Project FAIL: Genetics of Race

So, being the high minded individuals that we are, my co-conspirators in 9th grade project based learning at WSHS decided to attack racism. Hit it head on. Just tear that sucker down!

Of course, we’re just 3 white dudes working on an Indian Reservation with a student population that is 60% American Indian and 30% Latino. Maybe that was our first mistake, I don’t know.

Actually, the meat of the project went pretty darn well. Kids enjoyed the learning, were engaged and handled a prickly issue with class and grace.

In Biology, my piece of the puzzle was to teach them genetics and some evolutionary biology to help them understand what race is (and isn’t), where we think it comes from, and how genetically similar we humans really are.

In World History, the students learned about Hitler, Nazis, WWII and the Holocaust.

In English, they read Maus and wrote various essays about it.

Our common project pieces were meant to be a Public Service Address campaign including an announcement (to be read over the school’s intercom), a poster (to be displayed on campus) and a video (to be shown to fellow students).

Here is where the problems really begin.


We had students call my Google Voice number to record their announcements. These were mostly not very good. They were unfocused and -frankly – just plain boring. Somehow, they mostly managed to have both too much and too little information.

The posters turned out okay, although they took way to long to do. For the amount of time we put into them, they were underwhelming at best. Kids made these in PowerPoint and then we printed them with our school’s large format printer (these are awesome, by the way!).

The real debacle, though, was the videos. These were filmed with Flip Cameras (RIP, Flip!) purchased through We thought we had very clear expectations for the videos. The kids went through a process of brainstorming –> storyboarding –> drafting scripts –> filming. All should have been well. They were engaged. They were excited.

Videos were filmed and then the problems began.

We used JayCut for editing. The site is really slick but uploading video to it took hours. We had some editing glitches (mostly just learning the program) but some groups lost whole videos and had to re-upload (hours wasted). Then we found out that finished videos could not be easily shared on our network (internet filter strikes again!).

The project dragged on. And on. And on. A tight 5 week project became a bloated 8 week nightmare.

That wasn’t even the worst of it.

My aforementioned colleagues and I assembled one day after school to view and assess the videos. 13 of our 15 student groups had submitted video.

They were awful. < Cue trombone playing wah – wahhh>

At least 3 groups dedicated large chunks of their videos to fight scenes.

One or two groups actually seemed to be promoting (or at least making light of) racism.

The only group that kicked out a strong product totally cancelled that out by tacking on a 5 minute rap song at the end full of F-bombs (and not relevant to the project) and accompanying images making light of the holocaust and black stereotypes.

Finally, with the exception of maybe 5 groups, there was little relevant science actually integrated into their product. Most of the rest just threw in the psuedo-fact that “genetically, we are all 99.9% the same.”

Part of this is due to the epic disaster that was our attempt at a drosophila genetics lab. We lost several populations of drosophila to rotting media. This was ironic because the media was not supposed to rot. Well it did. It rotted HARD. One student described the smell in the room as a combination of vomit, urine and sharpie pen ink. He nailed it – that was EXACTLY WHAT IT SMELLED LIKE!

All that being said, I know the kids did learn a significant amount about genetics based on my other assessments. It was just REALLY frustrating to see a project that took so much hard work (on our part and theirs) turn in to a steaming heap. In a lot of ways, this project was a great example of an assessment FOR learning but not an assessment OF learning.

And, yes, in the end, all I really care about is their learning. Except I also really want them to do beautiful work. Work that they are proud of. Work that CLEARLY demonstrates their learning. This did not happen here.

So my questions to you, dear readers, are:

  • What did we do wrong?
  • What should we do differently next year?

4 thoughts on “Project FAIL: Genetics of Race

  1. What? You too! This sucks. Your project sounds awesome and I can’t think of how your team could have made it any better.

    I actually had a talk with my principal yesterday and shared with her the frustrations I’m having. She had some good advice. She made me feel better by pointing out that throughout the school year we are going to have ups and downs. This project is a dip but if you reflect on overall performance you’ll notice that throughout the year your students are still making upward movement. I mean, race is a touchy subject and maybe that was their way to deal with it instead of getting depressed or angry. Maybe dealing with it without going too deep was a defense mechanism.

    I grew in Miami, FL with kids who all spoke Spanglish, Spanish and English. At home I only spoke Spanish. Then my mom and I moved to CA and the way people their reacted and responded toward Hispanics (even though I’m Cuban people always assumed I was Mexican) as a whole made me hide my Hispanicness. Mexican people are not respected in CA or here in WA. I stopped speaking Spanish and to this day I don’t speak it much and never with non-Spanish speaking people. It sucks to be embarrassed by your own language. I haven’t even taught it to my own kids!

    That being said I got another idea from my principal. Do this project again next year. If you can find the best examples of the public service announcement show it next year only say that it is an example of an “acceptable” announcement. Tell those kids to do better than that.

    The common feedback I got on my blog post was to make more deadlines that are shorter apart so kids don’t get bored or don’t procrastinate. Of course computer problems blow all that to heck! It seems that you got that part covered so I don’t know if you can make that any better. At least now you know what could go wrong! :o) Of course next year other things will go wrong, huh?

    Good luck and don’t give up on this project. Interdisciplinary, integrated projects like this are so incredibly awesome and just what kids need.

  2. Hey Tyler,

    I love the idea behind this project, and more so the fact that it’s cross-curricular. Sure, there were so bumps along the way, but as Alfonso said, just use this year’s experience to make next year’s project more effective. I think that what the students could take from it will make it worth trying to again.

    Is this the first video project that you give your students? The results and time management nightmare sound exactly like what I experienced the first video assignment I gave. Here are some things that I learned that might help you:

    -Give very clear expectations of what you want the finished products to accomplish (in terms of what the audience should learn from them, quality, length, etc.).

    -Give clear rules about no violence or offensive terms
    of any type (they ALWAYS manage to sneak them in if you don’t mention this, you assume its common sense, but most of them probably have very little)

    -I provided them a rubric beforehand that I would be using to assess their project (how many “informative” points they put across, how engaging and audience appropriate the video was, amount effort they put in, accuracy of scientific information, etc)

    -I always make a point of follow up this kind of project with a self evaluation (an essay/ journal entry in which they grade themselves and explain why they gave themselves that grade from the rubric, how they worked as a group, etc.) and a peer evaluation (in which another group evaluated their work and gave the strengths of the project and areas for improvement).

    -It’s a good idea to give them a specific target audience, say a class younger than them, or a group of parents, so they know the level of information they need to convey, the style, how to make it engaging and age appropriate etc.

    -Have each person in the group be responsible for a specific “administrative” role eg. a “timekeeper” to make sure they are meeting deadlines/ keeping to the schedule, a director, a screenwriter to double check script and edit it needed, someone in charge of props and staging, etc.. Then they write about this in their self evaluation (how well they carried out their role, what they could have done better)

    -Have them include a reference of sources at the end, so they take the”science fact checking” more seriously.

    -As Alfonso also mentioned, provide a set of shorter deadlines to keep them on track (eg. 1. Storyboard due, 2. Script due for approval, 3.Filming done, 4. Editing lesson, etc.)

    -It is a good idea to do a small video project at the beginning of the year, so they get the hang of all this (say a 1-5 minute video), then you try a bigger one later on in the year when they will have gotten feedback/ learned from the previous project.

    -You might also want to consider given them a choice of projects keeping the topic the same. Some hate making movies, or they are tired of making them in other classes, they might chose to write a great play instead, or make a graphic novel, a series of posters, a website, etc.

    -A debate would also be a great way to learn about the topic of race in science. For example, debating a question like: “Is race a product of your genes or our society?”

    I hope some of those recommendations are useful to you. If you have any specific questions about the above, let me know, I have had a lot of students make movies in different classes.

    Good luck with everything!


  3. Al,

    I think you’re right – I do think there was some coping going on there around the subject of race. However, I felt like our in class activities, discussions, etc. were very successful. I know they learned. However, the final project (for most groups – including some very high achieving kids) did not show their learning. That was frustrating.

    We’re definitely going to use the models from this year to build on for next year. We’ll watch a few and have the kids assess them with the rubric. We’ll then discuss what they could have done differently to make their videos more effective.

    We’re also going to get into the videos much sooner and require multiple “drafts” of the video. That should help.

  4. Marta,

    Thanks for taking the time to leave such detailed feedback. It is much appreciated!

    Now to your points:

    *This is not the first video we made this year but it was the first that was a final product. The other was a quick video to demonstrate an analogy for viral replication.
    * We will definitely be more clear next year about specifications. We had a rubric and checklist but they were lacking some details that we didn’t anticipate.
    *We did do self and peer assessment – during and post (we always do) – where I think we dropped the ball here is in the teaching and monitoring of the group skills
    *They had very specific roles – director, editor, recorder, materials & research
    *We did require sources in the credits – most did that

    *We had miletones along the way basically as you and Al described – I just think they needed more time for each step

    * I think the biggest keys for next year will be using good models and revision, revision, revision!

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