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.