Project-Based Learning, part three

Recently in this space I have been praising project-based learning, because it enables students to become producers of knowledge, not merely consumers (and sometimes regurgitators).  As noted earlier, the best projects are ones where the teacher or teachers do not know ‘The correct answer’ because they also are engaged in the journey of discovery. 

In the end, students own the work they have done; school is no longer just about tests, test scores, and the question teachers dread, “Will this be on the test?”

The first two projects I wrote about involved water and air; this one gets students out in their communities, which means it will also introduce adults who don’t have school-age children to the wonders of what is possible in public education.  

Done well, this work enables young people to develop at least six skills that will serve them well throughout their adult lives.

          1) working together with peers;

         2) communicating across generations;

          3) specific production skills;

         4) making value-based judgments;

         5) making difficult editorial choices, and;

         6) meeting ‘real world’ professional high standards.

I’ve given this venture a name: “The Poetry Project.”  Each team of 3 or 4 students will need a video camera (the one on a smartphone will be fine), a tripod or some other firm support for the camera, paper and scotch tape, an editing app, and some willing adults.

How it works:  A team of students, probably middle schoolers, picks a poem that they can relate to.  This is important because they may have to ‘sell’ it to the adults who are going to be asked to perform/recite the poem on camera.  The adults may have to be taught to read with energy and conviction, and having enthusiastic students (now the producers) will help.

Students first print the entire poem in a large font size.  Then separate by obvious verses/couplets for individual readers.  When ready to record, tape the selected verse/couplet to the bottom lip of the camera lens. This way the participants don’t have to memorize anything.  They will be looking at the camera and their lines at the same time. Although many participants may memorize the words, they will be more relaxed knowing that the ‘crutch’ is there if they need it.

Which adults are going to participate?  I recommend the sole criterion is that they do not have kids in school (which is about 75% of adults in most communities, by the way).  

For the sake of clarity, I’m imagining the kids have chosen Hamlet’s famous soliloquy.  

Mrs. Andrews in Apartment 9B:

To be, or not to be, that is the question:

Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer

The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,

Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,

And by opposing end them?

When filming, frame all participants from the shoulders up. Ideally, all readers should be sitting or standing in front of a non-distracting, solid color backdrop.  Consistency matters, so frame every adult in the same way. They should look into the camera when reciting their lines. 

Mr. Young of Mr. Young’s Cleaners:

To die, to sleep,

No more; and by a sleep to say we end

The heartache, and the thousand natural shocks

That flesh is heir to …

Tell them to continue looking into the camera until you say ‘Cut.’  Make sure the audio quality is clear and coherent. As we say in the business, “TV is really just radio with pictures,” which means that quality sound is essential. Once completely and fully satisfied with the audio, check it again! 

Kimberly Wong in Apartment 17C:

… ’tis a consummation

Devoutly to be wished. To die, to sleep;

To sleep, perchance to dream …

Because producers need options, each adult should be asked to read his/her lines several times. 

 Augie Ramos at the local Deli:

… ay, there’s the rub:

For in that sleep of death what dreams may come,

When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,

Must give us pause – there’s the respect

That makes calamity of so long life.

And because most adults are not accustomed to performing, student producers have to gain their confidence, perhaps by giving their own reading and talking about what it means to them.

Angela Packer, a trainer at the Y:  

For who would bear the whips and scorns of time,

The oppressor’s wrong, the proud man’s contumely,

The pangs of despised love, the law’s delay,

The insolence of office …

It gets interesting when adults give a lousy reading and have to be coaxed into a second, third or fourth effort.  That’s when these 12-, 13- and 14-year-olds–who are directing people old enough to be their parents or grandparents–have to learn how to criticize constructively. 

Jacob Epstein of Epstein Jewelers:

… and the spurns

That patient merit of the unworthy takes,

When he himself might his quietus make

With a bare bodkin?

 Because bad readings are guaranteed, it’s crucial that the team role-play this situation in advance, in front of classmates, so they can develop strategies for success.

Building Manager Joe Carris: 

Who would fardels bear,

To grunt and sweat under a weary life,

But that the dread of something after death,

The undiscovered country from whose bourn

No traveller returns, puzzles the will,

And makes us rather bear those ills we have

Than fly to others that we know not of?

One rule that cannot be broken: The readings have to be excellent. No cutting corners and no compromising on quality just to squeeze in an adult whose reading wasn’t good enough but who is friends with the principal or somebody important.  Only quality matters!

Clothing store owner Alice Gotteswold:

Thus conscience does make cowards of us all,

And thus the native hue of resolution

Is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought … 

Producers have to make all sorts of decisions, always keeping in mind that the goal is the best possible production, in this case the most emotionally accurate reading of Hamlet’s soliloquy.

Richie O’Connor, Building doorman:

… and enterprises of great pith and moment,

With this regard their currents turn awry,

And lose the name of action. 

The fun–and greater rewards–begin when the production is posted on the school’s YouTube channel and perhaps broadcast on local news.  That’s when all of these adults start talking about the film, sharing the link, and pulling out their smartphones and showing it to friends and customers.  They’ll be saying, “Did you know what they’re doing in school these days? Sure makes me wish I could go to school all over again.”

For students, school has become more valuable and interesting. With luck, their enthusiasm will rub off and carry over into other aspects of their school experience.  They will become better and more discerning consumers of education precisely because they are now producers.  And, in my humble opinion, this is one way to ensure that our children become confident, productive and creative adults. 

Next time, a classroom-based project for high school students.

3 thoughts on “Project-Based Learning, part three

  1. Working together with peers; communicating across generations; meeting ‘real world’ professional high standards. Students acquire and demonstrate these skills while doing projects, as John Merrow recommends. College admission officers and employers will value applicants who have these skills. It falls to teachers to assess their PBL students and record the assessments in ways that can be widely understood.
    Academic transcripts don’t do the job. Neither will portfolios suffice if officials in admissions and HR departments have only a minute or so to review records (research indicates they spend less than a minute per applicant). John Merrow and I developed a Verified Resume to produce a record that can be quickly reviewed and backed up by a portfolio entry.
    The assessment need not be elaborate or even numeric. It should look like what can be put in a letter of recommendation. “John and Mary worked effectively on a team that recommended community solutions to reduce carbon emissions,” will suffice. Whatever, the mechanism these “soft skills” need to be assessed and recorded.
    Arnold Packer
    Executive Director, Secretary’s Commission on Achieving Necessary Skills (SCANS)


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