On Friday morning, Southview AP Language and Composition Teacher Paul Moffitt matter-of-factly asks his students, “How many of you have built a website?” A few hands raise. “Okay, then how many of you have helped build a website?” Again, only a few hands raise. “Well, how many of you have given a presentation?” All hands shoot up immediately.
These results may be both surprising and not at the same time. Traditionally, teachers have assigned students to shuffle forward to the front of the class and stand before a PowerPoint presentation to share their recently acquired knowledge on a subject (sometimes not) of their choosing. Less often, though, have teachers considered how presentations can take a variety of forms, verbal and non-verbal, live and recorded, beyond the traditional. Paul is working on one of the new models of presentation, the student-created website.
This website assignment is a component of the AP class’s larger informational text unit. Students select a book of their choosing (see the lists of this year’s selections here), ranging from comedian Mindy Khaling’s Is Everyone Hanging out with Me? To Dave Cullen’s Columbine. All selections are contemporary, and no two students are reading the same book in the same class. After reading and writing activities, Paul introduces the group web development project, which requires a synthesis approach. Students create their own groups of three to four, discuss their books, and then develop a common theme or question explored by each one. That last task can be a challenge with such diversity of book selections, but the challenge of this type of synthetic reasoning is perfectly suited for the AP curriculum. The students then showcase that work in a Google site.
The model example site presented by Paul gathers a book about a Mount Everest expedition, one about the digestive system, another about zoonotic diseases, and a last providing advice to scientists around the theme of “fear of the unknown.” These students decided that each book presents an exploration of this encounter shared by every human being. In that, the theme is universal and common. The site built by the students presents an introduction of the theme followed by individual student writing on each book focusing on its specific exploration of the theme. The design is simple, with a home page and four branched pages of student writing. Images and videos break up the text, adding a multimedia element.
Below, watch students develop their own groups, discussing book ideas as they go.
All of this is well and good, but if you were an English teacher, you might ask why this can’t be accomplished just as well on paper. Here are several answers:
- Students developing a website are publishing in a much more real sense than a printed paper.
- Websites provide the opportunity for multimedia.
- Websites can lead to “presentations,” which involved students exploring each other’s websites. Paul’s students have comment features on each page, but discussion pages could also be built in (See an example of such a student site here.)
- Students developing websites are collaborating on design elements as much as writing, which reinforces teamwork and delegation.
- Paul’s students are given license to form groups with students from another class period. Web development makes that prospect simple.
- Web design is more engaging than mere writing.
Paul’s work with this project emphasizes the student-directed, collaborative work that forms the backbone of any truly 21st century classroom, and he knows that the core value of that classroom is not technology. These websites are simply tools to empower students to collaborate, create, and critically think. That makes them, and the work Paul is doing, more than a step up from the traditional.
Elizabeth Rauscher, teacher of Senior Humanities at Northview, also developed a web-building project for her students. This one asked students to connect schools of philosophy to characters and events in the epic poem Beowulf. Instead of Google Sites, she used Weebly. Check out the examples below!
If you liked this idea, check out Bethann Seifert and Jessie Minard teaching students to record screencasts as short presentations.