This year I fell in love with project-based learning. I am new to this world and I jumped in with both feet. I have always wanted to be more a “facilitator” than a “lecturer.” I knew that my experience in a project-based graduate school would change the way that I thought about teaching. Yet I had no idea how profound that change would be and how quickly it would happen. There are four major elements of project-based learning that have been the catalyst for that change: creating a student-centered classroom, providing choice, expecting beautiful work, and constructing a framework for thoughtful revision.
When I thought about what I wanted my seventh-graders to get from me in the first days of school, I remembered what I had heard a teacher say in a meeting at High Tech Middle Media Arts: “Before any learning takes place in the beginning of the year, we want students to understand that they are loved and cared for here at our school.” That really resonated with me. I want my students to feel like our classroom is a haven where they are safe to create and explore. I want them to know that I value their opinions and ideas. I want them to be at the center of what we do together.
One of the first things I did was to allow students access to the entire classroom and all materials. Students were free to move about during work times, not chained to their seats. We established a basic philosophy of, “What’s mine is yours.” We talked a lot about returning things better than you found them, and they have really respected the supplies. In the beginning, they were amazed that I let them use all of my markers, pens, colored pencils, and office supplies. It took a few days to convince them that all of these things were for them, and they could use them whenever they needed to. They still sometimes ask if they can have a paper clip!
My previous experience with projects in my classroom can be summed up with one word: STRESS. I was stressed about how messy the room got, how much time the project took, and how expensive the materials were. I’ll admit that in the classroom, I tend to be a bit of a control freak. In the first few weeks of school, I had to deal with the fact that it wasn’t all about me anymore. If I truly wanted a student-centered classroom, then I had to give up control. My classroom may be messier than before, but it has become a learning lab. I’ve discovered that sometimes the mess is necessary, and it can be beautiful.
My students now take ownership of what we do in our classroom. I have released a monster (in a good way)! They tell me when something is boring or they aren’t engaged. They are so used to being interested in what we are learning, that they really notice when they aren’t. One student asked me, “Why is it so boring when we have a sub?” They beg for project work time. Many of the students spend hours after school working on the intricate details of their projects. They know that they are safe in our class to share what they think—what they really think. In turn, I have been reinvigorated by my students’ enthusiasm. I tell them daily that I learn when I listen to them. My classroom has become the classroom that I never knew I always wanted!
I believe that my student-centered classroom works because I provide students with choices in their learning. I teach two seventh-grade language arts and history “core” classes, and choice is embedded in almost every learning experience. Students select what books they want to read. In writing workshops they choose what they want to write about within writing genres. In our current history project, students have chosen topics they want to further investigate, providing both breadth and depth to the history curriculum. I love it now when students ask me, “What do I have to do?” This year, I can honestly say, “I don’t know. What do you want to do? What do you want to learn more about? What questions do you have?”
Since the beginning of the year, we have been using the expression “beautiful work” to talk about the products that we turn in or present. A student asked me, “Does the border on this poster look okay?” I responded with, “What do you think? Is it beautiful work?” She looked at her group and said, “I love it when Mrs. Ward says ‘beautiful work.’” I think the reason she responded that way is because at our core, we all know what beautiful work is. It is work that you can be proud of. At its best, it is work that can change the world.
I asked my students what they thought about creating beautiful work. Dillon wrote, “Beautiful work is when they actually like it and people are inspired by the work. I think it is one of the most magnificent things a human can do to inspire someone on that level.” Madison thought for a long time and wrote, “Beautiful work comes from the heart. You know that you have created beautiful work when you are proud to turn it in, and you already know beforehand that you will get a good grade.” In Writer’s Workshop, David wrote, “Beautiful work is when your reader gets a tingling feeling inside.”
My students have embraced the idea of revision leading to beautiful work. Hailey wrote, “One way to create beautiful work is to get an idea and write it down, re-think it, and then make sure it comes to life using your best effort. That is a sure fire way to create beautiful work!” My students are deep into a project on African history, and we are coming to a point where revision is necessary. It is amazing to see all of the things we’ve explored and discussed coming to fruition before my eyes. Just recently, during a project work day, one group had a noticeable typo on their presentation board. The group came to me for help, and I asked, “What do you think the guests at our exhibition will think when they look at your project?” They thought about it for a minute, and one of the girls said, “We need to revise, don’t we?” At the beginning of the year, this group was resistant to revision. It felt like pulling teeth just to get them to think about making changes. Now, they take on revision as a responsibility.
In the course of the Africa project, students have begun to “revise in progress.” I have seen multiple drafts of visual aids and text. When certain ideas don’t work, they change them on the spot. This creates a sort of planned spontaneity that has been really beneficial to my students. They know they can change things if they need to, but they also know what is expected of them to be successful.
I still have much to learn. My next steps include creating critique sessions to aid in the revision process. I also need to live through my student’s first project exhibition, which happens in just a few short weeks! I want to get better at having students create questions about topics, and generating project ideas from their questions. I have only been part of the project-based learning world for a few short months, but I already feel empowered as a teacher and a learner. I can’t wait to design the next project with my students.