Mini-Presentations: Don't Come to Connecticut!

Colonies Slide OneI wrote a few weeks ago about a strange decision I made in an AP U.S. History class to do ‘tear art’ one day as a review, but also as a sort of change-of-dynamic activity. Today I decided yet again to try something that might prove brilliant, might be a disaster, or – as with the ‘tear art’ – might land in some nebulous zone in between. 

About the same time my AP U.S. kids were doing the ‘tear art’ experiment, I had done something with my solitary AP World History section which I hadn’t done before. I called it ‘Mini-Presentations’, mostly for lack of a better term. Students were given one of four brief articles about the Mesopotamians (like in that song). They grouped themselves based on their randomly assigned figure – Sargon, Hammurabi, Ashurbanipal, or Gilgamesh. It’s a small class, so this meant groups of 2 or 3 per Mesopotamian ruler. 

They then had 35-40 minutes to read the article, discuss with their partner or small group, and create a five-slide presentation hitting certain key points about their assigned person. The presentations were given during the second half of that same class period, and required to be 3-5 minutes in length. (There were a few other guiding details, but they’re not important here.) We’re a one-to-one school for the first time this year, so they all have Chromebooks. They’ve also apparently used Google Slides so much over the years that the format isn’t an issue at all – there’s no “learning curve” regarding the technology in this case. 

Colony Slide Three

Four groups, mostly high-ability, relatively motivated students, and a 70-minute period – what’s the worst that could happen? And honestly, it went insanely well. Only one of the presentations was a little text-heavy, but even that one nailed the essential content and moved along quickly. I was pleased, although I’m not sure how soon I’ll do it again. Probably not until after Christmas. 

So my APUSH class has their first real exam tomorrow, and I wanted something which could potentially review some of the content they weren’t strong on, but which wasn’t additional homework or out-of-class stress leading up to the test. (Don’t worry – there’s already plenty they’re supposed to be reading, watching, and doing throughout the week. I’m not that compassionate or progressive in my teaching mindset.) I thought of the mini-presentation idea, which had gone fairly well with the APWH group recently. 

As you might imagine, it’s not a lesson which lends itself to great detail or analysis of the subject matter, but in this case I didn’t want depth and analysis – I wanted main ideas and overall familiarity with the various regions, sprinkled with quirks of particular colonies. Whereas the Mesopotamians version was more or less an introduction to new information, this one was intended to be a creative recap of stuff they already knew (at least theoretically). It’s also a very active way to spend 70 minutes – a plus, given how many days we're analyzing docs or grinding through content.  

So… why not? LET’S DO IT!

Colony Slide Two

As students entered the room they were handed a card, either pink or green. On each card was the name of one of the original thirteen colonies. I briefly explained that their job was to either promote their colony or warn off potential settlers, with 1750 being their general reference point – not yet rushing into revolution, but well-past that first generation of colonists. 

Students with green cards were given general expectations for their five slides wooing potential settlers – here’s who we are, here’s a bit about our history, here’s what’s happening with our industry or agriculture or semi-representative local government, etc. Students with pink cards were told to do the opposite and warn off those considering their colony – here’s who we are, a bit about our troubled history, and why you want to steer clear of our current conflicts with the Natives, the Spanish, or disease, or oppressive religious figures, etc. Students with the same colony could work together even if they were on opposite sides of the argument since much of the information would be the same. 

It went fairly well, but unlike with the ‘tear art’ experiment (which left me uncertain even afterwards whether it had even been the right call), I think the Colonies Recap Mini-Presentations COULD be excellent. I’m definitely going to try some variation of it again, perhaps with different content later this year, but definitely at this point next year. There will, however, be a few substantial changes based on how today unfolded…

Colony Slide Four

First, most students handled the pressure rather well. One purpose of the activity I was NOT upfront about was that it forced them to review and compile a lot of information quickly, culling out what’s most relevant for their argument, and presenting it in a semi-organized fashion all in a very limited span of time and under a certain amount of pressure. I don’t like to design many lessons specifically around AP Exams unless I’m sold on the content and skills involved anyway (which I largely am, despite the College Board itself making us all crazy more often than not), but in some sense this was test preppy. My darlings need to get comfortable crunching info quickly and presenting it coherently under pressure – that’s the nature of an AP Exam. But surely that’s also a life skill, yes? Working under a deadline, balancing quality and efficiency, evaluating and synthesizing what they know in order to make a persuasive case for something - seems like a reasonable upper-level expectation to me. 

And, to be fair, we were reviewing why you should or shouldn't move to Connecticut in 1750, so it wasn't exactly defusing a nuke as the timer hits single digits or anything. 

In any case, I honestly expected more complaining or arguing, but the majority stepped up and just handled it, even if the results looked as rushed as they were. I think that even if I don’t want this to become one more thing on their plate as they prepare for our first test, some minimal front-loading would make it a more effective day next time. I’m not sure what that would look like just yet, but perhaps something as simple as assigning the colonies the day before and asking them to come prepared with a short list of pros and cons of moving there circa 1750. I still don't think I should tell them what we'd be doing with that information until they arrive the next day, so I’ll have to think about this part. 

Colony Slide SevenSecond, I should never have included all thirteen colonies. It’s not that kind of a class. We care about the various regions (Southern, Chesapeake, Middle, New England), but not the specifics of every single one. Virginia is worth time and attention, and there’s enough unique and interesting stuff about Rhode Island, Georgia, or Maryland, that the mini-presentations work, but it was a much harder and less productive assignment for kids who drew New Jersey or Delaware. That was foolish, and completely on me. 

Third, I wasn’t realistic about the time it would take to give all of the presentations. I had done some rough math in my head, but clearly should have considered putting the numbers on paper, because we ran out of time even in my smaller class, and got through less than half of the presentations in my larger section. The exam is tomorrow, on a Friday, and I’m definitely not postponing it for this, so I had to quickly come up with a back-up plan (if you didn’t present, I’m grading just your slides, but since you weren’t planning on that you have until this time tomorrow to flesh them out, but seriously-don’t-spend-hours-on-it-just-make-sure-I-can-tell-you-know-what-you’re-talking-about-because-this-was-never-supposed-to-be-homework). 

Colony Slide FiveOne way to address all three of these issues, at least partially, would be to arrange it as a small group activity by design. Fewer variations on the cards, meaning you find the person whose card matches yours and that’s your partner or group. That worked well in the Mesopotamian version, and two or three students tackling the same thing means more information and fewer presentations. That also allows some wiggle room for students strong on content crunching but not in love with standing up and talking. I want all to speak in front of peers eventually, but it's not essential for every activity. 

So it wasn’t brilliant, but it was a start, and I felt like I could afford the risk because most of the legit stuff has been going well. Students who are playing school with us are already warming my cold, disgruntled heart with their insights and growth and legit-but-seriously-weird styles. I confess that, out of pure vanity, I sincerely hope that the next time I’m reflecting all over you, my Eleven Faithful Followers, it will be to report an act of brilliance and/or inspiration on my part – something about which I can be truly giddy and perhaps even feel a bit smug. 

Until then, remember – we can’t control whether or not what we’re doing is actually changing the world. We sure as hell can't control how others respond. But we're going to try again TODAY to do our damnedest to build vision and strength and knowledge and skill – because if there IS any hope, our kids are where it begins. 

Colony Slide Six

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