Hilary Simpson holds a bachelor’s degree in Political Science with a second major in Psychology from the University of Portland. She was a member of the Teach for America 2013 Memphis Corps. She currently teaches seventh grade English at Lausanne Collegiate School in Memphis, TN. If you have any questions for her, please feel free to contact her through email or twitter!

Few experiences in my life have brought me feelings of both exhilaration and utter intimidation quite like the moment when I first introduced my class of seventh graders to what they would be doing over the next several weeks in English class: they would become social activists.

What was I doing? I had only been teaching a few years, I was at a new school, and I had never used project-based learning in my class. Yet here I was, dedicating six weeks out of an already tight school year to an undertaking that—at first glance—had little to do with a traditional seventh grade ELA curriculum. Would my students’ time not be better spent practicing the analytic essays that are so important to the subject? How on earth was I going to grade this? And most of all, what if this whole endeavor came crashing down around my ears? What if I failed to pull this thing off?

On the other hand, my heart wasn’t only pounding with fear. It was also pounding with excitement at the prospect of my students using what they were learning in class to become engaged citizens. They would be learning how to advocate not only for themselves, but for causes that were important to them. They would be standing up for their beliefs in a way that empowered them. They would know that their voices and opinions mattered, and that they could make a difference. And they would learn that the skills they developed in ELA would be critical to achieving all of this.

This is the double-edged sword of bringing project-based learning into a classroom. Knowing that you are about to risk valuable class time to have your students do something completely new to them, and possibly to you as well, for uncertain payoff is a scary thought. However, as with most areas of life, it can be good to take risks in the classroom. In the case of projects, the risks are often well worth it. This is true for both teachers and, most importantly, students. Projects allow students to engage with material in ways that give them ownership over their learning. Moreover, projects give learning a purpose, not in some distant future, but now. Students see how they can apply their new knowledge or skills to creating something that they can be proud of. As I discovered, even though large projects can be intimidating, they are both valuable and manageable learning experiences. I also discovered that following a few guidelines will help ensure that students benefit the most from the experience.

Know Where Students Will Go and How to Get Them There

If I was going to spend several weeks on an advocacy group project, I was going to need a clear vision of what I wanted my students to learn, what they were going to create, and how I was going to organize their class time. Planning ahead—way ahead—was necessary.

In planning out the project, I started by figuring out my “big idea.” I asked myself two questions: What do I want my students to learn? What will they create to demonstrate their learning? This project would be during a unit on reading and writing nonfiction. I wanted my students to learn how to research, and write to both inform and persuade. I also wanted them to create advocacy groups. Therefore, they would create a campaign as an advocacy group to inform people about an issue and to persuade them to support the group’s proposed solution for that issue. This became my guidepost for the remainder of the project. It was also what I used to communicate the purpose of the project to the students.

Once I knew where I wanted my students to go, the next step was figuring out how to get them there while staying grounded in the subject I was teaching. This was what overwhelmed me the most. My kids were a long way from being able to comfortably advocate for any issues. Most of them didn’t know what advocacy groups were! It was important for me to figure out how to break the project up into more manageable chunks. To do this, I asked myself a few key questions:

What do students need to know? I began by identifying the first thing they would need to know: what advocacy groups did.

How would I communicate that to students? I thought about how to convey this goal to the students as a question for them to answer: What are advocacy groups?

How will I know what the students learned? Then I decided how I would know whether they could answer my question: they would write a description of what advocacy groups did.

How much time is required? I calculated how much time it would take me to cover all of that in class. Not long, probably about two days.

I repeated this series of questions to myself for each skill or piece of knowledge that my students would need in order to succeed in creating an advocacy group campaign. Some of these were practical necessities to complete the project, such as students needing to know what social issues they wanted to tackle. Others were closely tied to skills I wanted to teach, such as research methods and persuasive writing.

I broke the project down into “themes” for my students to learn, questions that I would ask them, products for them to create to demonstrate their learning, and how much time each step would take until I reached the final product—their campaign presentation. Once I felt like I had a plan, I was ready to launch the project.

Make it Authentic

One of the great joys of teaching through projects is bringing the real world into the classroom and bringing the classroom into the real world. My second hurdle was to achieve that in my class. I wanted this to be a valuable experience for my students, not just another assignment to finish and turn in. The best way to make it real for them was to get people who weren’t their teachers to tell them about it. Luckily, I had a friend who worked in the field of advocacy and philanthropy. I reached out to him and he agreed to come in to speak with the students. He showed them that what they were learning really did matter in the world outside of school.

I was fortunate that I knew someone who was able to speak with the students face-to-face. That is not always the case. That does not mean that students can’t hear from an expert. Using Skype or Google Hangout to speak with a member of the community, or even encouraging the students to correspond with someone via email, can add authenticity to a project.

Give Students Time to Make Mistakes…and Fix Them

During this first project of mine, I naively assumed that my students would be able to quickly grasp concepts, generate ideas, and produce high quality work. I was wrong. Very wrong. Learning is messy, and that was never more apparent than as I watched my students grapple with something as challenging as creating an advocacy group campaign. After my initial frustration of “I taught you this, why aren’t you doing it?” died down, I realized how important it was to give them time to work through their ideas, make mistakes, and fix them. I began to extend the time I dedicated to introducing them to new concepts. I also worked in more time for them to discuss and brainstorm without the pressure of needing to write anything down. We had multiple days dedicated to giving and receiving feedback from peers and from me. Students produced several drafts of everything. This happened for every major component of the final presentation. I did feel the pressure of the added time, and the project took slightly longer than I had originally planned. However, the quality of the end product and the depth of the students’ understanding of the material more than made up for the slower pace.

Showcase!

Making this project a meaningful experience for my students was important to me. These kids cared deeply about the issues they were advocating for, and they had worked hard on their presentations. This mattered to them. So I agonized over how I was going to ensure that they had the opportunity to actually function as advocacy groups outside of the classroom, if only for a short time. At the suggestion of a colleague, I set up an expo in the school’s auditorium.

Each advocacy group would set up a presentation for their campaign, along with a spokesperson for each group. Then I invited students, faculty, and administrators to view the campaign presentations and vote for the solution they wanted to support. I also invited the guest speaker I had brought in at the beginning of the project, along with his coworker, to come and formally judge each campaign. There was a pandemonium of middle school students, teachers, administrators, and guests wandering around among the tables set up with my students’ advocacy group mission statements, research reports, and policy proposals. There was also pride on the faces of my students. They took ownership of what they had done. After experiencing that moment, I have made sure that for every project my students do, they always have the opportunity to share what they have created with an audience both in the classroom and beyond it.

Since the advocacy group project, I have utilized project-based learning as often as I can in my class. My students have thrown poetry slams, produced podcasts, created children’s books, and made silent horror films. And that initial intimidation has never completely gone away. There is always uncertainty as to whether things will work out. However, I have reflected on my various experiences and I have learned a few more important lessons over the years:

  • Find a sounding board. I have never, ever pulled off a project without a significant amount of help and input from my colleagues and friends. Find people who you can bounce ideas off.
  • Let the students take the reins. It can be uncomfortable handing over control, but the more ownership students have over what they are creating, the more invested they will be in it. They often surprise me with the creative places they take each project!
  • If students are working in groups, assign each group member a specific role. This stops group gridlock before it begins. If each student has authority over one aspect of the project, there will always be a person to make the final call and move things along. Students who don’t get their way will be less upset if they know that eventually they will have the final say on a different part of the project.
  • Spend time showing students examples of what you want them to create. I dedicate at least a day at the beginning of each project to students dissecting examples of whatever they are going to create. They come up with a list of what is needed for a high quality product. Before they even begin the project, they have a vision of the end goal in their heads.
  • Grade with a rubric. Make sure that the students see and understand the rubric early on in the project. That way they know exactly how they are being evaluated.
  • Make students explain their thinking. A major component of how I assess my students is not based on their final product, but on their explanation of that product. If students explain the thinking behind what they have created, you can more easily assess how deeply they understand the concepts you are exploring through the project.
  • Push yourself. We ask our students to challenge themselves daily. We owe it to them to ask no less of ourselves. Does incorporating project-based learning intimidate you? Good! Do it anyway.
  • Things will go wrong. Don’t panic. Assemblies will cut into class time, students will be absent, technology will always malfunction at the worst possible moment. Stay flexible. Those little frustrations will be more than worth it in the end.

I prefer to think of project-based learning as “purpose-based learning.” It gives learning meaning, and students have something tangible that they can work toward producing. Students experience why their learning is important. As my students developed their advocacy group campaigns, they demonstrated an eagerness to use their knowledge to make the world a better place. They identified firsthand where their skills and knowledge might best make a difference.  Projects such as this give students’ learning purpose and, through that, projects inject the classroom with excitement, enthusiasm, and motivation. In this environment, students push themselves and one another to accomplish tasks which, weeks before, they had thought impossible. They develop skills in communication, teamwork, and problem solving as they work through obstacles and realize that producing something great takes hard work and resilience.

This approach also reminds me of my purpose as a teacher. Yes, I must teach my students reading and writing skills, but I must also teach them that we learn so that we can engage with the world, and that while learning is often hard work, that hard work is often fun and rewarding. So I encourage you to step outside your comfort zone. Push yourself, push your students, and see the amazing things that they are capable of!