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Diving Into Project-based Learning: Reflections

project-based learningNow that the project is over, I admit diving into project-based learning was beneficial. The students and I learned a lot, and I don’t think I would have taken away as much had I chosen to simply dip my foot in the pool. Not long after we completed our project, my principal asked if it was worthwhile and if I would do it again. My first response was “I don’t know…maybe.” Planning and managing the project was really challenging, and the daily classroom chaos stretched my comfort zone significantly. And yet. . . project-based learning engaged my students. They felt a sense of ownership toward their learning that I hadn’t really seen before. So yes, I’ll be doing it again. In fact, I’ve already submitted my professional goal for next year, and it’s once again focused on project-based learning. (I’ll share more about that later.)

In addition to accomplishing my own professional goals related to PBL, I want to do the following things next year:

  • Partner with another teacher so that I am not the only teacher providing feedback and guidance throughout the project.
  • Have my students identify and define the driving question for our project-based learning.
  • Provide more time and opportunity for presentation, peer feedback, reflection, and revision.
  • Spend some time early in the year teaching my students the social media skills I want them to have. I want to turn them loose with our class Twitter account, their own blogs, and perhaps even a class Pinterest account and let them promote their own work and learning.
  • Be extremely purposeful and thoughtful in identifying the “needs to know” to help guide the students’ research.
  • Identify a person or group that my students can formally present their projects to that will serve as a more authentic audience.

I also had hoped to have several students write guest posts about our dive into project-based learning. Several boys agreed to do it, but unfortunately, the end of the school year and sixth grade graduation prevented them from getting posts together before we parted for summer. Without the guest posts, I decided to offer the next best thing and share some of the comments they made about their work on our Google Feedback Form.

Here’s what the students had to say:

What was the most challenging part of the project? 

“The most challenging part of this project was finding what we were going to do for our project.” – L. L.

“The presentation, I had to restart and do the entire PowerPoint all over.” – J. P.

“To me, the hardest thing was making posters from scratch and not copying off another image from the internet.” – G. B.

“I think the most challenging part was when we kept thinking of different pages or ideas and where we should put them. Also, we had to wait on the other groups to finish their projects.” – W. M.

What are three things you did during this project to help your classmates or your team?

“1) I researched the matter and did what was to be done. 2) I showed others how to do this or that and showed them sites for research about their project. 3) I stayed on task about 90% of the time and used my time wisely.” – T. M.

“1) I tried to come during Flex time to work on the project for my partner. 2) If my partner was struggling, I helped him do his part. 3) I cleaned up the messes that we made while doing our project.” – S. S.

“I edited all the videos. (Insert imaginary bullet in head) I overlooked all the presentations, (wrong things, grammar, spelling, etc.) I also interviewed many people, and set up some more interviews.” – H. D.

“I made all the emails we sent to organizations. I made our presentations. I brought the group together to stop arguing.” – A. G.

What made the biggest impact on your learning during this project? Why?

“Finding out all that I did about homeless people during the research part of this project, and how many homeless people are really out there. It just completely changed how I thought of these people, before that I did not think that there were actually that many homeless people out there, but now I am more than happy to help out as well as overwhelmed by how many people who are out there that are actually homeless.” – A. J.

“It is finding that so many people today are still affected by racism because there are still groups even in America that are still as racist as they had been in the 1800s.” – J. H.

“The research made the biggest impact on my learning during this project because it taught me more about sweatshops and how it affects the people who work for them and their families.” – T. H.

“Working as a team I could not do it all by myself.” – P. M.

“I used to think that homelessness was just a small portion of the world and just happened in 3rd world countries. But from research, I realize now that it is everywhere.” – H. P.

If you could go back in time and start this project over, what would you do differently?

“I would go back and change the way we formatted the website. I do like our design that we have now though I think the pages could have been in a different order and we could have taken out a few.” – J. M.

“Work more on my research.” – H. U.

“Come up with a better slogan, I don’t think the ones I came up with were my best.” – L. A.

“I would have done more research for Diigo, and I would have learned how to cite my photos before I found a lot of them because I lost 5 photos and a lot of my time because I did not cite them right when I got them.” – W. P.

“I would have spent more time working on my research. I think I could have commented more on other people’s bookmarks.” – R. C.

“I would organize our priorities better and manage time better.” – A. C.

What is something you accomplished during this project that makes you proud?

“This project is going to a fantastic cause. It will truly help the people who are less fortunate.” – A. R.

“I think that I made something that will teach someone else about sweatshops.” – W. S.

“The one thing that I accomplished during this project that made me proud was actually trying to do something other than raising awareness. We found a chance to volunteer that really did make a difference in someone’s life. I have never done that before, so it really makes me proud.” – W. Q.

“Finishing the video made me proud. We had worked so hard to finish filming and find facts and the song we used at the end.” – D. B.

How did you apply what you learned from your research in your project?

“I applied the stuff from Diigo to help with our website design, and I used the facts page to put lots of facts on our page. I also used the quotes, pictures, and much more.” – J. F.

“I applied most of the facts and stats from our research into our infographic to make it as detailed as possible.” – C. F.

“I used my research in my project by making my logo. The cycle in the logo I came up from the research I did. Chronic unemployment is a cycle which is hard to stop, so we want to stop the cycle.” – E. N.

This is the eleventh (and final) post in this series on my “Diving Into Project-based Learning.” If you want to read more about my first experience with PBL, you should read about my professional goalmy research and resourcesthe genesis of the ideaour project brainstormsthe rubric designour need to knowour inquiryour innovationfeedback friends and going public.

Diving Into Project-based Learning: Going Public

project-based learningOne thing that interested me most about project-based learning is the idea of student’s sharing their work with an authentic audience. Most of the work my students have completed through the years has only been seen by me. In fact, the only reason they bothered to complete it was because I was going to give them a grade. Other people weren’t going to read those research papers or view those book projects. I can think of a few wonderful exceptions like our Wikipedia project at Millington High and the year my eighth graders performed Shakespeare at Harding’s Renaissance Fair but at least 95% of the learning my students have accomplished has never been seen outside my room.

My students created everything during our project-based learning unit with the plan to share it online. They even scanned the original, hand-drawn artwork into PDF format so that the students could share them on the websites they built. They wanted to share their  projects with the world, and we had grand plans, too. Unfortunately, time got the better of us, and we didn’t finish several of the projects or didn’t transfer the work to the real websites. I stretched our project-based learning two weeks beyond the end of the trimester, but I wasn’t willing to give it any more time.  (The third trimester is already pinched for time.) We left for spring break and really never found the authentic audience we’d hoped to find.

One of the things I wanted to do was to have my students tweet about their projects from our class twitter account. Unfortunately, I didn’t start the year teaching them how to effectively use Twitter so that I could turn it over to them. I failed miserably here. Next year, I want to do a better job of having my students share their learning via our class account and not trying to do it myself. It’s another thing I need to let go and allow the kids to do. A second thing I wanted to do was to connect the boys with non-profit leaders in our area so that they could present their projects to local experts. Unfortunately, I got too busy trying to manage the day-to-day, and I completely let these plans slip. Another fail. So some of the students’ work made it online, but it wasn’t really finished and we didn’t publicize it like I would have liked so it never really found an audience.

In all honesty, I still struggle with sharing work that is still in progress. That’s an area where I need to take more risks.  So I guess this is another area that I really need to refine in the future. I wanted an authentic audience for the students’ project-based learning, but finding a public was more challenging than I anticipated.

What do you think about going public with student projects? What has been your experience with promoting student work outside the classroom and school? What other ways might we create authentic audiences for student work? I’d love to know what you think.

This is the tenth post in a series on my “Dive Into Project-based Learning.” I’ve planned one last post to share some final thoughts on this first “dive” into PBL, and I’ll include some student comments and reflections, too. I should have it ready to go next week. I will spend the  rest of this week on the Martin Institute Conference. If you are there, please track me down and introduce yourself. If you want to follow the conference online, you can follow the #MICON13 hashtag on Twitter. If you want to read more about my first experience with PBL consider reading about my professional goalmy research and resourcesthe genesis of the ideaour project brainstormsthe rubric designour need to knowour inquiry, our innovation, and feedback friends.

Diving Into Project-based Learning: Feedback Friends

project-based learningAs a teacher, I found project-based learning incredibly chaotic and difficult to manage. I had four classes each investigating a different topic. In each class I had 7-9 different projects in development, and each project was unique. I wanted to help my students–finding resources, asking questions, suggesting options, but as soon as I focused on any one group another would demand my attention. Instead of feeling every day was a productive, meaningful day of inquiry, I left school most days overwhelmed that the classroom looked disheveled, the learning seemed scattered, the students appeared distracted, and I felt disorganized. Were we accomplishing anything? I knew project-based learning was going to require a paradigm shift on my part, but I didn’t expect to feel so beat up by it. I needed some quality feedback, and I knew from conversations with Mike that the boys needed feedback from their peers as well.

At the end of many days I found myself sitting on the couch next door in Alice’s room bemoaning the way things were going and trying to re-design plans for the next day. I needed a partner, someone with whom I could collaborate and troubleshoot. I also needed an extra set of eyes and hands. I didn’t feel I couldn’t give a group my full attention because I was so busy trying to make sure everyone was on task. Unfortunately, Alice was teaching the fifth grade at the time. Even though Alice was willing to listen and make suggestions, she couldn’t offer first-hand observations about what was happening in my room. She simply wasn’t there, and I needed someone who was.

Fortunately, my friend Jill Gough had scheduled a visit to my school. Jill and Bo Adams are famous (at least in my mind) for designing and implementing a project-based class called Synergy at their former school, and I had relied heavily on their work in designing my classes’ projects. Jill spent two days visiting PDS, and I had several opportunities to pick her brain about her experiences with project-based learning. (The image at the top of this post has my notes from lunch with her.)

Jill gave me some fantastic suggestions that I tried to carry out immediately. First, Jill suggested that I have the students complete a survey/reflection and give me some feedback on their own learning. My first plan was to give them a handout to complete that would encourage them to reflect on their learning and evaluate what they’ve done. I showed the handout to Jill and she gave me some great feedback on it. She also suggested that I use a Google form and not a handout to collect the data. You can view the Google Form I used to collect feedback here. Jill also spent about an hour in my room observing as I interacted with the boys. She took the time to point out to me all the good things that were happening and how engaged the students were. I needed to hear it. She gave me some constructive feedback, but she also built me up and offered specific examples of how quality learning was happening in my room. Sure, it was active and noisy, but it was still learning. Jill’s observations and encouraging words gave me the shot in the arm I needed.

In addition to the idea for reflections and the feedback on the class activity, Jill shared with me how, with Bo, she would have students do Ignite-style presentations on their products and allow other students to offer them feedback. Jill suggested “Ignite Lite” presentations (4 slides, 30 seconds per slide) to allow plenty of time for feedback in our shorter classes. I liked the idea and decided to combine it with Mike’s suggestion of using “critical friends” and the Ladder of Feedback from Project Zero.

I have Ladder of Feedback Anchor Chart that I use with students in my room to guide us through the feedback process.


For our Ignite Lite session, we used the Friends’ Feedback Ladder handout below to record our feedback on each presentation so the presenters could refer to it as they began revising their products and presentations.

Feedback Friends LadderHere are the PDF versions of the handouts: Ladder of Feedback Anchor Chart, Friends’ Feedback Ladder.

I walked the students through the process and kept reminding them to use the language the anchor chart and handout provided to keep the feedback positive and constructive. We’ve use the Ladder of Feedback all year, but I think it’s too easy to fall into the mode of being critical (meaning negative) and not more constructive. I also wanted to make sure we celebrated the good in each project. the boys really were doing some great work.

Once the boys had presented and received feedback, they began revising their projects and making them better. They weren’t required to make every suggested improvement, but they had to consider the feedback. Overall, I know our project-based learning improved because of the Friends’ Feedback/Critical Friends process that I got from Jill and that the boys gave each other. Now, I’m beginning to think about how I can use this type of feedback into other aspects of our learning.

What do you think about the friends’ feedback/critical friends process? what experience have you had with it in your classroom? What other ways might it be useful? I’d love to know what you think.

This is the ninth post (I know, right?) in a series on my “Dive Into Project-based Learning.” If you find this post interesting, consider reading about my professional goalmy research and resourcesthe genesis of the ideaour project brainstormsthe rubric designour need to knowour inquiry, or our innovation.

Diving Into Project-based Learning: Our Innovation

project-based learningAs the boys began learning more about the injustice issues they had selected and researched for our project-based learning, they began thinking more specifically about what they might do to make a difference. As the started problem solving, they truly began innovating. They started coming up with unique ideas for how they would address the problem and raise awareness.

I knew from talking with Mike Kaechele at Educon that the students needed to develop some type of team contract to get their ideas on paper and develop a working plan. Fortunately, Mike was willing to share his contract template with me (thank you), and I only needed to make a couple of minor tweaks before sharing it with my 6th graders. The contracts consisted of 5 parts: member information (name, email, roles/responsibilities, self-identified strengths and weaknesses), project goals/tasks, team agreements, an accountability plan, and member signatures. Once again, some boys wanted to skip the contract writing phase, but no one could do without submitting a completed contract.

Some groups decided they needed seed money get started and make an impact. I discussed this with my supervisor and we found a great solution. If a group needed “start-up money” for their project, they had to provide a written grant proposal to our Assistant Headmaster for Teaching and Learning and ask for a formal meeting with her to secure funding. (I had some instructional money set aside for this.) I required that each grant proposal include the following components:

  • A summary or abstract (names, need, goals, methods, and costs)
  • An introduction to their team and their project (what they bring to team and basic objective)
  • A problem or need statement (clearly describes the need to be addressed)
  • Objectives (“measurable” accomplishments or outcomes)
  • The methods and activities (the project details, timetable, plans to gather and/or use data)
  • Plan for evaluation (answers “How will you know you’ve succeeded?”)
  • A budget (a cost breakdown and what the donor will be paying for)

The grant proposal served two purposes: 1) helping the boys plan their work and 2) having them create a writing sample related to their project. Several groups saw the grant proposal as a huge obstacle so they sought new, creative ways to attack the problem without securing funds. These groups chose other options for their required writing component (scripts, data summaries, brochures, abstracts, etc.).

Once the groups mapped out their plans, they began developing their products and started innovating further. Many of the products involved the use of technology, and I used my knowledge and experience with certain tools to help them.  However, some products required tools beyond my expertise, and I was able to use resources gleaned from my PLN (Personal Learning Network) to help the students find tools that might help them. Once again, I gave the students the choice of what tools they wanted to use and explained that they would have to become the expert at whatever tool they chose. I might or might not have been able to troubleshoot problems for them.

Working together, the boys developed some unique products in their attempt to address the issues they’d selected. All their ideas weren’t innovative and original. In fact, some groups defaulted to the same types of products they had created for past products. At the same time some of their ideas were truly inventive. One of my favorite parts of our project-based learning process was when the students began sharing their work and providing one another feedback. I’ll write more about this in my next post, but I loved how more creative students began pushing their peers to take greater risks in their projects.

This is the eighth post in a series on my “Dive Into Project-based Learning.” If you find this post interesting, consider reading about my professional goalmy research and resourcesthe genesis of the ideaour project brainstormsthe rubric designour need to know, and our inquiry.  As always, I’d appreciate any comments, questions, or suggestions you have. I find feedback really helpful.

Diving Into Project-based Learning: Our Inquiry

project-based learning

As we sprang into our project-based learning, the students and I began our inquiry looking for answers to our “need to knows.” I wanted to keep up with what they were discovering, and I wanted them to evaluate and share their resources with each other as they went along. I decided to use the teacher console on Diigo to create groups for each of my classes. I used  handouts and tips from Bill Ferriter’s Digitally Speaking Wiki to get everything set up and explain to the student how I wanted them to find, annotate, and share resources and information. (I highly recommend Bill’s resources. They saved me a ton of time.)

The students had used Diigo for research on a project during a previous school year so I thought with Bill’s handouts and the boys’ previous experience we were in good shape to begin. I soon learned differently.  We have a 1:1 laptop classroom and the boys have a natural tendency to head straight to Google any time they have a question, but it was obvious after the first day that they weren’t finding the quality resources they needed. Additionally, some boys still didn’t know (or forgot) how to share to a group while others didn’t know how to write a quality annotation. I had assumed too much. They needed what Mike Kaechele calls a “teacher workshop” on searching for information and on how to use Diigo. They needed me to model what they should do.

We spent a little time talking about how search engines work and why Google’s search algorithm wasn’t the best option for this project. I also introduced them to SweetSearch, DMOZ, iSeek, and the Library of Congress site. Then, we talked about how we should assess the trustworthiness of the site and try to recognize biases in content providers. Then, we talked about the need to summarize a page’s content and how Diigo make it easy to highlight, capture, and share that information. Not all the students listened and learned from the workshop, but several did.

As I stated before, I wish I had done a better job developing a better list of “need to knows” because some of the boys had a tough time determining what to look for. At times they seemed to lack focus and some were easily led down rabbit trails thanks to  web links. I also had difficulty getting some boys to spend time researching. Some of them just got so excited about the product that they jumped in, and I had to coerce them to stop, back up, and do the research first.

project-based learning
Ron Wade from HopeWorks, Inc. speaks to my class.

Of all the classes, the one studying chronic unemployment seemed to struggle the most with finding quality information. Fortunately, I have a friend who leads a non-profit organization that works with the chronically unemployed. (My years in development still come in handy.) I called my friend Ron Wade at HopeWorks, and he agreed to come speak to my class and help them learn more about the issue.

I was really grateful Ron was willing to help my class. One of my biggest struggles throughout our entire project-based learning unit was feeling like I didn’t know enough about the topics we were studying to truly be helpful to the guys. Having been a traditional English teacher for so long, I am comfortable being the content expert in the classroom. With project-based learning that isn’t necessarily the case anymore. I find that unsettling.

Another internal conflict I had with our research and inquiry was with deciding when we had researched and learned enough to move on toward developing the products. I wanted the research to be ongoing and fit the needs of the individual projects, but I also wanted to make sure the boys had enough general knowledge and skill with the topic to speak intelligently about it. How could I know we were ready? I wasn’t sure I had enough knowledge about these issues to speak intelligently about them. (I’m still not sure.) How does one decide that? Fortunately, I know now I’m not the only teacher who finds this difficult to figure out. Eventually, I decided arbitrarily it was time to move on. We could always circle back as needed.

This is the seventh in a series of posts on my “Dive Into Project-based Learning.” If you find this post interesting, consider reading about my professional goalmy research and resourcesthe genesis of the ideaour project brainstormsthe rubric design, and our need to know. I’d appreciate any comments, questions, or suggestions you may have. Feedback is both desired and helpful.

Diving Into Project-based Learning: Our Need to Know

project-based learningOnce the students had selected a topic from our over-arching theme of civil/human rights, and I had a rubric, it was time for the real work to begin. We started our project-based learning by making a list on the board of things we know about the topic followed by a list of things we “need to know.” Basically, we completed the K and W of our KWL chart (PDF).

We completed this quickly and looking back now, I realize we really should have slowed down and spent more time here. I should have had each team create their own KWL and perhaps even added it to the rubric as part of their reflections. The students were eager to get to researching and creating, and I was excited for them to begin, too. We should have slowed down this step in the process. We should have been more thoughtful and purposeful here. Hindsight. Instead, I allowed the boys to rush through the process so that they could begin creating their group contracts and planning their projects. We didn’t spend the time we should have on identifying what we needed to learn, and their inquiry and projects suffered as a result.

Once we started researching, some of the guys lacked direction. Some didn’t know where to look beyond a simple Google search for information. The more I consider that, the more I believe some of those struggles resulted from an inadequate list of things we needed to know. It wasn’t that they didn’t know where to search, but that they didn’t really know what to search for. We’d rushed through a crucial step, and it limited their inquiry. This was one of my biggest mistakes through this dive into project-based learning, and one I don’t plan to repeat when I try again next time.

This is the sixth in a series of posts on my “Dive Into Project-based Learning.” If this series interests you, consider reading about my professional goalmy research and resources, or the genesis of this ideaour project brainstorms, or the rubric design. As always, I’d appreciate your comments, questions, or suggestions.

Diving Into Project-based Learning: Designing the Rubric

project-based learning

Perhaps the most difficult aspect of project-based learning for me was figuring out how I was going to assess it. I’m sure some teachers love assessing and marking student work, but honestly, I’m uncomfortable with most grading and scoring. I appreciate feedback and I  don’t mind giving feedback, but I hate reducing it to a letter, number, or score. To me, it undervalues the learning. I’m skeptical of objective tests because of what those assessments leave out or mismeasure, and I’m suspicious of subjective evaluations because they are, well, subjective.

Nevertheless, most schools required teachers to report student learning in a systematic way, and my school is no different. My school also encourages the use of rubrics to help students, parents, and teachers assess evaluate the learning. I wanted students to understand the expectations for the project, and I needed to insure that they approached the project in a balanced way. I could tell from their enthusiasm that they were eager to get started creating their projects, but I knew it was vital that they really spend some time researching and inquiring about the topics before getting started on the project itself. I also knew I wanted to assess writing, reflecting, and presenting as part of the project-based learning.

I developed the following rubric for the students to use as a guide and for me to use for assessing their work:
project-based learning

You can download the PDF by clicking: Injustice Issue Project Rubric

(Note: For the 6th graders at my school, we assign two types of grades–traditional grades on a 100%/A-F scale and standards-based assessment using a 3-1 proficiency method with three being the highest score.)

I wasn’t completely comfortable with the wording of the rubric even as I shared it with the students, but we needed to get started. Together as a class, we discussed the rubric in detail, but I still worried that the boys’ understanding of the rubric was very different from mine. Nevertheless, this iteration of the rubric would serve as our guide.

What do think about the rubric? What feedback can you give about it? What would you change?

This is the fifth in a series of posts on my “Dive Into Project-based Learning.” If this series interests you, consider reading about my professional goalmy research and resources, or the genesis of this idea, or our project brainstorms. I’d also appreciate any comments, questions, or suggestions you might want to leave below.

Diving Into Project-based Learning: Brainstorms

project-based learningI wrote the question on the board. How do we take what we’ve learned from our readings, discussions, and class activities related to human and civil rights and make a difference in the world? I knew where I wanted the question to lead but decided I was more committed to giving my students a voice than I was to accomplishing my project idea. I wanted our projects to be about “work that matters,” but it needed to matter to the students not just me. I wanted their project-based learning to stem from their own empathy.

We talked as a whole group about what “make a difference” might mean. Then, I paired the boys up and asked them to name and discuss issues of injustice that really bother them. Then, they were to create a short list identifying those issues. We came back together as a group and created a long list of all the issues. As the boys shared their ideas, they also had a few minutes to talk about why the issue bothers them. #PBL project-based learning

Once we’d talked about the various issues, we need to narrow the scope to a single issue. While I would have loved for the boys to be able to work on different issues, I explained to the students that I needed to keep each class limited to a single topic. I was afraid I couldn’t keep up with everything, and I preferred that we try to have a greater impact on a single issue. The boys understood, and we put the matter to a class vote. My classes chose to address the issues of racism, sweat shops (unfair labor), chronic unemployment, and poverty (homelessness).

After selecting our issues, I paired the boys up again and asked them to brainstorm more specific project ideas. What could we do to share what we’ve learned and make a difference related to the problem? I prefer to have the boys brainstorm in pairs remembering the goals of achieving fluency, suspending judgment, reaching for wild ideas, and piggy-backing on the ideas of others. Pairing up helps avoid the activity being dominated by one person and just a few ideas. After the boys had time to think, I stopped and asked them how many ideas they’d listed. Then, I challenged them to add 5-10 more ideas. Bringing the ideas together, we had a fantastic list of potential projects. I gave the boys a few sticky notes and asked them to rank their preference for different projects.

After class, I made the official project assignments trying my best to give each his preference. I had concerns about a few projects because they seemed focused on fundraising, and our school is already in the middle of a capital campaign. (As a former development officer, I appreciate everything involved in the job of fundraising.) I shared my concerns with my principal. Together, we went back to the boys once more reminding them that “creativity loves constraints” and letting them know that fundraising, while important and necessary in many circumstances, wasn’t going to be part of this project. We then brainstormed more creative ideas and asked the boys to select new projects if needed. Most of the projects ended up being about raising awareness. Below are some of the project-based learning ideas my students decided to pursue:

  • Design a website with original content
  • Create infographics to share information
  • Draft online polls to challenge perceptions
  • Write and produce an original song and music video
  • Produce a PSA or an informational video
  • Devise a logo and an awareness campaigns
  • Make a virtual museum or art gallery
  • Orchestrate an active service project
  • Launch an audio cast or a series of podcasts
  • Generate a digital photo essay
  • Construct a Google story drawing attention to the issue

Our school is a 1:1 laptop school so the students had the tools to do these types of projects. We were on our way. Now, each group needed to get organized. I wanted them to create a group contract and make a plan for accomplishing their task, and we needed to discuss how the projects would be assessed, as well. Nevertheless, we had our start.

Reflecting on how I introduced the project, I wondered how I could have further refined the driving question. It was provocative. It’s definitely open-ended and complex. But, was it too open and too complex for sixth grade? It met instructional goals and tied in with our Building Boys Making Men program, but was it too broad? Were the goals unrealistic? Were they too unclear? What do you think? Do you have suggestions, comments, or questions about the process?

This is the fourth in a series of posts on my “Dive Into Project-based Learning.” If this series interests you, consider reading about my professional goal, my research and resources, or the genesis of this idea. I’d also appreciate any comments, questions, or suggestions you might want to leave below.

Diving Into Project-based Learning: Sui Generis Genesis

project-based learningMy initial plans to dive into project-based learning this year stemmed from my experience during the Master Class with John Hunter last summer. On the last day of the class after we’d observed as John facilitated the World Peace Game all week, John and Jamie introduced the master class to the idea of sui generis, a Latin expression meaning “of its own, creator of its own kind.” Then, they challenged us to work together to create our own “games” for our curricula. I’d been considering project-based learning for a while and was ready to dip my toes in the water of the PBL pool, but I was still afraid I’d fail miserably.

As I talked with Jamie, John, and various members of the class about what I wanted to do, I realized I couldn’t just wade in to project-based learning. If I approached it that way, I could easily crawl out when I noticed the water was too cold. No, I needed a head-first dive into the deep end of the pool. I needed a coup d’etat over my fear of trying something completely beyond my comfort zone. I began designing a project-based learning unit for my 6th grade class centered around our study of civil rights.

My idea was to have my students create their own civil rights museum. (The National Civil Rights Museum is here in Memphis.) I wanted them to know and understand the history of the American Civil Rights Movement. I also hoped they’d consider how exhibits tell stories and find ways to tell similar stories themselves. I wanted my students to recognize their own privilege and do something that might benefit (in a meaningful way) those less fortunate. As Will Richardson and Bill Ferriter say, I wanted them to do work that matters. I decided we could not only create a museum exhibit, but also make it available to others.

As I shared the idea with my MC colleagues, one of them asked me if I knew the story of Hana’s Suitcase and shared with me the story. This inspired me to think more about how I might make our exhibit mobile, and I remembered someone (Bo Adams, was that you?) telling me about college students turning shipping containers into affordable housing. Then, I began dreaming about my students’ not only creating a civil rights museum but also constructing it in a shipping container. Then, we could run our mobile museum as a non-profit from within the walls of our school. I shared the idea with the master class, and they seemed excited about the idea, too.

I was so excited about the idea I asked for a meeting with my principal to discuss it. A couple of weeks later we met to talk about it. She was really supportive of the idea and even provided me with a few more resources as I began to hash out the details and decided to further research and explore project-based learning.

Unfortunately, the more I read and researched project-based learning, the more uncertain I became about my idea. I kept reading about the value of student voice and learner choice and I wondered if my having so much of the project idea formulated was because of my need to control the learning. Could I truly turn the learning over to my students? Instead of allowing them some say in the project, could I give them a full, robust voice? Could I set aside my idea (about which I was ecstatic) and let them fully design the learning? Was I really willing to dive into the deep end and be student-centered? I decided to try. So as we finished the two novels I’d selected to go along with our civil rights unit, I closed my eyes and sprung off the end of the platform uncertain what the water would be like below.

This is the third in a series of posts on my “Dive Into Project-based Learning.” If you are interested in this series, you might want to read about my professional goal and my research and resources. I’d also appreciate any comments, questions, or suggestions you might want to leave below.

Diving Into Project-Based Learning: Research and Resources

diving into project-based learningMy plunge into project-based learning (PBL) started with a slow climb up the high-dive ladder. How was project-based learning different from the projects my students have always completed in my classes? My students have performed plays, created book trailers, built models, engaged in all types of creative responses to literature. How was project-based learning radically different from what we’ve always done?

The slow climb  started over two years ago when I kept reading tweets and blog posts from fellow teachers touting the blessings and benefits of project-based learning. I decided I needed to know more and began looking for resources online.  My research led me to Edutopia’s overview of project-based learning. It was the first website I explored and bookmarked when PBL initially piqued my interest. The site provides a nice overview with several videos and some helpful research. It’s a good place to start.

The Edutopia site provides links to several more resources including the Buck Institute for Education (an organization focused on project-based learning), PBL University (I considered this, but never took a class), and High Tech High (I hoped to visit them this year). Of these, I used the Buck Institute resources the most. The BIE site has some great resources and tools and I even worked my way through a few of their webinars.

Here are several of the articles and posts I found helpful as I researched and read in preparation for trying PBL:

In addition to reading I also made an effort to connect with other teachers who already had experience designing project-based learning. Specifically, I connected with Bo Adams, Hadley Ferguson, Jill Gough, and Mike Kaechele. Most of my interaction with these folks was online via Twitter or through their blogs, but I also sat down and talked with several of them as well. I met up with Bo and Jill last summer at the Martin Institute Conference and Mike and I connected at Educon in January right as I was leaping from the board into the pool of PBL. Mike was kind enough to sit down with me, listen to my plans, and offer some really helpful last-minute feedback and suggestions.

I’m sure there are many other great resources that I never found or haven’t included, and I’d appreciate your sharing more resources in the comments below. I know of a couple of books I should probably have read as well, but I had already identified two books to work through as part of my professional goal. I didn’t feel I had time to add any others.

What do you think about all of this? Which resources do you find most helpful? What do you think is missing from all of this?