Earlier this month, Ms. J and I celebrated our first year of project-based English 12 along with our students at the 2013 Senior Showcase, an ambitious evening community event where our students could display their final projects and talk about their research experience with family, teachers, peers, and other visitors.
We had an amazing array of student projects spread across the campus, both inside and outside the school, involving students with vehicles, animals, blogs, websites, games, demonstrations, performances, service experiences, galleries, publications, policies, business plans, original music, machines, documentaries, designs, tutorials, interviews, recipes, charts, kits, excursions, experiments and more.
I was very proud to see the passion and purpose that so many students invested in their products. For many, it was a way to challenge themselves and grow into professionals in an unprecedented way. While watching my students interact with adults at the showcase, I saw the adult in them emerge. Everything from the heels and ties to the small, adultlike mannerisms in fingers and eyebrows suddenly jolted me and made me realize that these kids–sophomores in my classroom just two years ago–have arrived and are ready for the world beyond high school. At the heart of it, that was the purpose of this course: preparing students in a better way for real world success. The showcase event was a wonderful way for the students to also see each other in that capacity–as capable, mature, ingenious new adults.
For others attempting a large-scale project based class, here are some of the logistics, challenges, and results of the process of bringing the showcase to life:
Steps we Took to Make the Showcase Happen
*Discussed/approved evening event date with school board back in August
*Created postcard advertisements/invitations based on a student-created brand
*Sent invitations to school faculty, student mentors, and prominent community members
*Surveyed students about needs for space, tables, technology, and other special needs
*Reserved all building facilities, including outdoor space, select classrooms, library, and auditorium
*Created a program, organized by project field of study, that listed the title of each project along with its author
*Created a map of student tables that took student needs (such as electrical outlets) into consideration
*Worked with students on communication skills, documentation, and reflection
*Set up event with tables, chairs, snacks for guests, programs, etc.
*Requested feedback from visitors
Challenges and Revisions
For some reason (overconfidence?), Ms. J and I felt that we could plan, organize, and facilitate this whole event between just the two of us (with some very generous help from our maintenance department and our director of instruction, Ms. L). While we did manage to pull it off, the next time I attempt something like this, I see a lot of value to creating an event planning team of students, who could help with the organization, facilitation, and cleanup for the night. Extra hands and minds would have given the students even more ownership of the event as well as made the workload less daunting on us. While I did get to spend a portion of the two hour event visiting student tables, I spent equal amounts of time fetching extension cords, rearranging stations, replenishing refreshments, monitoring technology usage, and helping students troubleshoot. A student event team would’ve helped ease the adrenaline-fueled on-the-spot managing that took time away from welcoming guests and observing students.
We also found that we needed better publicity before and during the event to attract guests in general and to draw visitors into the classrooms of the school. Most visitors circled the large-traffic areas such as the cafeteria, but many of them weren’t aware of some very cool classroom and outdoor sessions in other areas. I’d like to see students more actively inviting guests and promoting their participation in the evening in the weeks preceding, and creating better signage on the night-of to draw more guests to more sessions. Since this was our first attempt, we were unsure of what the turnout would look like. While we did have a significant amount of visitors, I think that the more people that can see positive things happening in their community high school, the better!
What We Did Right
The strength of an experience like this is that the students feel that they have done something real. One of the most meaningful pieces of feedback that I heard from visitors was the approval of these kids not only having done some impressive work, but in many cases work that is a contribution toward a specific need in a community or field of study. The experience of designing solutions and innovations created an authentic experience and audience that students just can’t get while working out of a literature textbook. Students were able to take ownership of their own learning and got recognized by real professionals for it.
Another thing that was very successful was equipping our students with knowledge of how to use Google sites and Google calendar to chronicle their experiences. Each student was responsible for–in addition to their project work–maintaining a website with an “About Me” page, the text of their research paper, a project proposal, a project log where they documented their progress with artifacts, a final project page featuring image/video/files of their product, and a reflection where they had the chance to explain how they felt they met the six core competencies of the project design experience (independence, design thinking, professional communication, innovation, self-marketing, and integrity). This allowed students a chance to support the grade they felt they deserved and gives them a permanent record of their work from concept to product.
Overall, this whole year was a valuable, exciting time of learning as I approached my first large scale project-based learning experience. Special thanks to Ms. J for working alongside me and often guiding me as we piloted this grand teaching experiment.