Project Based Learning

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[The following represents a re-work and expansion of a post already published on my other blog.]

OK, it’s time to stop testing the water with a toe and jump with both feet into project based learning.

Grade 10 have today made the leap with me. A leap of faith? I hope not. Let’s hope it’s more of a giant leap forward.

But enough with the metaphors. Just as I require Grade 10 to document the process, I will do the same. I have been exploring project based learning for a while and have put it into practise in a small way. Now is the time to see how it really works, whilst addressing required learning outcomes and assessing the students effectively in order to write their reports at the end of the semester.

Day One: Introduction of the Unit


I introduced the project to the class. We were due to do a unit on 19th Century European literature, and they have done a small amount of research in preparation. Today, we were going to start reading Goethe’s Faust. And then I stopped. Really? What can the students possibly gain from that? What’s more important is to grapple with the ideas contained within the text, rather than the text itself. What would you sell your soul for? How much are your dreams worth? Not wanting to waste the work already undertaken, and believing that the essence of the unit has value, I decided to change the way in which we worked, rather than change the unit completely and so I used elements of my previously written unit to introduce the project to the class under the following headings:


19th Century European Literature: From Romanticism to Realism

Big Idea:

Expressions of the heart and life’s lessons: the age of Romanticism and the emergence of Realism

Essential Questions:

  • How do literature and social change connect?
  • In what ways were the Romantics influenced by both the natural and supernatural?
  • What are your dreams worth?
  • If everything is representation, what is real?

Learning Outcomes:

(these come from our curriculum)

  • Produce a variety of texts appropriate for audience and purpose
  • Determine central themes or ideas in a text
  • Compare and contrast themes and ideas within and between texts
  • Organise and develop ideas for the purpose and audience

Given the above prerequisites, the students need to produce a multi-media project, documenting their process and progress. They need to use 19th century literature as the vehicle to explore the ideas, so that the literature is secondary to the enduring understanding.

What I’m trying to impress on them is that they are not reading, for example, Faust or the poetry of Baudelaire or Wordsworth just for the sake of it, but as a means of exploring and understanding something more authentic and meaningful.

To ensure the project is still addressing the skills they need to be developing, they started with acquiring an understanding of some essential vocabulary:

  • Romanticism
  • Reason
  • Revolution
  • Idealised
  • Nationalism
  • Enlightenment
  • Industrialisation
  • Philosophy
  • Neo-Classicism
  • Realism

From there, they will start exploring some literature and decide what they wish to focus on and how they will present their findings. Despite several reminders that the ‘product’ comes last, of course that’s where they all start! “I’m going to do a video.” “I’m going to produce a rap song.” I have to say that I had to question where the latter fitted into the Romantic ideals, but if they can justify it they can do it!

It’s early days. They are currently engaged. Two of them are exploring a new ‘thing’ I found today: which looks promising.

Day Two: Providing Structure

As much as students enjoy project-based learning, I find that it’s important to give them some structure. Previous attempts at project-based units have lost momentum and meaning because of allowing the students too much free rein, and not giving them a framework within which to work. With each project-based unit, I am hoping that they will become more and more able to provide that framework for themselves, but at this stage there need to be stricter guidelines and deadlines in place to keep the students focused and productive.

Today was the follow-up lesson to the introduction of this unit on 19th Century European literature. Having given the students the opportunity for an initial surf of the internet and a read around of Romanticism in general and some authors in particular, I needed to get them to focus their thinking more keenly. Using Edmodo as our communication platform, I provided the students with some general links – mostly to Wikipedia as a first stop – and some statements that embody Romanticism – taken from ReadWriteThink – to ponder to help focus their thinking.

IMG_1773From this, and the initial details given, the students needed to come up with their main area of focus for their project, develop two research questions, and initiate some specific lines of inquiry. They had to discuss these with me by the end of the lesson, and write a blog post giving more details about this as their assigned homework. As I had told them that this project will require work outside of class time, I feel that assigning homework tasks is within the spirit of the project and will be enhancing and developing their learning, rather than being ‘busy’ work or homework just for the sake of it – something I try to avoid.

I found this approach to be quite successful: by the end of the class most students and all the groups had a much clearer picture of where they are going with this project and had clear and focused lines of inquiry to follow.

Some of the topics are:

  • How the philosophical and ethical thinking of the time is reflected in the literature
  • How social change and Romanticism are connected
  • How novels such as The Hunchback of Notre Dame and Phantom of the Opera provided impetus to the move from Romanticism to Realism
  • How the “limitations” of Romanticism led to the emergence of Realism
  • How the effects of Romanticism are felt in today’s world

Through the process of formulating and documenting their thinking, the students were able to determine in which direction their inquiries should go. For instance, in the first example above, the student will need to research what the philosophical and ethical thinking was and then find some examples in literature in which these are reflected.

I suspect as the students move forward, they will find they need to further hone and narrow their thinking in order to produce a demonstration of their understanding that is focused, detailed and specific. I continue to impress upon them a need for depth rather than breadth, otherwise the project becomes less meaningful in terms of enduring understandings.

Passion Project: Week One

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Week one for my passion project, so far, looks like this:

First steps:

  • I put a call out on Twitter for some advice as to what software options there were out there
  • I searched Google for “book creator software”
  • I downloaded and tried out

Thoughts as I explored:

  • I had a little play with Booksmart and it seems easy to use but maybe not very creative. There are many templates and you just fill them in. I found out that to print, obviously, will cost – I wonder whether I can download and print elsewhere? Probably not as that would be how they make their money – much like the Apple books you can create from iPhoto. It’s not a huge amount of money, but getting the final product mailed to China is always a challenge.
  • What I’ll need is one I can do and have printed here, which will obviously be cheaper. Photoshop? I hope not, as that’s pretty hard work and very time consuming. I’m not very good at Photoshop.
  • Hmm.. rather than a book which can be published, I should investigate some sort of digital book – I’d like it to be in digital format and interactive: connect to my Tripadvisor reviews, restaurants and hotels I mention, sites I explore, Google maps, that sort of thing.
  • I had a reply to my tweet from a company which had a link to a great blog by a teacher of grade 1s and 2s who’s doing an ‘I Wonder’ version of genius hour.
  • Spoke to the Grade 11s and asked their advice about format – one student recommended iBooks Author, which is an app/software I can use on my Mac Air, so I’ll check that out. I can’t find it in the app store, so it may be a downloadable software. I’ll check it out. My Mac Air doesn’t have much space on it, so I hope it’s not too large a programme. I didn’t get a chance to try it out yet.


All the students have to complete a proposal by the end of this week, so I modelled what I mean by completing my own. PASSION PROJECT my proposal

It was a good process to go through as it continued to help me clarify my thoughts and ideas. I’m sure it will continue to morph and change as I go through the project, but that’s kind of the idea.

I had a lovely comment from my sister-in-law about my previous post, who commented that it’s a good idea for everyone to think about their ‘passion project’ and “to take stock of where we are and where we want to go and what we want to do.” She also commented how much she’d enjoyed reading it, which is always gratifying. I’m finding that not many people are commenting on my blog itself, but rather where I share it.  Wherever the comments are, though, it’s always good to know that people are actually reading what I’m writing and thinking about it enough to make a comment. Makes me think I’m on the right track.

Story boarding with tableaux

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I am currently reading Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest with my grade 10 class, most of whom are not native speakers of English. After completing Act One, we stopped reading and I was about to give them some of the usual activities I do at the end of each act. Thankfully I stopped and asked them to storyboard the act instead. They were asked to think of some key scenes and key quotations and then plan out their storyboard. We do have some fairly good artists in the class so I gave them the option of drawing their storyboard but also suggested some alternatives, such as finding images of people they thought fitted each character and printing and cutting them out before pasting them into a storyboard as a sort of collage. I also suggested they could pose their friends in tableaux for each scene, photograph it and then put those photographs together for the storyboard. This really captured their imagination and they all chose this option. The energy levels rose dramatically; all members of the class were involved; and I could hear that the discussions they were having about the play went beyond anything they would have had they merely written about what they understood or perceived.

A most satisfying lesson. See my other post for the photos.

Lifelong learning

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This is a new venture for me, so I’ll be learning alongside my students with this one – truly demonstrating that we’re all lifelong learners!  I have used a blog before, but because WordPress is blocked in Kazakhstan, I’ve used that as an excuse to discontinue.  The truth is, though, that I do find blogging challenging.  I think of exciting and interesting things to say when I’m about my daily business, or trying to fall asleep at night, but when it comes to writing, I find myself stumped.  I’m sure the students will have the same problems so I’m wondering whether I should always provide writing prompts for them, or whether that would have the counter-effect of them writing to the prompt, rather than writing what they think and feel.  I’m hoping that there will be enough issues raised during the course of the unit to give them (and me) plenty to write about.

I’m finding it a little frustrating that I’ve not had a better response via Twitter regarding other schools to collaborate with.  When I was a school student, I would have found it very exciting to correspond with students in Kazakhstan.  I always had pen pals when I was a kid, although mine were not that exotic: one lived in Milton Keynes and the other in France.  I was living in London at the time.

As we move on, I’m hoping this will be less about me and more about the students.  I can respond to them and to issues that are raised as we go through.  Hopefully they will find it as exciting as me to have a language unit conducted solely through digital media.  It’s hard to tell sometimes with Grade 9 – they can be tiresomely unexcited sometimes!  I hope they prove me wrong and get thoroughly engaged in this.

What I now have to do is investigate how to attach / link this blog to our Wiki and how to put links and images into this blog.