids utilized dictionaries and thesauri during this project, which again, is such a great problem-solving skill for them to practise. Finding images, doing the drawings, and of course, writing down their research in their own words will also take time. Let them work!
Two of my strong little bunnies produced some great stuff in their portfolios. You can see the outside of their portfolios in the top photo and the work inside in the bottom photo:
Another perk of this project is the part when all the kids realize that every single cabinet minister belongs to the Conservative Party of Canada, falling in line with the principles of cabinet solidarity. It brings up amazing conversations about policy-making and conflicts.
Once all the folders are up on your wall or bulletin board, you’ll find it useful to keep each one closed with a small paperclip along the side. If you’re really ambitious, you could buy those little self-adhesive velcro circles and have each kid put one inside their folder, but I think the clips are just fine. Then the kids have a great time opening each portfolio to see what’s inside. I’m planning a post on making classroom bulletin boards more interactive, but that’ll have to wait for another time.
In the meantime, how great do those folders look? (Note: As much as I wish my class only comprised twenty students, the folders that are on display are only indicative of the kids who handed in their projects. Another year, another endless chase for missing assignments, right?)
The last, inevitable piece: the grading. Essentially, I grade each flap on 10, making the project a total of 30 points. You can really style your rubric any way you like, but I was looking for detail and thought, students’ own words, organization/presentation of content, and of course fulfilling the main requirements of the assignment. I marked this project pretty easily because it was the first of the year and because this project is meant to be as much of a curricular bullseye as it is a way of whetting some of the skills and processes that I ask them to cultivate throughout the year (conducting and evaluating research for a specific purpose, synthesizing what they read, exercising visual and media literacy, and of course… following basic instructions).
Best wishes with this project, and have fun!