George Lucas Educational Foundation
Student Engagement

Using Projects to Build Community

Starting the year with a fun small-group project helps middle and high school students get to know and trust one another.

July 7, 2022
High school student making presentation in class
Stígur Már Karlsson / Heimsmyndir / iStock

The start of the school year, with its fresh energy and shuffling of students into new classes, is the perfect time to build connections and ignite creative thinking.

By beginning the year with a fun but challenging small-group project, teachers can build strong communities of learners, emphasize how each individual fits into that community, and establish norms for group work and classroom discussions.

3 Fun Project Ideas for Fall

1. Story slam. This is a great project to start the year with because it gives students a chance to share something unique about themselves. It also involves public speaking, which is downright terrifying for most of us but is also a powerful way to create a culture of support and encouragement. The key to making this project a success is careful planning followed by practice, practice, practice!

A story slam is a competition or just a sharing session in which each participant tells a 3-to-5-minute story. These are usually true stories from the speaker’s life.

You can begin by telling your own story, making use of tone of voice, dramatic pauses, and other speaking skills, or showing snippets from other young storytellers. You could then provide students with opportunities to try on different story ideas through journal entries or this storytelling tic-tac-toe, which doubles as an icebreaker.

Students can then select one topic and complete a planning page. Students might next practice telling their stories in groups of two, switching partners with every telling.

Not only will students become more comfortable with storytelling, but also they will get to chat one-on-one with several of their new classmates. Students will then practice in groups of four, then eight, and finally in front of the whole class. Along the way, students should truncate their notes to a few lines on an index card with the goal of ultimately telling their story from memory.

A class story slam can be the culminating event, or you might have students work in small groups to create short plays from their stories. When we did this project at my school, we invited a retired theater instructor to work with story slam finalists before performing their stories to our judge, a community theater director, who used a rubric to select a winner.

We then worked as a school over an entire semester to create a play around the winning story slam with students contributing as scriptwriters, set designers, and marketing specialists. It taught students so much about collaboration and how the individual contributes to the whole. As a bonus, it also fostered community involvement in our school.

2. Paper bag innovations. This project, in which students research the history of paper bag design and then create their own paper bag design, is another great place to start because it encourages students to share their own individual selves while working toward a common goal: How can we make such an everyday, practical object even better?

A K-W-L chart, which asks students to write down what they know, want to know, and have learned, works well for launching research on the history of the paper bag. You could then direct students to work in small groups to research the answer to one of the questions.

As you move into the designing phase, you may choose to keep students in their original groups to deepen those connections or create new groups. This is also an opportunity to build in content-specific objectives, such as calculating volume in math, evaluating how a simple invention can change society in social studies, or exploring the impact of innovation on the environment in science.

It’s useful to supply students with different sizes and shapes of paper bags to examine and discuss: How can we adapt this invention to meet the needs of the modern world? How can we create an environmentally friendly paper bag that is also fashionable?

Students now begin creating their designs, working through the engineering cycle. This is a great way to introduce reflective thinking. You could also use exit tickets to help students think about how they are contributing to their groups.

Finally, each student in each group will place an object that represents them inside their group’s paper bag. When the groups present their creations to the class, each individual will share something unique and special about themselves.

3. The Museum of Good Ideas. In this project, students work in small groups to first brainstorm, then research some of the most impactful inventions, innovations, and moments throughout history. You might start by putting students in small groups to complete a like/dislike chart. They could then begin with their own interests—sports, art, video games, etc.—and trace them back to their beginnings.

They will then work in small groups to create museum pieces that represent these ideas, complete with written explanations and multimedia components. You could add a peer-feedback step where students provide “Austin’s Butterfly”–style feedback for other groups on sticky notes.

An alternative project or extension is the Museum of Mistakes. For this, students are offered a list of mistakes throughout history and create multimedia displays on how one of these so-called mistakes benefited humanity. An added bonus to this project is creating a mistake-friendly culture, crucial in encouraging independent thinking and risk-taking.

With any of these projects, periodic whole-class debriefing sessions will help create procedures and expectations for the rest of the year. Upon completion of the project, you might use a plus-delta board to determine how things are going, first in small groups and then as a class, as a reflection tool.

However you decide to implement these projects, what’s important here is building relationships, encouraging creative thinking, and having fun.

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Filed Under

  • Student Engagement
  • Collaborative Learning
  • Creativity
  • 6-8 Middle School
  • 9-12 High School

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