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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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For Engaging Projects, Connect Learning to Students’ Lives

Suzie Boss

Journalist and PBL advocate

Heather Hanson, a first-year teacher on the Rosebud Indian Reservation in South Dakota, knew she was taking a risk when she showed a documentary called "Children of the Plains" to her speech class at Todd County High School. Narrated by Diane Sawyer, the 20/20 episode emphasizes poverty, alcoholism, and family dysfunction on the reservation. "I was offended," says Hanson, who is not Native American, "and it's not even about me. I wasn't sure how my students would react."

Students' responses ranged from sadness to outrage over what they saw as a one-sided account of their Lakota Sioux culture. Those raw emotions became the fuel for a project that has taken them places they never expected. When Hanson challenged students to channel their anger into action, they teamed up with a media arts class to create a rebuttal video called More Than That.

In the tightly edited video, students have written words on their bodies that more accurately describe who they are and what they care about. Written, directed, and filmed by students, the video was a collaboration between Hanson's speech classes and technology teacher Kim Bos's multimedia class.

It quickly became a YouTube sensation, with hits totaling more than 60,000 by this week. "That's six times the population of the reservation," Hanson says. Next thing they knew, students were invited to speak to a national conference in Washington, DC, and their story was picked up by National Public Radio.

The project has been an eye-opener for Hanson, who says she has struggled "to find material that gets my students' attention." By connecting academics to students' lives, she has managed to get them engaged. "They have discovered the power of words. They know how to use their own voice to get their message across," says Hanson, "and they know how it feels to be motivated."

Use Projects to Engage

In many ways, this example demonstrates how to use project-based learning to engage students in powerful learning experiences. A good entry event gets a project off to a strong start by grabbing students' attention and interest. In this case, Hanson used the 20/20 documentary to launch the project and set the stage for critical thinking about media messages.

Projects are more motivating when students know that their work will have an authentic audience. The impact of this video has far exceeded students' expectations.

Project-based learning also involves collaboration. For this project, students and teachers from two courses had to combine skills and come together as an effective video production team. Hanson could see her students getting better at collaboration as they worked on the project. "My students help each more now," she says. "They're comfortable working together, more connected."

For the teacher, the real-world project has brought another unexpected benefit. "This instantly brought me closer to all my students. They found out that I care about them."

Lasting Benefits

When students addressed an audience of 300 adults at the Washington, DC, conference of the National Association of Federally Impacted Schools, they used the communications skills that they have honed and practiced in the classroom. "People in the audience were crying openly," Hanson says. "My students really rose to the challenge." At the end, the audience rose for a standing ovation.

The experience has been heady, especially for several students who had never been on a plane before traveling to the conference. Now, they're packing for a second trip to the nation's capital to share their video at a film festival.

Once the excitement wears off, Hanson hopes students will remember the larger lessons of this experience. "They have discovered that they have a bigger support network that they imagined," she says.

Todd County High School, a public school that serves about 450 students, is working hard to foster deeper engagement and get more students on the path to college. In January, the school hosted a rally to challenge students not to become dropout statistics. Nationally, a student drops out of high school every 26 seconds. To challenge this number, Todd County High is taking part in the 26 Seconds campaign sponsored by State Farm. Already, students here have produced a new video with a stay-in-school message.

Student Bailey Denoyer spoke for many of his peers when he told NPR, "We're all trying to like go to high school, finish college, and live our lives just like everyone else."

Hanson recently was invited to speak to a group of pre-service educators about her whirlwind first year in the classroom. Her advice for new teachers? "Be real. Be respectful. Learn about your students' lives, and share your life experiences with them. And always be looking for ways to make learning meaningful -- make it stick."

Best Practices to Engage Students
Sponsored by Epson BrightLink, this series covers innovations and best practices for student engagement.

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