This past school year, before the Coronavirus pandemic devastatingly interrupted lives around the world, my English III students were engaged in a wonderfully inclusive and self-reflective, project-based learning activity I designed just for them. This activity began as a way to engage students in doing the work necessary to prepare for the English and Reading portions of the ACT examination; however, long after the ACT was done, students still sought to engage with this uniquely individual project that provided them an outlet to share with others their own wisdom and advice about how to get by in life. It is my hope that from this project, students learned not just to grab hold of the power of understanding language and the written word as tools for success, but more importantly, I hope they developed a love for writing as they connected deeply with themselves through their writing and the values that guide them through life each day. This is The Credo Project.
Begin with an Invitation to Personalized Learning
One of the best ways we can seek to engage students in important classroom learning is by asking them to tie learning to their own lives, by tapping into the people, places, and things that are important to them. This kind of inclusive education means students are willing to commit to learning because it means something to them, they are able to connect the learning to their lives.
To launch The Credo Project, I began by talking with students about values. At first some struggled with the concept of what it means to have values. Even the high school age students I was teaching immediately connected the word to something as having monetary worth. But allowing students to analyze the question “what does it mean to have values,” via open dialogue and with emphasis on the pluralization of the word led to some clarity. As their guide, I dropped hints and questions that led students on a path to discovery: “Have you heard the phrase “ethical values?” or, “How do our values affect our day to day decisions?” and, “What does it mean when a person has no moral values?” This search for understanding of the word values gave me the leeway to ask students to begin their own inquiry. I concluded our discussion with a simple task: “Take out a sheet of paper. I want you to begin making a list of the values you feel you possess. Choose one or two and briefly explain how embracing these values has affected your life.”
Asking these kinds of personal, critical questions early brought a high level of engagement to learning because students came to the realization as we began this project that “hey, this is going to be about me, about my life.” This kind of inclusive instruction made for a great kick-off of this student-centered, student-led unit that would be relevant to each student’s individual life experiences.
Concurrent Language Study in Context
The project officially began in January, after we were returning from the holiday break and, in my original plan, would continue up until the time the ACT would be administered in early February. We continued the Project unit by looking at sample ACT tests to see how students would be asked to engage with the questions, and together we examined the abundant academic language that existed within the test itself. This was primarily to give students familiarity with the test’s format so that when they saw the examination on the actual test day, they would not be overwhelmed by what they saw. We took a few minutes of each class for a week or so just to break apart the test. This was very important, and we did this in tandem with our daily engagement in the Project. We also did a bit of diagnostic assessment because I wanted to gauge, mid-year, where students were with the language and grammar skills we had explored up until December. I began with a few quick rounds of Plickers™ to establish where we needed to focus our attention as it pertained to the academic language we had been using all year long (Fig. 1).
The English portion of the ACT, we then discussed, was going to ask students to demonstrate understanding of concepts like proper use of grammar, sentence structure, punctuation, and rhetorical style. The Reading portion, they learned, would require them to analyze and evaluate a multitude of texts such as prose fiction, informational texts, and other narrative types. While these are all things we had worked to improve upon throughout the previous semester, it was now time to make sure students had grasped these things, and I wasn’t going to do that by giving them “drill and kill” sample tests over and over again. And although I wanted to make sure they had the stamina to complete the test, I did not want to completely burn them out on the test before they had even taken it. So, what did we do? We reviewed these skills they needed in context via this Credo Project.
The earlier explained exploration of the word values had already set the stage for the learning which was about to occur and highlighted the need to study language in the context of the content with which I was asking students to engage. As we carried out our “values” discussion in class, we used academic language such as analyze and explain, but we had really begun our learning journey with the word values, a domain-specific word, as the framework for the anticipatory discussion used to introduce the Credo Project. The acquisition of language in context, whether academic or domain-specific vocabulary, is essential to enduring understanding. We must never simply give students a word. Instead, we must allow them to develop relationships with words, to learn to create connections with language so that it is easily accessible when they need it. Analyzing values in the context of students’ own lives–as we began in the opening of this project–gave students the chance to do just that: make language “connections” to ensure retention. Words like analyze, explain, and values might be several words students would encounter on the ACT. But, it would also be okay if they didn’t because we would be building many more word relationships such as this as we worked through our Credo projects.
The really great thing about approaching language in this way is that students will begin to care about language when you show them how to use these words in their own voice to express their own ideas. They will have confidence because they have learned to use language in a way that will help them convey exactly what they want to say. They will care about how their words read, how they look, and how they sound. If one of these students is ever asked “to analyze” something, they can connect back to the time they had to analyze their values. If they are asked to “share their values,” they will know how to share them easily because they’ve already done the analysis previously. Establishing connections between academic and content vocabulary beneath the umbrella of students’ own experiences is so important for lasting understanding.
To further assist us in our study of language and grammar, we adopted Strunk & White’s Elements of Style (Fig. 2) as our writing guide, which we also used in conjunction with a multitude of PearDeck™ online, collaborative activities (Fig. 3). We created and participated in language-centered Escape Room activities, and we proofread a lot of everything! This grammar and language practice and review was done concurrently with all other parts of the project, putting the knowledge and skills to use definitively in context.
“Mrs. Harris, What Is a Credo?”
Along with Strunk & White’s Elements of Style, we also cracked open a brand new classroom set of Robert Fulgum’s best-selling essay collection titled, All I Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten (Fig.4). In Fulghum’s entertaining and authentic collection, he leads readers on a journey to understanding through brief essays about all things related to being human. Readers are pulled in by Fulghum’s entertaining writing style that is sometimes funny, sometimes awe-inspiring, sometimes sorrowful–but, that always asks us to examine our lives individually through each of his unique ponderings.
Because Fulghum’s title selection is often referred to as his credo, I had students explore the word “credo” by asking them to look the word up on the web in search of a definition. We settled on Google’s dictionary definition: “a statement of the beliefs or aims which guide someone’s actions.” We then took a look at Fulghum’s original essay and analyzed it to see if it lived up to the definition of a credo and the answer, for them, was a clear, “Yes.” We then took time to read through several of his essays across a few days, and through questioning and discussion, students realized that all his written pieces connected in some way to his original credo. Every single thing he wrote tied back to his learnings from “Kindergarten.” It was amazing to watch students make the connections, to see the deliberate nature of Fulghum’s writing that would help us all to learn something about ourselves. Little did they know, they would soon be doing the very same thing: using their credos to inspire and lift up others.
*On a side note, because all the while we had been busy exploring language in context, students were thrilled when they found that Fulghum’s book was filled with grammar errors and typos! They were actually pleading to contact the publisher! Instead, we talked about how important it is to generate quality work. Because they had identified errors in a book that had sold over 7 million copies, many of them thought, couldn’t they produce even better quality writing than this if they were the ones finding the errors? Their confidence soared and their minds raced. They could be million-copy best sellers, too! They were revved up to begin their journey to authordom!
The Path Forward
As previously mentioned, our starting point for this unit was the exploration of personal values. We then moved to understanding the testing experience by examining ACT English & Reading practice tests. We took diagnostic assessments to gauge language and grammar skills. We used The Elements of Style and PearDeck.com to review past learning and to address deficits. We then continued on the path to published authors as follows:
- Students created mind maps that incorporated every facet of their personal values and beliefs (Fig. 5).
- Students used their mind maps to construct one-sentence personal belief statements that would serve as their Credos.
- They used these Credo statements, just as Robert Fulhgum did, to construct an essay that explained the Credo in just a few short pages.
- Once their Credos were as polished as they could be, students peer-edited using the learning they had accessed in our concurrent study of language. I referred to this as “real world application of skills.” Students were all-in, so to speak, and did some of the highest quality peer editing I have ever gotten from them.
Little did my students know, these statements were just the beginning of what would be an ongoing collection of writing that would be housed on a web-based platform so they could share their voices with others. These beautifully crafted statements would serve as the cornerstone for a personal blog that would eventually be filled with as much writing and as many creative and personal pieces as their hearts desired!
From Blog to Test
While most students were familiar with podcasts and vlogs, You-Tubing in particular, many of them weren’t sure what a blog was or what they were designed to do. While some students declared blogging an activity for “old people,” once we accessed and analyzed a wide variety of blogs, many came to see the value in their content, on both a personal and a professional level. We discussed blogging as an important life skill that allowed them to practice real-world writing and communication skills. Through this discussion, students realized their work here would result in them becoming published authors on a real-world platform. When asked how a blog might further help them, they suggested that their work could be utilized later for college entrance essays, resume enhancers, or writing samples for employers or universities.
In order to begin the blogging process, once students’ credo statements were finished, we took a look again at a number of blogs, beginning with Robert Fulghum’s own blog which he titles, “Journal Entries.” This simplistic titling was beneficial as it helped students to better understand another purpose for blogging, in a nutshell. We read several examples of Fulghum’s online journal posts and compared the themes of these blog posts to the themes present in his book. Students were able to connect the language and messaging in Fulghum’s posts to much of what was in his book, right down to more errors! Through this activity, students continued to demonstrate their readiness for the ACT via their involvement in this evaluative and analytical process. It was fascinating to watch them learn and grow through this kind of an examination of the written words of others’ as well as their own.
Next, students began generating their blogs using the New Google Sites platform, a very simplistic tool for creating blogs quickly that didn’t require students to be highly skilled at setting up or manipulating a website from scratch. We did this in about one class period. Their Credo statement and essay would be the cornerstone for their site and the piece which would greet everyone who entered their blog (Fig. 6).
Beyond the initial Credo essay, students were required to develop three additional written blog posts that would also be peer-edited for language, grammar, and style, after which they would post the final, edited versions to their Google Sites. I permitted students to add one additional piece to their blog in the format of their choosing. They could choose to record a podcast episode; create a piece of visual art; generate a vlog post; write a poem or song lyrics; or share a collage of photos or images; each of which would be shared on their sites. And, as with all other pieces, their content had to be derived from their mind maps and should connect to their Credo essays or statements. They worked diligently to produce heart-felt pieces that they were confident about sharing with the world. They knew their words were going to make a difference to someone, somewhere.
By early February, students were ready to take the ACT. They had worked hard studying grammar and language in order to make their written publications exceptional and they were actively demonstrating a command of the English language. They had learned to read and analyze the work of others–not just for content, but for style and usage and understanding–all things they would be asked to do on the ACT. And when the test was done and they returned to me, I could tell they felt reassured. They were confident about what they had accomplished both in our classroom and on the examination. And most importantly, they wanted to continue their Credo Project work. My heart was overjoyed until…
On March 13, Ohio Governor, Mike DeWine courageously, and with genuine concern for the welfare of Ohioans, declared a state of emergency which rendered all Ohio Schools closed for what would eventually become the remainder of the school year. In the rush of scrambling to determine the best path forward in continuing distance learning activities, our Credo projects had also become a victim of the virus…or had they? While students had completed the requirements of the actual classroom project in mid-February, they had continued working on their Credo blogs long afterwards–all the way up until the time we left school for our new environment of distance learning. It is my hope that my classroom authors are still out there writing down their life advice so that others may benefit from it. Only time will give me the answer to that question.
The Coming Fall
I cannot wait to touch base with my former Juniors who will be Seniors when we return in this fall. I look forward to seeing who has continued their writing and what they hope to do as authors now that they have dabbled in the writer’s life.
Because this project was such a huge success, my goal for the coming year, whether we are distance-learning or otherwise, will be to engage all of my students with The Credo Project. I learned so much about my students from this experience. I saw, with my own eyes, the power of growth as I allowed students to interject their own lives into the content we explored. I saw passion and genuine concern for quality of work, and I especially saw my students’ desire for clarity in conveying their messaging. It was uplifting and invigorating for them and for me. My goal will be to introduce this project at the beginning of the year with all my classes, allowing it to run concurrently with all other instruction and content. This will be their personal journal of sorts, their passion project–a tool for self-reflection combined with learning, and a connection between language and themselves on a level unlike any other.
If you wish to learn more about the Credo Project, visit my website www.root2canopy.com. There you will find all the resources you need to bring the Credo Project to your classroom!
Fulghum, R. (2004). All I really need to know I learned in kindergarten. New York: Ballantine Books.
Strunk, W., & White, E. B. (2000). The elements of style. Boston: Allyn and Bacon.