Tag Archives: project based learning

I recently joined my district’s ReDesign team, a group of teachers and administrators who meet once a month to share ideas about design thinking, and work together to find ways to start applying it in our classrooms. Especially considering the project-based senior English class taught by myself and Ms. J, I felt that this would be an important group to take part in. At the first meeting I attended, our facilitator led the returning and new members in a design thinking challenge, to get us acquainted with what design thinking really means. Since design thinking involves a process based on interaction and problem solving, learning by doing was ideal. Our fearless leader, Mr. L, used materials from Stanford University’s Institute of Design (known as the d. school) to train us–I am quickly learning that the d. school has many invaluable, free resources available for those who want to learn more about design thinking. To get an idea of what it’s all about, and what kinds of things we examine on our ReDesign team, check out the Stanford Virtual Crash Course in Design Thinking.

My first ReDesign meeting was a little over a month ago, and two very cool things have come out of it–one practical, and one a little more imaginative. I’d like to share both quickly in this post.


First, the practical example. As mentioned above, design thinking is a natural extension of the work we’ve started with our seniors in English 12. (For more on our course design, see this post.) Now that our students have finished their inquiry-driven academic research papers, we are officially transitioning into the most design-heavy portion of the course, where students design, produce, and promote a project that relates to their area of research. Before we set the students loose solo, however, we decided to do a mini project with a little bit of guidance to get them used to this way of thinking and learning. This was an excellent time to share what I learned about design thinking directly with my students. (Here’s a version of the presentation that we shared with students, while mentoring them on a small scale project that spanned about a week from conceptualization to distribution: Design Thinking) Ms. J and I look forward to seeing what our kids can do when it comes to their independent projects… I am already solidly impressed with how much they have grown in their ability to work together, respond to feedback, iterate freely,  and think about the logistics of a final product with a specific audience in mind. We’ve since moved on to the initial prototyping for their individual senior projects, and it’s so exciting watching the students struggle but succeed through the problem solving process of finding the correct solution to a pertinent real-world problem or need associated with their topic. (Here’s our expectations guide that we’ve used to help students develop and frame their project/process plans: The English 12 Senior Project Expectations Guide) They are currently overwhelmed by the possibilities and the vastness of the task, but they are starting to trust the process, and that will guide each student to the right place in the end, even if that means that hundreds of different places are the right one!

The second cool thing that has already come out of my involvement with the ReDesign team has been the chance to imagine a little bit. During the first workshop, I was partnered with my colleague Mr. M, and we were tasked with envisioning a product that could help address a specific need within our classrooms. As we discussed the needs that we feel as teachers, many different things came up: better ways of communicating with students, ways to streamline and combine the many emerging classroom technologies that we already use, better ways to collect, assess, and archive student work in a meaningful fashion… So, since our challenge was on an imaginary unlimited budget, Mr. M and I designed the ultimate technological tool: smart desks with touchscreen surfaces that would instantly customize for each student. The desktop would contain the content and student work for all classes throughout a student’s career, allowing for archiving and review by teachers, students, and parents. Messaging capabilities would allow teachers to send quick reminders or notes to students. Students could type, speak, or write with a stylus to complete their work, which would be stored in the cloud and accessible from anywhere. Videochat and live workspaces would enable collaboration across classes and even schools. Media editing and learning software would be customizable and built-in. There would even be a mood indicator light on the side, so that teachers could know at a glance if a student was compromised or energized by emotion on that particular day. Students could touch and share, or group their assignments with a flick of the hand or the touch of a button. How cool would that be?!  We gloried in the freedom to ideate without limits and wondered how much money it would take to really bring the smart desk to life. But the most staggering thing was the realization that we came to: this kind of thing *will* be a reality in the years to come. In fact, as our friend Mrs. D tipped us off to, there are many others out there who are way ahead of us in envisioning the classroom of the future: Click here…

Adults often start to forget this, but really, anything that we can imagine, can be. By the time they turn 18, our students should believe that more than they did in kindergarten, not less. Because it’s possible and true.  Here’s to design thinking, and the wonder it brings.


What is English 12?

That’s the question my colleague Ms. J and I found ourselves asking last summer, as we prepared to roll out a brand new version of senior language arts. Our department had found a need for a new way of looking at things as the new Common Core State Standards were being presented, 21st century skills were becoming the most touted measuring stick for student achievement post-high school, and voices in our community were calling for graduates who were more professionally savvy. Our previous English 12 courses were very traditional literature-based classes, with no real identity to ground them as anything other than a basic senior English course. Our vision was to completely revamp the curriculum: Align curriculum to the standards. Create a project-based course that gives freedom and ownership to the students. Find ways to constantly connect learning to the community and to real life experiences. We hoped to see higher student engagement/buy-in, higher achievement, and an emerging professional demeanor in our students.

Here’s what we came up with:What’s English 12? Infographic

As the year unfolded, the students were occasionally mystified or daunted by the new, challenging things we were asking of them. The largest of these is the senior research proposal, paper, and project. Students are asked to select a defining topic that pertains to their interests, skills, or future plans. Throughout the year, they develop research on that topic which eventually results in a project, of their own design, that the students display for the community at the end of the year showcase. During semester one, we’ve planted the seeds for this epic undertaking in several special ways. I’ve given a snapshot below.

September – October: Introduced “big picture” of course, linking to Tony Wagner’s idea of Passion, Play, and Purpose as the most important cornerstones of learning that creates innovation and creativity. Students were asked to begin considering their topic choices, keeping these ideas in mind.

Early November: Over 30 local professionals from many different fields were our guests at the Professional Symposium, an event designed for students to learn more about the real expectations of the different corners of the work world. Each professional had a table where they brought in things related to their career (like a model of a human spine, a laptop video display, architectural drafts, plants…). The students, who were required to dress professionally, then circulated and asked both prepared and impromptu interview questions to prompt conversations. Students also had important roles in the event, such as being in charge of lighting/sound and giving the closing address. This experience offered important insight, and helped several students select a topic.

Late November: Students were required to select their topics by this time. (True to the student-ownership goal, these ranged from the history of comics to Spina Bifida awareness to Bigfoot to sports medicine.) We took the students on a research field trip to the Golda Meir Library at UW-Milwaukee. The staff worked amazingly well with our massive group of students. During this experience, our rural students got to see what a respected university library is like, and they had access to a nearly-endless collection of both digital and print resources to inform their topic. They spent the day taking resource-specific notes and refining their topic choices.

December: In class, we offered instruction on specialized research skills, like how to conduct an email interview, using electronic databases, how to take notes, and choosing what to read in a lengthy  source. During this unit, students wrote a detailed annotated bibliography of 20+ credible sources related to their topics. Students were expected to give periodic reports to the full class about their reading and discoveries.

January: For the semester exam, students were asked to write a formal proposal for their researchEnglish 12 Research Proposal. I was so impressed with my students’ overall excitement and true scholarship associated with their topics. I found myself reading things like…

  • “Philosophy does not get the respect and credit it well deserves. Few people in the world today realize how much philosophy has impacted society and the human race. My stance on this is that philosophy is an invaluable and irreplaceable building block to modern knowledge.” Alex L.
  • “I would say that modern comics are stepping away from old ideas and greeting new ones more openly as well as [showing a] more true step into maturity, unlike the hollow, pandering “maturity” of the 90’s. This is evident in things like superhero comics becoming somewhat less popular, indie and comics that deal with much different subject matters than the mainstream seeing much more popularity, the early 2000’s seeing the abandoning of the comics code almost altogether, and the far more respectful portrayal of modern war and tragic events like 9/11.” Stephen P.

  • “The juvenile system has flourished over time and helps create life saving opportunities for adolescents. Continuing over each generation adolescents will do bad things, but it is the system’s job to help save their lives, and create a better tomorrow. I arrived at my stance through trial and error. First I wanted to research the history of juvenile justice, but then I decided I want to find out what the juvenile system can offer adolescents. What can the system do for kids whose families have given up on them? Samantha S.

Our students have already grown so much in intellectual and professional maturity throughout this process, and I can tell that they are feeling proud to call this class their own. I’m looking forward to second semester, to see what happens as more and more responsibility is released over to them, and they are enabled and empowered to do interesting, contributive things. Students light up when you ask them about the right things–we’re channeling the power of those right things in order to activate remarkable learning.

Things I’ve already observed during semester one of English 12:

-Project-based learning is just as powerful as all the research claims it us! It targets a comprehensive skill set dealing with academics, technology, and professional demeanor.

-Project-based learning is absolutely achieveable in a public school environment, with all levels of students, though those who need to grow in their ability to self-direct have the most work to do to succeed. This type of format requires educators who are able to and interested in keeping close tabs on the progress/development of each individual.

-Project-based learning helps students, even those prone to “senioritis” remember how much they actually do love to learn.

Things I’m still wondering:

-How does project-based learning look in other senior classes around the state and country? Do you teach one or know of one? Please share! Examples have not been the easiest to find.

-What are the best assessment techniques for such a wide variety of outcomes? While many aspects of student acheivement are observable in this format, measuring it objectively and accurately may become a challenge. Are there any educators out there with ideas about this?



I’ve had a fantastic semester with my first ever theater arts class. Performing is something that has been a passion and pursuit of mine since grade school. In fact, before the idea of teaching ever crossed my mind, I had the goal of majoring in musical theater and trying to “make it big” as an actor and singer. While my career changed direction, my love for theater still exists, and when I found out that I’d get to teach a semester of theater arts, I was pretty pumped.

I’ve had many awesome experiences teaching this class. We started out learning about theater history in America–many people don’t know about the massive cultural influence that dramatic works have contributed (and still do) to our nation’s history. I later worked with students to build their acting skills, spending time developing the basics–we began with how to stand and walk with confidence and created characters from there. I pushed my students to think about the physicality of their characters down to the smallest nuance–the fingers, the eyebrows, the spine–to notice how everything combines to send a message of emotion and personality. We worked on vocal projection and characterization, then on chemistry as we practiced showing character relationships through touch, expression, and vocal reaction. I taught design basics for costumes and sets, and watched students present detailed sketches of their creations. We sang pieces from musical theater. We read and analyzed Thornton Wilder’s Our Town to explore the idea of the “thinking man’s play.” Above all, my students had me laughing my head off on a daily basis as they presented witty skits and played improvisation games. I was… pretty much in heaven. As much as I love writing and literature, (and film, food, art, animals, cities, the ocean, etc.) theater is definitely a competitor for the position of What I Love Best. Sharing that joy with students is extremely satisfying.

The week before spring break, I talked to my class about the idea of a final assessment. Aside from the theater history unit, all of my assessments for the class had been performance-based (naturally). I liked the idea of a final performance that would roll together everything that they had worked on throughout the semester, but I wanted to get an idea of what they’d be comfortable with and willing to take on. To my surprise and glee, they were gung-ho about presenting a “for real” performance. The following was our process for getting from concept to curtain in seven weeks flat.

WEEK ONE: We started with an initial discussion to answer the vital questions–Should we present an already-published play, or write our own? If we write our own, what should it be about? Should we invite the general public, student body, or just family members? Where should the play be held? When should it be held? Once we got those basic questions answered, we decided upon an evening performance, in the auditorium, for the general public. We also decided we’d like to write our own material. The most popular idea was a “fairytales retold” type of story where characters from different tales could intermingle and run into some strange situations.

Once the concept was clarified, we began to mold it into something. Since all the students would be acting in the show, each student chose a character they’d most like to portray on stage. Then, five small groups were given two days to write twenty minutes of original material based around the characters of their choosing. Each group presented a reading of their script to the entire class. After each skit was presented, we had another full class meeting (with me taking down minutes in real time, displayed via LCD projector). We discussed the aspects of each skit idea that we liked or disliked, and started listing ideas for ways in which we could fuse the material together. Since one group’s skit was about a self-help group for fairytale characters, the students decided that we could use that situation as a device to jump off from into “flashbacks” of the stories that led up to each character’s  arrival in therapy. It sounded good, and we were ready for week two.

WEEKS TWO-THREE: When students arrived on Monday, they were expected to join a committee in order to focus and specialize their work as we prepared for the performance. I reiterated that in order for any type of performance to get off the ground, I needed my class to work hard for me, and I needed to be able to trust that they could collaborate like adults. If I was to be the director and orchestrator of this extravaganza, I knew I would not have time to spend energy on classroom management. The classroom needed to manage itself. In order to help the students with that, I introduced them to the criteria I expected them to fulfill in order to recieve participation credit. I used this document: HOW TO COLLABORATE LIKE AN ADULT , which may be the most useful classroom document I have ever written. My students took it to heart, and got down to business at a level that, truly, stunned me. They were Ready To Go, so I just got out of their way.

I provided the structure of the committees that they could choose from. The Writing Committee would be in charge of taking the current skit ideas and using them as a starting point to create a full one-act play of 30-50 minutes. They used Google Docs to collaborate and communicate as they worked together to develop the script. The Production Committee was in charge of all the show’s technicalities–designing, determining, and creating all costumes, set pieces, props, and lighting. These students also functioned as the show’s set crew in addition to acting. The Promotions Committee handled the design of all promotional materials, like posters, t-shirts, and locker signs. They were also in charge of organizing fundraisers (thanks to these kids, we raised nearly $300.00 to cover all of our costs via community sponsors and a massive bake sale). The Student Direction Committee helped the writers develop characters, and eventually worked alongside me to coach our cast on their acting. One girl even put together a student directing handbook as part of her senior English project. Finally, the Mangagement Committee created a calendar, helped me (and everyone) stay on schedule, and determined all the channels we needed to go through to secure a performance space and get our fundraisers going.

We spent two weeks meeting in committees in the library, where there was plenty of space to gather around computers, or scatter paperwork across big tables. I also gave each committee one “Official Theater Arts Business” pass so that they could move about the building as needed to check in with administration, fetch keys for the costume room, or obtain raw materials. While students occasionally, and without intent to harm, overstepped this freedom a bit, they were extremely productive and responded to my guidance about the etiquette that neccessarily accompanies the trust they’d been given. While they worked, I did too–mainly in order to get us a performance space that wasn’t already taken on the one evening we had to work with. Graciously, the middle school in our district was able to offer their auditorium. We set a date and things started to get real!

WEEK FOUR-FIVE: On the first day of week four, the script was hot off the press and we did our first readings. We walked through rough blocking and gave the students a chance to familiarize with their characters. We made some edits based on character consistency and the reality of our set budget, so the initial script quickly went through a few iterations. One scene was completely rewritten. After everything seemed pretty finished, we got down to serious business as far as building convincing performances, choreographing chases/falls/fights, and growing increasingly comfortable with the flow of the story. Meanwhile, students who weren’t being coached were building set pieces, running lines, or folding programs. This all happened in my classroom every day, with all the desks pushed back against one of the long walls. I also lucked out in a huge way as my next door classroom neighboor, the wonderful Mr. M, offered his room as additional space for students to run lines. As a fellow performer, he also offered some tidbits of advice to the budding young actors that came his way. By the end of week five–just as the calendar required–the kids were off book. (Mostly…)

WEEK SIX: On week six, we started traveling to the middle school auditorium during our class time to rehearse. Again, luck was definitely on our side. Both the high school and middle school administration were very accomodating with our daily journey, not to mention the walk between buildings only amounts to about 9 minutes of travel time. The first two days were completely “prop commando” as my students called it–no props, scenery, or lighting at all–as we got used to the space. On Wednesday, we started adding props, lighting, and scenery as much as possible. After-school obligations began to appear for me: picking up some costume rentals and hauling large set pieces/costume items between buildings. The show was really coming together. My inner director was busting out all over the place. As kids played their scenes I was constantly barking out corrections and encouragements. (The most popular things I shouted each day were probably “I DIDN’T HEAR ANY OF THAT”, “YES! BETTER! KEEP GOING!”, and “FIX IT NOW”) I had hearty chuckle at least eight times a day, due to my students’ hilarious stage antics. I started to fret a little bit though. Several kids were still consistently missing their lines, and nobody was loud enough to be heard from the back rows. But nevertheless, the announcements were read and posters were posted. There was no going back, so I got my game face on.

WEEK SEVEN: Monday through Wednesday of the final week, we ran troublesome scenes and worked the many transitions between scenes with lighting and set elements. We finally had all our set pieces, costumes, and props, so we made sure we knew how and where all those things would move and contribute to the show. And I stopped supplying missing lines. Those first couple days were rough to watch the students grope and stall, trying to resurrect those occasional forgotten lines whilst a tidal wave of frustrated silence practically flattened me. We also had “projection bootcamp” to improve the volume of students’ voices onstage–I sent them to the next door classroom and we listened to each other through the wall. It greatly illuminated the difference between a projected voice and a regular one, and everyone improved quite a bit. By Thursday, we were ready to rock. We held an additional dress rehearsal after school, which went fairly smoothly. Afterward, witches, warriors, princes, and wizards sat on the front of the stage, feet dangling, as I gave them each last-minute corrections. The show would be the next evening, and we were nearly ready.

On Friday in class, we went over the logistics of the afternoon and evening as well as some last minute reminders. Students also got one more chance to practice troublesome scenes. Of course, some t-shirt decorating and general excitement also took place. We did one more run-through immediately after school, without costumes or makeup. Then, we had an obligatory unofficial meeting at Jimmy John’s. Mr. M offered his generous co-chaperoning services, which I gladly accepted. Everyone was in great spirits, excited and happy, including me. The peaceful feeling of “it’s as good as it’s gonna get” started to wash over me. I knew my kids would be great.

We returned to the auditorium and the students started getting their hair, makeup, and costumes ready. Nostalgia overwhelmed me as I thought back to the many productions I’ve taken part of in the past. It was strange and beautiful to be on the other side of the process, knowing the nervous anticipation and excitement that they were feeling, calmly bustling a dress that had suffered a slight rip, gently painting monkey and joker faces, giving out those “You’re going to be so awesome” encouragements to ease nerves, and ushering the students backstage as audience members started to arrive.

This can only end one way, right? The show was absolutely fantastic. The characters all showed up, including the overzealous villains, cantankerous fairyfolk, and lovestruck princesses. My students executed everything perfectly, nobody forgot a line, and the audience loved it. I was floored by how well they did, and overflowing with teacherly pride. Probably the best part of it all, other than having the special privilege of getting to watch them do their thing in spectacular fashion, was seeing all my students bounce out from backstage after the last bows, smiling and jumping happily in their assorted wings and capes and tails and crowns as they ran to greet family and friends. Pure happiness. And a great accomplishment for each and every one of them.

It was a small play, in a small auditorium in a small town, with a small audience. But it was one of the biggest things I’ve done as a teacher, and I couldn’t be prouder of my very own theater arts classroom company.


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**All images used with formal consent of students’ guardians  and/or student self-consent if eighteen. Skillful photography by Ms. J.  Editing for blog purposes by yours truly.