The Student Pitch Project revealed itself during a moment of educational desperation.
It was the doldrums of the fall semester. I had been blessed with a class that clicked, that participated, that stayed on top of its work. But the doldrums spare no one. On the day in question, my Composition II students were to arrive with rough drafts in hand, ready for a round of peer reviews. Instead, they arrived looking anxious, defeated, and mostly empty handed. Even my most reliable students confessed that they nothing to show for the day. They were overwhelmed by projects in other classes, midsemester exams, juggling work and school–the usual suspects.
My choices were grim. I could gather the few students with drafts into a pod for peer review while the rest of the class wrote. I could abandon peer review entirely and instead dedicate the class time to an MLA review. I could, in a show of mercy, grant everyone an extension and send them home early to write. But none of those choices felt right or helpful.
Then an idea buzzed to life in my brain: Let the students fix this problem.
I stood in front of class full of hangdog faces and announced that we would be engaging in a game of “Shark Tank.” I split the class in two. Each team was given the same directive: Address the missing work. They could push back dates, change the order of essay-associated assignments, and offer extra credit or deduct points for certain work. The catch, of course, was that everyone on the team, not to mention the professor, had to agree to the changes. That meant that those students without drafts had to convince those student with drafts to go along with the changes. That meant that students couldn’t push due dates until semester’s end, when I would have so many other papers to grade and they would have so many other projects to complete. After each team had come to a reasonable and agreed-upon solution, they had to pitch the idea to the entire class.
My Composition II class focuses on rhetoric: ethos, logos, pathos–all of Aristotle’s greatest hits. This activity is rhetoric in action: knowing the audience, considering different points of view, and selecting the right appeals. Their pitches, to my delight, were funny, candid, and persuasive. Each team, independent of one another, suggested that those who had completed their drafts on time be given a few points of extra credit. Both teams also adamantly opposed pushing back the date of the final draft, because pushing that date back would leave them with less time for the next essay assignment. In other words, the students were thoughtful and fair. I approved their suggested changes, and the rest of the essay process went smoothly. More than that, the “Shark Tank” class was, by far, my most lively and educational of the semester. The students were excited to take some control of the schedule, and I was excited to witness them using rhetorical concepts in real time.
That activity was so unexpectedly successful, that I opted to replicate it in other classes, albeit with more advanced planning. I allow students to choose, within certain limits, what work will be submitted as part of a project, in what order the work will be submitted, and when the work will be submitted. I even allow students to determine the penalties for late work and to suggest extra credit work.
What’s the point? When students feel a sense of agency, they are more likely to complete their work and less likely to complain. Moreover, students must consider the value or purpose of certain assignments and how those assignments fit together. They must also think about how much time each assignment will take to complete. And, importantly, the students learn to work in a group and to take each group member’s circumstances into account (a little empathy bonus).
The link in the very first sentence of this post will allows you to download the assignment that I use, which spans two class periods. This assignment can be changed to fit the needs of any class, be it political science, photography, or anatomy. I hope that it spurs the same enthusiasm in your class as it has in mine.