I 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.
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.