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An earlier version of this post was published in 2013. This is an updated version.

 

A few years ago, I was working with a group of student teachers. One of them—we’ll call him Eric—was teaching seventh-grade social studies. His class was studying ancient Greece. The standards for grade 7 required teachers to address concepts like the government, economics, and culture of this era. For his 5-day unit, Eric was going to focus on the “culture” part.

On the first day of the unit, which Eric developed with his cooperating teacher, students would read the chapter of their textbook that swept through three centuries’ worth of ancient Greek culture in about five pages. Then they’d write answers to a set of end-of-chapter questions. On days 2 through 4, students would create their own Grecian urns by wrapping balloons with papier-mâché. Once the urns were dry, students would paint them in a similar style to that of the Greeks, incorporating something personally meaningful as the main artistic feature. Finally, they would present their urns to the class. On day 5, they would be given a quiz asking them to match 10 vocabulary terms, such as comedy, tragedy, urn, and Olympics, to their definitions.

Feeling more than a bit skeptical, I asked Eric to show me the standards his unit was aligned with. He rustled through some paperwork, then pointed to this language from the state standards: Students will demonstrate an understanding of the complexity of culture by exploring cultural elements (e.g., beliefs, customs/traditions, languages, skills, literature, the arts) of diverse groups and explaining how culture served to define groups in world civilizations prior to 1500 A.D. and resulted in unique perspectives.

I read this out loud to Eric, then asked him to show me exactly how his plans taught or measured the standard.

For a long moment, he said nothing.

Finally, he shrugged and told me the unit was basically what his cooperating teacher had “always done for ancient Greece.” She’d told him the urn project was really fun, and that the kids loved it. The only problem was, it had nothing to do with the standards. Draping wet, gluey newspaper around a balloon has nothing to do with deepening one’s understanding of societies and cultures.

All Hands-On Tasks Are Not Created Equal

I wish Eric’s story was just a rare example, but in my work with student teachers, as a classroom teacher myself, in my many years as a student, and now as a parent, I’ve seen far too many “Grecian Urns”: projects that look creative, that the teacher might describe as hands-on learning, interdisciplinary teaching, project-based instruction, or the integration of arts or tech, but that nonetheless lack any substantial learning for students. What’s worse, because these activities are often time-consuming, they take away from other tasks that would give students the chance to wrestle with more challenging stuff.

In their groundbreaking book Understanding by Design, Jay McTighe and the late Grant Wiggins describe this problem as the Sin of Activity-Oriented Design. Instead of focusing on the desired learning outcomes, this approach merely seeks out tasks that might be fun, or at least keep kids busy: “The activities, though fun and engaging, do not lead anywhere intellectually. (They) lack an explicit focus on important ideas and appropriate evidence of learning.”

To illustrate this, Wiggins and McTighe describe a 3rd grade unit on apples. In this two-week unit, students read about Johnny Appleseed, paint pictures of apples, do math problems that involve apples, write apple-themed stories, make applesauce, and take a trip to a local orchard. Students probably enjoyed all of these activities, and it’s likely that both teachers and students were charmed by how cleverly the theme was woven into so many different content areas. Throughout the unit, students probably seemed engaged, the classroom was full of colors and productivity and maybe even collaboration, but what valuable learning actually took place?

Let’s move our lens to the higher grades. Here, the Grecian Urns might involve no crafts at all, but still force students to ride along curricular tangents that, rather than inspire and ignite a passion for learning, lead to dead ends.

Take the math and social studies teachers who decide to co-teach a two-week unit on famous mathematicians. Math and history, right? Students spend most of the first week on computers, researching the mathematicians’ birthplaces, families, deaths, and contributions to the field (which most students simply copy, because the actual mathematical concepts are over their heads…how many eighth graders do you know who can explain the Fibonacci sequence?). They spend another three class periods creating PowerPoints or Prezis full of facts about these obscure pioneers in math, complete with neat-o animations and stomach-turning transitions, and another three days presenting these to the class…

For what?

None of the kids got any better at math, nor did their thirst for history grow. But to someone walking by, maybe even to an administrator doing a formal observation, this unit would look kind of amazing. Students doing online research! Cooperative learning! Technology! Interdisciplinary study!

No!

These teachers misunderstood and misapplied the concepts of interdisciplinary study, hands-on learning, and tech integration, and two weeks of precious instructional time were wasted because of it.

How to Spot a Grecian Urn

It could be argued that all lessons have some educational value, that any kind of reading and writing, manipulating materials and words, interaction with peers, and exposure to the world in general offer opportunities for learning. With that in mind, think of “Grecian Urn” as more of a relative term than an absolute one: Few lessons will be pure Grecian Urns; almost any lesson will probably have some arguable educational value. Far more lessons will simply contain elements that are Grecian Urn-ish; we can make these lessons better if we try to minimize those elements.

The best way to identify a Grecian Urn is to look at a task and ask this question: Does it consume far more of a student’s time than is reasonable in relation to its academic impact? If students spend more time on work that will not move them forward in the skill you think you are teaching, then it may be a Grecian Urn. And it may need to go.

Here are some more specific ways to spot the Grecian Urns in your teaching, and what you could do to replace them:

1. Excessive Coloring or Crafting

If your lesson requires more time coloring, cutting, or pasting than meaningful work with the content you’re trying to teach, it might be a Grecian Urn. If you are a primary teacher and students need to develop their fine motor skills, or if you are, in fact, an art teacher, then these activities have a clear place in your classroom. Everyone else should use these tasks more sparingly.

This doesn’t mean you should never ask students to color, cut, paste, sing, act, or draw, but every time you do, ask yourself if that work is contributing to learning. If not, there may be a way to cut down the time it takes. Suppose you want students to draw illustrations of vocabulary words. Adding visuals can work wonders to boost memory, so this is an instructionally sound decision. But is it necessary for these illustrations to be colored? On posterboard? Or hanging from a mobile? Would a simple line drawing beside each word on a regular sheet of paper serve the same purpose?

Now if your goal is true integration of the arts into your curriculum, I have two articles to recommend to you. Both of these really dig into what it looks like when teachers use art to really enhance students’ learning: read this post on arts integration from MindShift and this one from Edutopia to learn more about what this looks like.

2. Excessive “Neat-O” Tech

This is the tech equivalent of item #1: If students are spending lots and lots of time searching for images, making digital drawings, adding animations or effects to slideshows, adding sound effects or special titles to podcasts and videos, you are probably heading into Grecian Urn territory.

The key phrase here is lots and lots of time: Our students will absolutely benefit from learning how to combine text with images, manipulate presentations to make them more interesting, and make use of all the digital tools at their disposal. But when a student burns two hours listening to sound clips so he can make a photo of Langston Hughes zoom onto his PowerPoint slide to the sound of screeching brakes, well, he’s probably not doing much thinking about the Harlem Renaissance.

So when you’re assigning work that requires the creative use of tech, be mindful of how much time students are putting into the bells and whistles. Look at your rubric and make sure you haven’t required too many of these bells and whistles to begin with. And if possible, see if they can make the bells and whistles relevant: If students want sound in their slideshow about the Harlem Renaissance, have them add a Duke Ellington song, music that’s actually from that era, rather than a funny sound effect.

3. Low-Level Thinking

Most of the thinking in a Grecian Urn task is on the lowest level of Bloom’s Taxonomy. In other words, the task appears to be creative, but the primary academic work is rearranging and regurgitating basic facts or definitions.

Let’s look at two possible assignments for students to demonstrate their understanding of the Food Pyramid. In one class, the teacher has students re-create the pyramid as a hanging mobile. They write all the parts of the pyramid on pieces of colored paper and hang those papers onto a hanger or something. They might also be asked to draw or cut out magazine pictures of foods that represent items within each part of the pyramid. All of this work is at the Remember and Understand level of Bloom’s. Students are more or less defining stuff, and yet the task still takes an awfully long time to complete. Grecian Urn.

But what’s the point of teaching the Food Pyramid? Don’t we want students to learn it so they can make healthy eating choices? Here’s a different assignment: Have students write up a 3-day eating plan that applies the principles of the Pyramid. Sure, they can draw a border around it if they like. This will take five minutes. They can choose a cool font for the headings; that’s 10 minutes. But shouldn’t the real time-consuming work be put into deeply wrestling with the content itself?

4. Big Points for “Creativity”

An assignment might be a Grecian Urn if a significant part of the grade is based on “creativity” or “attractiveness.” And by the way, I’m a big design snob. I think presentation is important. But if more than 10 percent of a grade is based on these things—and I even think 10 percent is pushing it—we’re not measuring the learning that’s supposed to be taking place.

The fix for this couldn’t be easier. Cut way back on the points you assign for creativity or attractiveness. And if you find that the projects you get don’t excite you because they are not colorful or pretty, it’s time to start planning projects that will excite you with their content.

5. Word Search

If the task is a word search, there’s a very strong chance it is a Grecian Urn. Some argument could probably be made for how word searches reinforce letter recognition in the very early grades. Fine. But if some form of letter recognition, decoding skill, or language development is not the curricular intent of your word search, then your word search is probably a Grecian Urn. If you are a teacher who doesn’t have time to do things like project-based learning or Genius Hour, but you have time to make word searches and have students spend time doing them? Drop the word searches and you just bought yourself and your students at least 30 extra minutes per week.

What Then?

So you have identified a couple of Grecian Urns in your lessons. What do you do about them?

One option is to cut them out. Just move those lessons out of your plan book and replace them with activities that will actually result in learning. Look again at your goals: What do you want students to know or be able to do by the time they’re done? And what tasks will help them get there?

The other option is to revise them. Let’s go back to Eric and his urns. Maybe instead of using up three class days on all that wet newspaper business, he could have students draw their urns on paper. He could build the historical relevance by providing students with images of typical Greek urns, have them choose one, then draw their own urn with images that parallel those in the original, but with a modern twist. So if the urn they choose depicts a battle, they might draw something on their own that represents a significant war or other “battle” that has occurred in the last century. Students could then add captions to their drawings, pointing out these details and the thinking behind them.

If you really like your Grecian Urn activity, you don’t have to completely drop it. But if you can tweak it to make it take less time and build in more curricular relevance, you’ve made it a lot less “urn-y” and, in turn, given it a more rightful place in your classroom.

The Fun and Sanity Loopholes

Having said all this, I think it’s important to note that not all classroom activities have to have a clearly defined, rigorous academic purpose. There will be times when a task that would be called a Grecian Urn in one context serves a completely different purpose in another.

The Fun Loophole
Building relationships with students, creating a family-like atmosphere, and making the classroom a place students love to come has incredible value. If I didn’t believe this, I never would have written something called When a Principal Whips and Nae-Naes. Some things should just be done for fun. If students absolutely love playing with the drawing app on their iPads, make that an option for free time. If students want to create a collage as a thank-you gift for a departing student, by all means let them.

The Sanity Loophole
At other times, you just need your students to be still and quiet. Maybe you’re coming down with a stomach bug or you just got bad news over the phone. Maybe the morning assembly left you with only 6 minutes of class time and you know you’re not going to get anything done. Maybe they have driven you to the absolute brink and you’re about to start throwing things. The best teachers in the world have days when they just can’t be on. At those times, good old-fashioned busywork is like manna from heaven. That’s when you have them color. That’s when you pull out the word searches.

When used for fun or sanity, these tasks are no longer Grecian Urns; they’re more like classroom management strategies. The important thing is to know the difference.

 

That’s what I tried to teach Eric as we revised his unit. We had him use some graphic organizer activities, where students did side-by-side comparisons of ancient Greek and modern-day cultural elements. Students then completed a lengthy questionnaire, where they took on the identity of a person in Ancient Greece. Each student chose a social rank, age, and gender, and wrote about what their life was like. Some questions asked them to describe their feelings about other people in their community and about social issues. They had to draw a few sketches of some of the artifacts in their daily life and describe why these artifacts were important to them. Once all students completed these questionnaires, they worked together to arrange them on a wall in a way that represented their social hierarchy.

The activity took three days. Students collaborated, used technology to research their person’s life, and even used a bit of color for their sketches. In the end, they understood a lot more about ancient Greek culture and about how culture influences who we are.

And they did it all without a single strip of gluey newspaper. ♦

 

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85 Comments

  1. Maria Sansalone says:

    I am a new special ed Science/English teacher. Trying to incorporate engineering design process projects into the classes I teach weekly. Sounds like that student teacher was using material that someone else had reviewed or approved or given to them and had used before? And sometimes we are crunched for time. It takes many years to grow a reflective teacher. But I always try to use material that’s vetted by reputable websites, like tryengineering.org.

    • Hi Maria,
      Yes, I believe he inherited quite a bit of his original plans, and if we are short on time, we may have no other choice. You’re right: Doing this job well takes many years. I’m hoping this post will help contribute to pushing teachers in the right direction over those years. Thanks for recommending tryengineering.org! I downloaded one of their lesson plans (The Phone Charger Conundrum) and it’s excellent!

    • Emmy says:

      I wonder about retention here. I would predict, and I think research supports, that a task like filling out a questionnaire will be forgotten nearly the minute the next unit comes. You can dismiss the Gracian Urn, but it is an experience students will likely never forget. I would suggest incorporating more content into the gluey paste, not cutting the gluey paste.

      • That’s certainly an option, and I think there’s a lot of value in making things tactile and visual. The questionnaire, by the way, asked some pretty interesting questions, so although the final product wasn’t visually colorful, the responses certainly were “colorful” in a conceptual way.

      • Teacher of Joy says:

        Agreed. Some students are not going to remember the content, however they will remember the experience. Some of the tech experience helps them with other skills.

      • Joel says:

        Placing a value on learning experiences being “memorable” rather than the actual learning that is accomplished is part of the problem. Yes, students will remember paper maché forever, but, so what? Find a way to generate lifelong memories in the context of actual learning.

        I’ll never forget my 5th grade project to gather tree leaves and classify them. That was both memorable and was actually developed both content knowledge and skills in biology.

    • Jane says:

      This article was recently posted on an Art Teacher Facebook page. Most commenters, including myself, agreed with some of it, but ultimately felt it was anti-art. Long live strips of gluey newspapers! 😊 Creativity is sorely lacking in our society and is also what employers are currently seeking.

      • Hi Jane ~ For more discussion on this, please scroll down to the comment by Anna Nichols. I believe she agrees with you, and I wrote a lengthy response to her about this topic. I hope you’ll join in there!

        • Jane says:

          Hi,
          I’m unable to locate comment by Anna Nichols. It seems that the comment timeline is wonky.😛 Will keep looking. Thank you.

  2. Such an important post. I made a similar point when I shared my biggest takeaways after attending an assessment conference. http://bit.ly/1lFvvIN

  3. Allison K. de O says:

    This might be my favorite article yet! I have felt alone many times as others in my dept. wanted to assign projects that I just didn’t seem valuable.

    • Thanks, Allison. It’s pretty difficult to articulate this, especially when someone else is so excited by an idea. Our best bet may be to encourage them to make small changes that add more rigor.

  4. Meg Petersen says:

    I strongly agree. Things like this have always been a pet peeve of mine. I do think, however, that the apple example could involve meaningful learning in the early grades. Many students have never been to an apple orchard, or made applesauce, and these kinds of activities give them direct foundational experiences. The change of apples to applesauce can also provide a chance to introduce or reinforce science concepts like osmosis (http://indianapublicmedia.org/amomentofscience/osmosis-and-applesauce/). I guess I am basically extending your point about being thoughtful and deliberate about what we do in class.

    • Love that osmosis and applesauce article! Yes, with just a little more effort, even a totally “themed” unit like the apples unit could be boosted to add in more significant learning targets. It would take more effort the first time around to make that happen, but then it would be done, and teachers could keep the fun projects they’ve always enjoyed knowing they were making significant learning strides at the same time.

  5. Nearly spot on, a lot is futile, but the apple stuff was quite good.

  6. Michele Orlando says:

    I think you see a lot of fun activities because, as teachers, we went through urn schools and urn teaching colleges. I didn’t have instruction on preparing the activities you suggest but have tried to develop some over the years. Teacher education programs should spend time developing these skills so that we can address a deeper knowledge base. Most of the time we are asked to prepare lessons without the background you mentioned. Professional development does not occur on the topic either. It spends too much time on telling us we are doing urn activities without explaining how to go about making others. You educated that one teacher and I hope you are helping others. The just do it mentality will not makes us better educators.

    • Karen Reedy says:

      Agree 100%. Since districts do not provide training in this area. We have to rely on self-education, spending hours scouring websites to find a few lessons. These are precious hours that we don’t have as I sit here on a Sunday reading education posts and creating my lesson plans. For schools like mine that don’t have an art program sometimes a Grecian Urn project is as good as it gets. I envy teachers who have the time and resources to teach the way they want to teach. Perhaps posting some tried and true websites and books would help.

    • Michele and Karen, you’re both pointing out a big problem common to teacher prep and PD: lots and lots of theory, but not enough specific examples of what TO DO. In the same way that examples help our students understand a concept and transfer that knowledge to new situations, giving teachers concrete examples of high-quality teaching can go such a long way toward helping them apply new strategies in the classroom.

  7. Gordon Thorsby says:

    Maybe this rant is a greater in K-12 but there is also a potential issue in Higher ed. In K-12, maybe there is lots of time though I see results that students are lacking basic skills, knowledge of history, or subjects in context and instead urns are being made.
    However, there are issues that are insane excuses but are occurring that limit the teacher’s abilities and that is the educators drawing up useless curriculum requirements that are obsolete, not challenging, not relevant.
    So when I see urns (and I have some college level urns), I force the students to at least go outside of the box to seek solutions. It does require more work on the part of the instructor to follow up with corrections and for teachers to provide encouragement and feedback. That means instructors need to be performing at higher levels of engagement and I am not sure that all are capable or are energetic enough.
    Your idea has great merit. I might update it with asking instructors to see urns and totally remake them so that they are relevant skill building actions.
    That is my rant.

  8. I love this! Very thoughtful and insightful. But also giving lots of alternatives and ways to change a Grecian Urn into something of more substance. In our family, when my children were in high school, we had a name for Grecian Urn projects. These projects often seemed to come from foreign language classes and were dubbed QLP. Questionable Language Projects. They were instantly recognizable and often involved paper mache. There was a kernel of cultural learning, but it just took up too much time. This post offers ways to reflect on my own questionable projects and see what can be done to make them more effective for deeper learning of content.

    • Hi Sally. Yes, it’s that “kernel” that sometimes causes the most trouble, because it causes us to fool ourselves into thinking we’re delivering a quality lesson, when in reality we could be doing so much more with it. I would love to hear what you come up with in your reflections!

  9. Thank you for this post. I went to a conference several years ago that opened my eyes to this very important topic. After I recovered from my toes being stepped on, I omitted or changed a lot of my activities and to remove my Grecian Urns. I now feel much more confident that my units are directly aligned to the standards I am supposed to be teaching, and I still incorporate as much creativity and project based learning as possible. However as I browse Pinterest, I sometimes feel guilty that some of my lessons aren’t as cute, clever, and creative as others, but this post was a good reminder for me to not abandon content for the sake of something cute to show off in the hallway (not saying that it can’t be both). Finding the balance between content and creative projects is certainly not easy, but it is one of my goals as a teacher.

    • “After I recovered from my toes being stepped on…” Yes, Ashleigh. That’s it. And it’s why I was nervous right before I hit “publish” on this, because I wondered how much backlash I might get. But that’s really the difference between an awesome teacher and a mediocre one: The awesome teacher KNOWS there’s always room for improvement, whereas the mediocre one gets defensive at the mere suggestion she might be less than perfect already.

      I also think lessons can be high-quality AND cute!

  10. B. Sarv says:

    As always this has given me a lot to think about as a Head of Department and mentor. I will share the link to this with my department members.

  11. Coming from upper elementary, I would add many interactive notebook activities to your list of Grecian urns. Very cute, but what’s the ratio of higher level thinking to time spent?

    • As with so many other instructional tasks, this really depends on what’s inside. I feel the same way about worksheets–they get a terrible name, but I think I have put together some pretty good stuff that happens to be executed on an 8.5 x 11″ piece of paper. Interactive notebooks have the potential to be awesome, but those who create them should identify and remove the Urns as much as possible.

  12. Mrs K says:

    I came to this realization as a science teacher. AT the high school and college level, often times science labs are merely magic shows. Often times the bridge from abstract to concrete or vice versa is not easily managed. I see this often at the middle school level with number sense, the activity is seen as a separate concept, not part of the whole picture. Very frustrating, but being aware of it helps.

    • I agree that the awareness is key. If we can just take take that one extra step, asking ourselves whether the task really links to the learning goal, it will push every lesson closer to quality.

  13. Jenny says:

    As a teacher and a parent, I am infuriated by the ridiculousness of some assignments. My 15 year old son, taking 3 AP classes, is required to make a poster of a traffic sign for driver’s ed.

  14. Mary Beth says:

    My Grecian urn is a dinosaur diorama. For my two oldest children this cursed project was a big deal in second grade. It represents everything you are talking about in your post and one more thing that drives me crazy. Parents did most of the work. If there was any benefit to be had from the project, and there wasn’t much, the child didn’t receive it! Mom or dad did. As an educator myself, I try very hard to avoid the diorama or Grecian urn projects. Your post is a great reminder.

    • Yes, dioramas!! You know what would make those so, so much better?
      (1) Let students choose whatever medium they want to work in — so it could be a play-doh model, a drawing, a collage, or whatever would help them get the “stuff” visible the most quickly.
      (2) Completely eliminate creativity points. Just give a tiny amount of points for neatness so the student doesn’t just slop something together that’s impossible to interpret.
      (3) Make the vast majority of points relate directly to the standard. So say it’s an animal habitat: They have to demonstrate how the animal is uniquely suited to its environment, maybe showing five different connections.
      (4) Require students to write a short paper to go along with the project, giving a tour of their “diorama” and actually pointing out the features that represent whatever it is they are supposed to be demonstrating.

  15. Katie says:

    This is genius. I have to go to PD every week and everything the administrators say seems to be either stating the obvious or idealistic nonsense. Every column you write takes me 5 minutes to read and is worth more than 10 hours of the PD my district offers. I have one comment about the grecian urn analogy. I have assigned a flipped class project for the AP BIo students where each was assigned a molecule involved in cellular communication and they had to present the topic to the class, explaining how it was linked to the bigger picture and using 3 outside resources to elaborate on what was in the text and provide a connection to current research such as a study reported in the news. They could use powerpoint, prezi, make a video, write a song, pretty much any form of communication of the idea was allowed. Some students demonstrated an understanding worthy of a PhD student and others turned it into a Grecian Urn. Thoughts on how to prevent that, or will some students always focus on the non-academic portions of any creative assignment?

    • Hey Katie! I think the way you prevent it is to have a few samples done ahead of time. I usually would do these where I basically did the assignment, but substituted the topic for something similar (that way I wasn’t actually doing the task for them). Then, before students even start the project, take each sample one at a time and have students score it with whatever rubric you have created for the assignment. If the rubric demands true demonstration of the learning target, only the best sample will get the high score. If students don’t get that, this is your opportunity to help them understand the requirements. It still may not reach everyone, but doing this should cut way down on the lower-quality products.

  16. Yes yes yes!!! Thank you! This is something we all need to be aware of in our own teaching. I also find it frustrating how often those “Grecian Urns” get praise from other teachers/administrators. Thank you for addressing this.

  17. Barbara says:

    A comment and a question here. First, I think sometimes “urns” are assigned to help students raise their grades. If students don’t perform well on tests and quizzes, their grades sink. An “urn” gives them the opportunity to earn an A–and hey, it’s on a complicated project!–to help bolster sagging grades. Second, what about interactive notebooks? I’m experimenting with a science/SS interactive notebook this year (I’m in elementary), and yes, it does involve a lot of coloring. But it’s less dry than merely filling in blanks on a planner, and I’m trying to use the coloring to color-code information and help students make connections. It’s early in the year, so the jury is still out on effectiveness. I would be interested in hearing what others think about INs and how these can adhere more closely to standards and enhance upper-level thinking skills.

    • See now I love color-coding stuff, Barbara. I worry that this post might make some teachers completely abandon visuals, and reinforcing understanding with visuals is HUGE for storing things in long-term memory. I love the idea of color-coding concepts to help students make connections. As for the coloring, as long as it serves some academic purpose OR is not too time-consuming OR it’s just used as a filler activity (e.g., “If you’d like to decorate the cover of your interactive notebook, you may take it home tonight or do that if you finish early with xyz.”

      Also: YES about the grade-boosting use of the Urn projects. And what a shame. I would rather have fewer grades in my gradebook than a bunch of grade-inflating fluff. I’m a much bigger fan of letting students re-do assignments than giving them assignments that are easy A’s.

    • charles rivera says:

      … Or an opportunity to “urn” a grade. LOL. Sorry, carry on.

  18. Barbara Paciotti says:

    Wonderful article. As a former middle school librarian I am often appalled at the ridiculous “fun” activities librarians do that have nothing to do with what is going on in the school’s classrooms. Grecian Urn projects could be turned into magical interdisciplinary learning projects with relevant outcomes, if only teachers (and librarians) would collaborate, as you have demonstrated doing so skillfully with Eric. Thanks for keeping our focus on educationally meaningful strategies.

  19. Marie says:

    Thank you! This is a huge problem at the high school where I work. The district as a whole has implemented incredibly lenient grading standards that allow students to pass classes while doing very little work, so there’s not a lot of incentive to participate in class activities. As a result, teachers assign a lot of Grecian Urn projects so at least the kids are doing something. It’s not at all what I went into teaching to do, which is why I’m moving to a different district after this year. I just feel bad for the kids who are missing out on so much valuable instruction time.

  20. Kimberly says:

    I loved this post and felt grateful that my principal a few years ago discussed urn projects when staff was feeling overwhelmed by the new CCSS. Teach want students need to know to learn and grow and that may mean your”urn” project may not fit the need and will have to go. Good reminder

  21. I loved this article. In the name of creativity and for the sake of using technology, teachers do waste a lot of valuable time. Instead of trying to find an activity for every topic, it would be better if the teachers give just one or two activity for their entire course that a student would actually learn from.

    • I think there’s a balance for sure. You’re right: Not everything needs a big project, and sometimes we can just have one-day tasks that can be done right in class that are interesting and rigorous at the same time.

  22. Glenda says:

    Thank you for this – It is so useful to sharpen that sword mid-semester! Making learning the centre of everything I do in the classroom, and elsewhere, is the true goal.

  23. This is perfect timing for my Teacher Ed class. This post will be an assigned reading because it supports the backward design model we are using in class. As a teacher, I know how hard it is to let go of really fun activities- but when I realized they did nothing to increase student learning it was a bit of a wake up call. We teach that it is critical to start with the outcomes and then build the learning intentions from them, next selecting instructional strategies to support the learning and finally. success criteria to enable students to check on their own learning. Our problem is that although we drill this into the classes and model it, it is not what is being modeled in the classrooms of their Associate Teachers or in the great units shared by other teachers. One of my beefs with one-off lessons from the Internet– what are they plugged into? Thanks for sharing this- so, so timely!

    • Trista, I love UbD so much and wish that model was standard practice! I think the book itself is really tough reading, especially for beginning teachers. I’m working on ways to get that model out there in a more digestible form. And yes, not seeing this modeled in real classrooms is a huge problem.

      As for the one-off lessons? I think they have a place when it comes to reinforcing a concept, providing extra practice in a skill, or offering enrichment to students who don’t need extra practice in something else. But as with everything else, teachers need to be very clear about why they are choosing those lessons. Too often we think keeping students busy is equal to teaching them. And it’s just not.

  24. I really enjoyed reading this article and all of the subsequent comments. I think book trailers are the best example of a Grecian Urn project that I can think of, and I see a lot of teachers in our building doing projects with iMovie that seem to be Grecian Urns. In fact, I’m going to suggest that iMovie is responsible for more Grecian Urns than any other form of technology.

    I am concerned, however, that at the secondary level (where I teach) we sacrifice creativity too much for the sake of the standards. We have removed creativity out of the classrooms because it can’t be measured by the standards, and let’s face it – creativity takes time. I don’t think creativity should ever be a criteria on a rubric – for one thing, it’s difficult to measure and I’m not sure that it can be taught – but I don’t think we should completely abandon hands on stuff. The world needs creativity more than it needs people who can do what’s required of them.

    • I agree, David. But I think the standard definition of “creativity” is too often limited to the visual arts. This is why I think the emergence of design thinking in classrooms is exciting, because it honors problem-solving as a truly creative process.

      Since I know you are in ELA, let’s consider the creativity that’s necessary for good writing. When I hear “creative writing,” I think of poetry and cute short stories, but creativity is really what’s needed to take a solid piece of writing in any genre and turn it into something really powerful. Think of how much more effective a piece of persuasive writing is if it starts with a provocative lead. But how much time do writing teachers spend showing students how to experiment with different kinds of leads for their writing? Or different ways of using dialogue to add dramatic effect? Or studying all the different kinds of titles and endings real writers use, not just in stories, but in high-quality journalism, blog writing, and essays? In language arts, this is where the creative work should lie. But if students spend 12 hours on an iMovie book trailer changing the speed of their voices, they have strayed pretty far from the kind of creativity that’s possible in an English class.

    • I appreciate your point, David. Creativity in mathematics is actually something I push for. I actually take issue with the example that was presented of the students looking up autobiographies of mathematicians. One of the things that is most difficult in middle and high school mathematics classrooms is attending to 4 dimensions of equity/learning that I think are important for all students to have: access, achievement, identity, and power. I wrote a 2 page article about this that people can download from http://www.todos-math.org Four Dimensions of Equity
      “Play the Game” and “Change the Game”
      (TEEM, volume 1, 2009) Attending to the standards in mathematics only addresses access & achievement. It almost never gets at affirming the identities of students (allowing them to use algorithms from their home countries, using their native or first languages, drawing upon cultural frames of reference like indigenous ways of knowing, etc.) or allowing students to use mathematics in ways that are powerful for their own purposes or home communities (e.g., social justice mathematics). So, we end up sending the unintended message to students that most mathematicians are white European males and mathematics is important for…well, just more mathematics coursework. Having students research current or previous mathematicians who may share cultural backgrounds (including gender!) is an important way to remind them that mathematics is a human practice, full of heated debates, cult-like followings (e.g., Pythagoras), women, and individuals who took on the sanctioned mathematics of the day (e.g., that’s how we got non-Euclidian mathematics). So, I worry that readers of this post will see all of the high fives and “I agree 100%” and think that doing these kinds of creative projects are simply Grecian Urns. Of course, this kind of work is complex and requires attention to specific things one wants to get out of the project, but using the standards is only one (and, in my view, limited) way of deciding what should be in a mathematics lesson/classroom and what should not. Organizations such as http://www.SACNAS.org have done a nice job of chronicling some of the Latin@ and American Indian scientists today; the American Mathematical Society has also created a website to feature current Latin@ mathematicians and their research http://lathisms.org/. I am not trying to make a specific push for a project about the biographies of mathematicians, as much as I am saying there are resources out there. To the question of, “Does it consume far more of a student’s time than is reasonable in relation to its academic impact?” I would respond: “Who gets to decide what counts as academic impact?” If finding a mathematician who looks like you and who has done some important work in the field gives you a new view of what mathematics is, who is good at it, and how it was practiced at the time, I think we should think long and hard about whether that makes for an unnecessary “creative” project.

      • Linda Le says:

        Jennifer, my thoughts exactly!

      • Hi Rochelle,

        The approach you’re suggesting, looking at famous mathematicians from a social justice angle? That sounds like a great assignment, and if a project like that pulls a person of color into a career in mathematics, so much the better. But the project I described in the example above just isn’t that. It’s a pair of teachers skimming the surface of both content areas and finding a thin thread to connect them. There was no study of social justice in that activity.

        My hope is that anyone who reads this will understand that I really do think defining a project as a Grecian Urn is not a black-and-white science: Some projects are more Urn than others, and “creativity” as defined by the teacher may not ultimately be all that creative. Still, it would be a shame if every time a teacher brought out a jar of paste or a set of markers, another teacher yelled “GRECIAN URN!!” To me, that would be almost as bad as the teachers who THINK they are doing project-based learning when they are actually just doing cute activities. Doing this job well requires careful planning, collaboration, and reflection. It requires people who are capable of nuanced thought. So right along with you, I don’t want the high-fives to get out of control. I just want us to draw more deliberate lines between the work our students do and the outcomes we intend to produce.

        Thanks so much for contributing your thoughts here.

  25. All true, Jennifer, and in a memorable format. Principled thinking is what teachers need to grow on. You have made your epiphany theirs. Congratulations

  26. Larry Hiday says:

    First of all, your title made me think of the joke where the teacher says “It’s like a Grecian urn.” and the student replies “What’s a Grecian urn?” and another student says “About eight euros a day.”
    On another note you actually got me as I was doing a quick read about the teacher’s project and said to myself that it could be a meaningful. You then pointed out the same thing at the end and did some of the things that I’d been thinking could’ve been done. Thanks for the thought provoking article to prompt me to think again about what I’m doing. Maybe the trifold brochure on biologically important compounds and the food they’re in will get tweaked!

    • I’m glad this made you think, and tweaking is what I’m ultimately hoping for with everyone who reads this. Feel free to come back and tell us what you did with the trifold assignment!

  27. Thank you for this great reminder. As a teacher in the humanities, I feel the pressure to have my lessons imitate the “fun” activities students do in their hands-on science labs; so I named my classes “minds-on English”.

    • “Minds-on” sounds great! It’s important to remember that “fun” doesn’t always have to look like a party. Sometimes a great class discussioncan be more engaging than a hands-on project, especially for a high school student with a lot of opinions!

  28. Natalie says:

    I have never been able to express the idea behind this article, but this is exactly what I needed to read! I used to work in a school that pushed PBL, but many teachers turned that into Grecian Urns all year long. I’m afraid that if placed in certain classrooms, students didn’t learn a single thing that year. This was very helpful, especially developing my own projects. Thank you!

  29. Kelly BUrgess says:

    You hit is out of the park on this JG. Said “ouch” myself a few times as I read, so some of my “best laid plans” will get a tweaking this year. Thanks for sharing.

  30. A great topic well tackled…thank you! The idea of project-based learning with a clearly defined purpose is one thing, but making sure students are “deeply wrestling with the content itself” is another. You have inspired me to re-think a few lesson plans.

  31. Maria Burke says:

    I agree with your thoughts on creating meaningful lessons that develop critical thinking and critical response, not cookie cutter Pinterest lessons. However, as an art teacher, I am concerned about the elimination of creativity in lessons in core classes. I am a strong believer in collaborative learning and learning through multiple intelligences. Process vs product. I believe there is a way to propose problem solving and critical thinking in project-based learning that utilizes the highest blooms taxonomy skills. I agree that the Greek urn lesson is not utilizing those skills. However I would would not discourage students from focusing on creativity and design of their projects as there are many careers where these skills need to be fostered. I believe it is the careful balance of integrating content with creativity that creates the optimal learning experiences. The way lessons are posed, as a problem to solve, is where the research and learning are taking place. What will it look like? No two projects should ever look the same.

    • Maria,
      I agree with you wholeheartedly. I definitely see this authors POV in terms of making sure projects are meaningful for students; however, at the same time cutting out creativity eliminates students ownership over their learning. The author mentions that the Mathematician Project has no lasting impact on students. I beg to differ as this is an opportunity for students to discuss WHO are famous mathematicians. This begins the conversation about ethnomathematics–mathematics as a world contribution, while standard mathematics is Eurocentric. History is extremely important and impacts our students on a regular basis.

      • But does it improve their ability to do math?
        This is where I worry. I don’t doubt that the questions you’re proposing have value, but I also think those kinds of questions can be woven throughout the year as students encounter texts that canonize certain people over others…and ultimately, I think these are questions that fit better inside a social studies or history class. Now before we start to debate whether all subjects can be successfully integrated with one another, I do think they can. I just don’t want to forget about the actual math skills and mathematical that students NEED in order to build math confidence and success. I have seen schools that go so far in the direction of big picture discussions that students are several years behind in basic skills. That simply can’t be good for any child’s perception of their own belonging in an educated society.

    • Maria, the two articles I linked to in item #1 (“Excessive Coloring or Crafting”) offer fantastic, in-depth discussions of what high-quality arts integration could look like. Reading these makes me wish more teachers were taking this approach! Also, I totally agree with your last line: If all student products look just about the same, that’s a pretty clear sign that there was no actual “creativity” from the students.

  32. charles rivera says:

    Spoiler alert: my comment both agrees with and argues against the topic.

    In the Grecian urn story the problem isn’t the activity, it’s the impossibly broad reaching standards imposed on the teacher [the paragraph you read]. I would venture to say that teacher at least covered the ‘culture’ part of the expected standards and nothing further probably due to lack of time. Had this been an interdisciplinary unit with Art > Greek art history there would have been a deepening of understanding. If they had a Technology class, better materials or techniques than balloons and newspapers would have been used to create the urn.

    The apples unit example from the book “Learning by Design” does sound like overkill at first blush. And then they ask “What valuable [substantial] learning took place?” Was taken aback by their question. Did they mean what measurable learning took place that can be assigned a numerical or letter grade? None; but IMO students learned that the world is a series of interconnected ideas and activities. I think they had a deepened understanding and broadened appreciation of the apple’s versatility. Students learned about art, sales and manufacturing, basic culinary skills, and theme writing. I am astounded that the authors mentioned did not consider these intellectual learning.

  33. Jenn says:

    High Tech High has a really good project embedding history into math: https://gse.hightechhigh.org/unboxed/issue13/cards/6.php

  34. I agree with your basic premise, that we as teachers need to design our lessons to align with standards. However, as an art teacher, I feel that your article seriously devalues what we do in our classroom. Comparing art activities such as coloring, cutting, pasting, and paper mache with “word searches” is faulty at best. Your first example, the paper mache vase used in the 7th grade Social Studies class, most definitely meets the highest level of Bloom’s Taxonomy; “Create.” Students are designing their own, original vases and incorporating personal and unique subject matter. They are creating something out of nothing, as art students everywhere do in our classrooms.

    I have personally incorporated Greek vase design within a cross-curricular Social Studies unit; some of the many learning objectives included:
    1. Improving design skills; how to use the shape of the vase to create a successful composition with the students’ chosen subject matter… wider vases lended themselves to narratives while taller, narrower vases were more appropriate for a single standing figure such as a soldier or a musician, etc.
    2. Learning all about the variety of vase designs and their cultural uses; red-figure pottery, black-figure pottery, kylix, amphora, etc.
    3. Students learned about common cultural themes for subject matter from Ancient Greece; gods/goddesses, war, monsters/supernatural creatures, athletes/Olympic games, family life, music, etc.
    4. We read stories from Ancient Greece to learn more about these themes before students chose what to add to his/her own art piece.

    I think creating a Greek vase is a perfectly valid way to teach about that culture, whether you do drawings of vases, paper mache vases, clay vases, or scratch art vases like we did.

    There is much value in spending time, a LOT of time, creating something that can be both meaningful and beautiful. Art making is another way of communicating, whether a student is coloring, cutting, pasting, or using paper mache.

    Students need to have fun, they need to get messy, they need time to experiment, explore, and express ideas. Many times, the only reason students get engaged in a lesson is due to the hands-on aspect of it.

    Ms. Gonzalez, your article is thought-provoking, so much so that it was distributed today in a professional development session at my school. The small community I serve has little value for the arts, and I was appalled when I read this article. I am afraid that any of my colleagues who had a vague idea that what I do in my classroom is “fluff” now has fuel for the fire after reading “Is Your Lesson A Grecian Urn?”

    As an educator yourself, one who holds multiple degrees, I would have hoped that you would be more thoughtful with the examples used here. With all due respect, I am sorely disappointed.

    • Hi Anna,

      Thank you so much for taking the time to share your thoughts. I think you probably speak for a number of other art teachers who have read this, so I’ll see if I can clear things up.

      I certainly had no intention of minimizing the importance of art, and I believe there’s a lot of value in arts education. All students can benefit from arts instruction in its own right throughout their school years, and well-designed arts integration can make any content come alive. In the “Excessive Coloring or Crafting” section above, I link to two posts that provide excellent examples of what high-quality arts integration can look like. The social studies unit you describe here sounds fantastic. If I understand it correctly, it sounds like students were focusing on the art elements and the creation process in your class, while focusing more on the cultural and historical elements in social studies. If that’s the case, then this sounds like a thoughtfully designed, truly cross-curricular unit.

      I think the sticking point is in the separation.

      Although I don’t think hard lines need to be drawn between both courses, it’s important for both teachers to protect their own instructional time and make sure that their students are, in fact, learning their course content. There absolutely is wiggle room here: Ideally, students would be working with the art and the social studies in both classes in an arrangement similar to what I showcased with the Apollo School program, which blends social studies, art, and language arts.

      But with any kind of integration, I think everyone needs to be asking themselves whether students are truly digging into the content as deeply as they could be. And a huge factor in whether or not they dig deeply is TIME. Mathematically, if the student in the Harlem Renaissance example above (#2) spends two hours playing around with PowerPoint animations, that’s two hours he didn’t spend reading Hughes’ poetry or researching the social context in which it was written. Substitute PowerPoint animations with, say, creating a painting of Langston Hughes using the style of artist Aaron Douglas. That’s definitely getting closer to more relevant arts integration, right? But if the student spends two weeks working on that painting, and they do not actually have an art class set aside for this time, and it ultimately takes away from learning about other significant people and movements of the Harlem Renaissance, could it be argued that something was lost? If art is the priority, then no; the time was well spent. But it can’t be denied that if substantial time is given to hands-on art projects, something else logically has to go. If that “something” is writing or math skills, discussion of government systems and cultural movements, or designing and carrying out science experiments, that might be a problem.

      Especially if you take that one example and multiply it: Assume that same teacher has students do similar projects all year long, where they spend 80% of the year doing hands-on art projects, but it’s actually a language arts class and they spend only 20% of their time actually writing and reading…isn’t that a problem?

      As with everything I write here, I often fear that readers will skim for the general idea, find something that confirms a misconception they already have (in this case, that art is “fluff,”) and use my posts to justify those misconceptions. For that reason, I think your concern is valid, because if this isn’t read carefully, that could be the interpretation people walk away with. I want to be clear that I’m not saying we should get rid of art. I just want us to integrate it more thoughtfully. There IS a way to do it right. In fact, while doing just a cursory search of Harlem Renaissance artists, then learning about how many of them lived in Paris and the other art movements they were responding to, I got pretty excited about the idea of integrating these stories and images into a larger study of that period. It really does take things to a completely different level. My point here is that I see far too many teachers going the papier-mache route instead, and missing the opportunity to do some powerful arts integration.

      ———-

      Ok. One more thing. The “create” level of Bloom’s. If students are creating art, then they are working at that level of Bloom’s in art. They are not, however, working at the “create” level in the other content area. But in your Urn unit it’s different. #3 and #4, where students learned about the cultural themes depicted on Urns and studied other stories to learn more about these themes before creating their own? I believe that’s working at the “create” level in social studies. Your example, despite the fact that it happens to actually BE a Grecian Urn lesson, is not the kind of “Grecian Urn” lesson I am describing in this post.

      Anna, I hope this clears things up, but if not, please come back and continue this discussion here. I would also love to hear from other art teachers.

  35. Jane says:

    I teach K-5 TAB/Choice-based Art and Coding (Computer Science). Although you didn’t intend to minimize the importance of art, I believe it was minimized. The arts do not only have “a lot” of value, they are essential, but are often the first to be cut. I get the point of your article, when my coding students are too often creating their characters in their assignments rather than learning the main concept at hand. Just wish art and the Grecian urn wasn’t the title and main example. We need all the props we can get!😊

    • Maybe I need to get to work on a post that really digs into the value of arts instruction and ways to successfully integrate it with other subjects. I can see how “a lot of value” sounds weak. But you do get it — all that time spent on creating their characters isn’t students getting the benefits of true art instruction, right?

  36. Emily says:

    Is there a way of getting a copy of the questionnaire? I teach Ancient Civilizations in middle school and would like to replicate the lesson mentioned at the end of the blog post. Thank you!

  37. Brittany Croy says:

    I am totally guilty of doing projects in my high school science classroom that I think are hands on learning, but are actually just coloring. I love the tips for how to spot an urn! A colleague has been helping me revise projects so they include more meaningful learning. For example, instead of creating a model of the layers of the skin, students choose a disease and build a model of the diseased skin highlighting the abnormal parts. There might still be too much “art time” but at least there’s some critical thinking!

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