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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

Six Steps for Planning a Successful Project

Use these guiding principles to pull together projects with the time and resources you have.
Kathy Baron
Former Edutopia reporter and editor, mother of two.
Credit: Michael Warren

Sure, King Middle School has some amazing projects, but the Portland school has been refining its expeditionary learning projects for nearly two decades. David Grant, who guides the school's technology integration and curriculum development, has put together a six-step rubric for designing a project. He says Fading Footprints, which became a model for King and Expeditionary Learning Schools, doesn't take an entire school, or even a team of twelve, to plan and carry out; one or two teachers can tailor this one to fit their time and resources.

Six Steps to Planning a Project

The Fading Footsteps project is a twelve-week interdisciplinary ecology unit centered around the guiding question: How does diversity strengthen an ecosystem? Using this project as an example, see how King Middle School creates an action plan around each step.

Step 1: Develop a compelling topic that covers state standards, has an authentic connection to the local community, and provides opportunities for every student to do meaningful, independent research.

    How they do it:
  • When it came time to study ecology as part of the science and technology standard, King Middle School teachers agreed that a compelling topic seemed to flow naturally from their local environment. They decided to study indigenous animals that are endangered and threatened, focusing on the animals' habitats and why the animals are in danger.
  • A number of local experts visited the school to help kick-off the project; other wildlife experts took the students on an outdoor expedition to see firsthand how living things depend on one another and on non-living aspects of the environment.
  • It was a powerful subject that engaged the students in doing something with a real world value. Students selected the animal they wanted to study, researched its life cycle and habitat, learned why it was in danger, and identified possible steps that could reverse the animal's decline.


  • Step 2: Develop or design a comprehensive final product that each student will have a role in creating, and could be used by local residents or professionals in the field.

      How they do it:
    • The 1-to-1 laptop program was a bonus when it came to creating a comprehensive final product. Each student used a variety of media to report his or her findings, including writing, producing scientifically accurate field guide illustrations, taking digital photos, shooting video, and working on websites. After each individual project was completed, all students worked together to produce a single CD-ROM representing the entire ecology curriculum. The CD-ROM and their individual work were posted on line on the school website, along with additional resources, including a glossary of terms.
    • Students were motivated to produce a professional quality CD-ROM because the teachers had arranged to have the discs placed in Portland's elementary school libraries and to be on sale at the Children's Museum of Portland. In addition, the students' artwork went on display at the museum and at the Maine Audubon Society. In addition, students analyzed professionally published field guides.
    • Teacher teams designed and built an exemplar model themselves before assigning it to the kids to make sure it was possible to do in the time frame allotted and with the number of students involved.


    Step 3: Involve professional organizations and professionals from the community to connect the academic study with the real world, and have students assume these professional roles during the expedition so they get a sense of what it would mean to be professionally engaged in meaningful work.

      How they do it:
    • Recruiting professionals began early on with teachers reaching out to various organizations and researchers for assistance and resources. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service provided information about the Endangered Species Act, pollution, habitat management and restoration. An expert from the Maine Department of Wildlife visited the school to talk with students. The Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife provided information on state species populations. The Allied Whale Program at the College of the Atlantic in Bar Harbor, Maine, hosted a class trip.
    • Once they heard and saw how the experts do their work, the students assumed those professional roles for the duration of the project. They became investigators, researchers, artists, and policy advisers. One part of the project had students caring for salmon eggs with the goal of releasing the fish into the river after they hatched.


    Step 4: Identify and organize the major learning resources for the expedition, and make sure they're available. (This one is critical and is often left out by schools).

      How they do it:
    • Well before all the pre-planning is done, teachers have to shop around so they know that there are enough developmentally appropriate resources to go around so every student has a chance to do meaningful research. If those things don't exist, you can be two, three or four weeks down the road on a project and discover there aren't enough learning resources for the students.
    • King Middle School avoided what could have been a frustrating experience when teachers started to map out a project to examine the effects of ship wrecks off the coast on the local marine life. They found out that there weren't enough sunken boats in safe locations for each student to conduct meaningful indpendent research.


    Step 5: Coordinate calendars. (This may be the hardest piece of all.) Expeditions are interdisciplinary and require a lot of planning to ensure that each piece flows smoothly from one to the next. They require enough time for each component to be done well, for students to get time in the field, for experts to come in at the appropriate place, and for the final product to be high quality.

      How they do it:
    • Fading Footprints was a twelve-week unit. The final product was very complex; students couldn't be developing tech skills at the same time they were processing content information. The project was broken down roughly into three digestible, meaningful, month-long chunks.
    • The first month was dedicated to developing comprehension via direct instruction, reading and research, field trips to the Maine Audubon Society and the College of the Atlantic, and presentations from guest lecturers. All students received formative assessment during this time through journal checks, quizzes and tests, as well as interviews with teachers.
    • During the second month, students conducted independent species research and produced a prototype product.
    • In the third month, students worked on and refined their final projects. They also critiqued each other's work.
    • Tech learning was scaffolded out so students weren't learning the technology at the same time they were creating their individual final products and the CD-ROM.


    Step 6: Plan a final experience or culminating event. Showcase student work to the public or outside of school.

      How they do it:
    • All students received a copy of the CD at the culminating event at the Children's Museum of Portland before their parents, community members, and experts. The CD is available in Portland's elementary school libraries, and was sold at the Maine Audubon Society and the Children's Museum in Portland. In addition, all of the original artwork in the CD was displayed at the Children's Museum.

    Adapted from an article in SEED Packet: Spreading Educator to Educator Developments, by King Middle School teacher David Grant, based on King's six-step rubric.

    (For more information on the Fading Footprints project, check out our article, "Laptops on Expedition: Embracing Expeditionary Learning.")


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Michael Simkins's picture

These 6 steps are excellent! I would add one more, however: assessment. When teachers plan such a project, a critical step is to determine how they will judge "success." Projects like these take a significant amount of time and have the potential to accomplish many learning objectives. Somewhere needs to be the step, "Determine how to assess what students have learned."

Tricia Beck's picture

I agree with Michael that some form of assessment is a critical piece as well. I have found it helpful to have my elementary students participate in the creation of a rubric to be used for this purpose. They feel validated in having a voice in the assessment criteria and there is no question about the levels of performance expected of them.

Gaetan Pappalardo's picture
Gaetan Pappalardo
Teacher, Author, Guitar––Word.
Facilitator

To assess a project you have to answer this question: "to what degree?" Very Hard. Especially when you want your kids to be creative. Learning and teaching is so complex it is very hard. Yes, you can always make a checklist or put a number on it. (You need 9 facts) Then it becomes micromanaged, which is the killer of creativity. Most of my assessments are in the form of observation of engagement. It's very hard to decide how to assess a project without ruining the intent.

One of my students asked a room parent yesterday why we celebrate St. Patrick's Day. She answered: "Because it's fun."

Why do we do projects? We can assess a project by its FUNability? Sure!!

Al Lindau's picture

Assessment IS key in the process and Blooms is what it's all about. While in a traditional school students are taught to be experts in knowledge, comprehension and application, students in project-based learning models go beyond that by analyzing, synthesising and evaluating their learning. An additional key component in use at TAGOS Leadership Academy is reflection as a part of evaluation. When students reflect on their process, their research, their final products, etc...their learning and self-assessment is completly evaluative which is essential for 21st century success. Our assessment rubric and many other helpful materials can be found on our website.
www.tagosleadershipacademy.org

Valerie Derrick's picture

Reflection is such an important yet underrated form of assessment. It not only gives students ownership over their learning and effort but it helps them to process what they have learned. So much of our education today is throwing information at students without giving them any time to process and internalize the information. And then we lament that students aren't retaining what they've learned!

Amanda Sheets's picture

Project based learning is learning in its truest form. Several years ago my students turned our classroom into a rain forest. Gone were the desks, books, and walls. The students did all of the research, decided together what parts of a rain forest they wanted to include, decided what information was important to share, created the forest, and then guided younger students through the forest. The students still mention it to me when I see them. They are in college now.

Kelly McNutt's picture

What a phenomenal idea! I love it! I am completely new to the PBL model and am trying to wrap my head around the whole thing. I would love to hear more about how you structured your rain forest project if you are willing.

WritingScorpio's picture
WritingScorpio
high school English teacher from Texas

I would like to know more about using PBL in my English/Literature classroom, incorporation higher levels of Blooms, including reflection in the assessment process, all the while having grades throughout the grading period without killing the FUNability factor. Suggestions? Links?

Jane Jones's picture

One successful model for PBL is to create an opportunity for your students to become teachers to students in other classes, grades levels or through distance learning events. I thought up expanding "Take your daughter to work day" to "Take an 8th grader to work day". Our middle school had 3 core teacher teams and we worked together to develop the matching learning objectives across curriculums and core state learning objectives. Students and parents worked together to find work sites that would let them visit for the day with specific observation goals and data collection sheets. Students without a job site visit location were happily placed with the local community college, museum and the local government offices. The student teams returned to present information to their classmates in the form of Power Point presentations (specific rubric given for assessment) trifold pamphlets (specific rubric given for assessment) - data was presented in graphic form - numerical and statistical data was collected. Students' oral presentation was also assessed using a rubric and even though this was "group" work each individual turned in a log of his or her contributions for an additional grade to be averaged with the group grade. It replaced the usual career day flop where guest speakers remained in classrooms while students moved around for half-a-day for 10 minute overviews of a particular career.
We did this 3 years running to rave reviews - then the new principal had liability issues despite fieldtrip wavers.
Another success story was Earth Jubilee instead of Earth Day - students in the 9th and 10th grade biotech magnet program developed lessons using game strategies to teach science/math/STEM type lessons to elementary students from the school district. We had students from 5 different elementary schools come to Osbourn Park HS in Prince William County. The set up was an environmental Busch Gardens with lands including: Water, Earth, Sky and the like. The 9th and 10th graders worked in self-selected teams to choose a topic - a teaching objective-develop teaching materials-create a video of their program for approval-create a game to measure the effectiveness of their teaching strategy with rewards for all elementary student participants. It was a year-long effort that replaced their final English exam. We had 1,100 visitors. We ran the program two years and if I had not retired in 2005, we would still be doing it.
I retired to take care of my 86-year-old mom; however, my teaching philosophy was driven by a few observations and 37 years of experience. When I found out what had started really successful people on the path to their life's work - they always said something like this: Well, one day I saw this program or I was in this play. It occurred to me that I needed to set up as many of those "one day" type of experiences as I could to tap into whatever might touch the inner gift of the child I was teaching. That's what PBL can create. My last observation - my first principal always said never give an assignment that you wouldn't do yourself - every project that I developed starting in 1972, to 2005, followed that rule - if I wasn't willing to do it - why should I expect any of my students to tackle the work? Good luck to anyone still in the classroom - I hope you are working as teams and able to develop lessons across curriculums to ease all the demands and stresses of a wonderful career.

Peggy Mitchell's picture
Peggy Mitchell
11th and 12th grade English teacher

[quote]One successful model for PBL is to create an opportunity for your students to become teachers to students in other classes, grades levels or through distance learning events. I thought up expanding "Take your daughter to work day" to "Take an 8th grader to work day". Our middle school had 3 core teacher teams and we worked together to develop the matching learning objectives across curriculums and core state learning objectives. Students and parents worked together to find work sites that would let them visit for the day with specific observation goals and data collection sheets. Students without a job site visit location were happily placed with the local community college, museum and the local government offices. The student teams returned to present information to their classmates in the form of Power Point presentations (specific rubric given for assessment) trifold pamphlets (specific rubric given for assessment) - data was presented in graphic form - numerical and statistical data was collected. Students' oral presentation was also assessed using a rubric and even though this was "group" work each individual turned in a log of his or her contributions for an additional grade to be averaged with the group grade. It replaced the usual career day flop where guest speakers remained in classrooms while students moved around for half-a-day for 10 minute overviews of a particular career.

We did this 3 years running to rave reviews - then the new principal had liability issues despite fieldtrip wavers.

Another success story was Earth Jubilee instead of Earth Day - students in the 9th and 10th grade biotech magnet program developed lessons using game strategies to teach science/math/STEM type lessons to elementary students from the school district. We had students from 5 different elementary schools come to Osbourn Park HS in Prince William County. The set up was an environmental Busch Gardens with lands including: Water, Earth, Sky and the like. The 9th and 10th graders worked in self-selected teams to choose a topic - a teaching objective-develop teaching materials-create a video of their program for approval-create a game to measure the effectiveness of their teaching strategy with rewards for all elementary student participants. It was a year-long effort that replaced their final English exam. We had 1,100 visitors. We ran the program two years and if I had not retired in 2005, we would still be doing it.

I retired to take care of my 86-year-old mom; however, my teaching philosophy was driven by a few observations and 37 years of experience. When I found out what had started really successful people on the path to their life's work - they always said something like this: Well, one day I saw this program or I was in this play. It occurred to me that I needed to set up as many of those "one day" type of experiences as I could to tap into whatever might touch the inner gift of the child I was teaching. That's what PBL can create. My last observation - my first principal always said never give an assignment that you wouldn't do yourself - every project that I developed starting in 1972, to 2005, followed that rule - if I wasn't willing to do it - why should I expect any of my students to tackle the work? Good luck to anyone still in the classroom - I hope you are working as teams and able to develop lessons across curriculums to ease all the demands and stresses of a wonderful career.[/quote][quote]One successful model for PBL is to create an opportunity for your students to become teachers to students in other classes, grades levels or through distance learning events. I thought up expanding "Take your daughter to work day" to "Take an 8th grader to work day". Our middle school had 3 core teacher teams and we worked together to develop the matching learning objectives across curriculums and core state learning objectives. Students and parents worked together to find work sites that would let them visit for the day with specific observation goals and data collection sheets. Students without a job site visit location were happily placed with the local community college, museum and the local government offices. The student teams returned to present information to their classmates in the form of Power Point presentations (specific rubric given for assessment) trifold pamphlets (specific rubric given for assessment) - data was presented in graphic form - numerical and statistical data was collected. Students' oral presentation was also assessed using a rubric and even though this was "group" work each individual turned in a log of his or her contributions for an additional grade to be averaged with the group grade. It replaced the usual career day flop where guest speakers remained in classrooms while students moved around for half-a-day for 10 minute overviews of a particular career.

We did this 3 years running to rave reviews - then the new principal had liability issues despite fieldtrip wavers.

Another success story was Earth Jubilee instead of Earth Day - students in the 9th and 10th grade biotech magnet program developed lessons using game strategies to teach science/math/STEM type lessons to elementary students from the school district. We had students from 5 different elementary schools come to Osbourn Park HS in Prince William County. The set up was an environmental Busch Gardens with lands including: Water, Earth, Sky and the like. The 9th and 10th graders worked in self-selected teams to choose a topic - a teaching objective-develop teaching materials-create a video of their program for approval-create a game to measure the effectiveness of their teaching strategy with rewards for all elementary student participants. It was a year-long effort that replaced their final English exam. We had 1,100 visitors. We ran the program two years and if I had not retired in 2005, we would still be doing it.

I retired to take care of my 86-year-old mom; however, my teaching philosophy was driven by a few observations and 37 years of experience. When I found out what had started really successful people on the path to their life's work - they always said something like this: Well, one day I saw this program or I was in this play. It occurred to me that I needed to set up as many of those "one day" type of experiences as I could to tap into whatever might touch the inner gift of the child I was teaching. That's what PBL can create. My last observation - my first principal always said never give an assignment that you wouldn't do yourself - every project that I developed starting in 1972, to 2005, followed that rule - if I wasn't willing to do it - why should I expect any of my students to tackle the work? Good luck to anyone still in the classroom - I hope you are working as teams and able to develop lessons across curriculums to ease all the demands and stresses of a wonderful career.[/quote]

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