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How to Get Projects Off to a Good Start

Suzie Boss

Journalist and PBL advocate
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In project-based learning, project kickoff is an exciting day -- and for good reason. This is when PBL shifts from planning to active learning -- the moment when students enter the picture. By planning entry events that fire up their curiosity, you'll engage students' sense of inquiry right from the start.

Today's post focuses on planning effective entry events. My next post will offer ideas for culminating events. In between these important PBL bookends, a world of active learning unfolds. Before you launch the project, you'll want to map out learning goals, consider how students will demonstrate what they have learned, craft a driving question, consider your assessment strategies, and plan for a culminating event. Watch for posts in the PBL series throughout the summer to help you make the most of all phases of projects.

Launch with a Bang

There's more than one way to get a project off the ground, but good entry events share common characteristics. They tend to be memorable, brief, and often dramatic. Novelty helps, too, so that students don't know quite what to expect. Entry events should give students a shared experience that causes them to wonder. By generating questions rather than answering them, entry events fire up the engine of inquiry to carry the project forward.

Combined with the provocative driving question for the project, the entry event gives students a "need to know." During the rest of the project, a variety of learning activities will help them arrive at answers. Their final product or performance will demonstrate what they have learned through the process.

Good entry events also convey a teacher's investment in the project. When teachers put their own creativity into launching a project, they share this unspoken message: We're about to embark on an important learning adventure together. Let's make it into a big deal.

Here are a few ideas to jumpstart your thinking about how to get your project off the ground.

Setting the Scene

At Manor New Tech High School near Austin, Texas, students are unlikely to forget the day they were immersed in an ancient world. The classroom video screen lit up with footage of swords clashing and bare feet running on a grassy battlefield. There were whoops and cries from cheering warriors, but no narrative to explain what was happening. As the screen went dark, a stranger from another century strode into the classroom. He challenged students to find out why his army had been vanquished by superior forces. What was it about the enemy's arrows, their chariot wheels, and other "technology" that allowed them to win on the battlefields of Mesopotamia? How could they improve upon their tools to make sure they were never vanquished again?

Thus began an ambitious, schoolwide project based on the Epic of Gilgamesh. The cross-disciplinary project caused students to apply everything from knowledge of engineering and math to literary theory and digital media production. The entry event -- featuring a video produced by teachers and a guest visit from a classics professor willing to ham it up in costume -- was a small but important piece intended to get the project off to a rollicking start. Watch the video of the Gilgamesh-based entry event:

At Manor New Tech, an all-PBL high school that emphasizes STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math), teachers often make short video trailers to launch projects. "Our teachers are creative, and they kind of compete to out-do each other," says Principal Steve Zipkes. That means teachers are making effective use of the same digital tools that they expect students to use in their projects. By going a little over the top with entry events, they're getting students engaged in projects that have serious learning goals.

You can see more video productions by Manor New Tech students and teachers at the school's YouTube channel. At last count, the collection included more than 800 videos.

More Visual Prompts

Not every teacher has the time or technical skills to produce an original video trailer. Historical footage, film clips, or still images can take students to another time or place, giving students context that sets the stage for a project.

To see how still images can also be used to good effect to inspire inquiry, take a look at the visual prompts shared by Dan Meyer on his blog, Dy/Dan. A former math teacher, he is the creator of a popular blog series called "What Can You Do With This?" His visuals alone are worth a visit, but be sure to check out the rich discussions in the comments.

Guest Speakers

"About one year ago, a determined woman walked through the doors of King Middle School with her head held high. Claudette Colvin, a woman who refused to give up her seat to a white woman when she was young, visited our school to share her memories with us and her biographer." That's how a middle-school student from Maine remembers the start of an engrossing project on the Civil Rights Movement.

During the launch event, students learned about sit-ins, heard the music of the time, and experienced how it might feel to be segregated. A project portfolio is available on the Expeditionary Learning site.

Guest speakers can help get a project started by sharing their experience or expertise with students. Be on the lookout for speakers who have compelling personal stories to share, or who convey a contagious passion for their subject.

Field Research

Another way to come at a project is by having students engage in field research. To start a local history project, for instance, you might send students out to photograph landmarks that they wonder about. A social studies project might begin with a survey about a controversial issue. Discussions about what students discover through their own initial research can set the stage for more in-depth inquiry projects.

A good entry event by itself doesn't guarantee a high-quality project, of course. It's just one day in the life of the project, and plenty of active learning and teacher facilitation will need to follow. But done right, it's time well spent.

Watch for future posts that address the other key elements of project-based learning. Meanwhile, please share your ideas for engaging entry events. What have you tried? How have students responded?

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Comments (8) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

Elana Leoni's picture
Elana Leoni
Edcamper, Former @Edutopia, Founder of Social Media Marketing Consultancy aimed at helping educational orgs.

Hi Suzie -

What an interesting post. I've never actually even thought of having entry events to kick off a classroom project but it definitely makes sense. I'm wondering, of those that implement project-based learning in their classroom, what percentage would you estimate actually use entry events? Is it a prevalent best practice and I wonder if there has been any studies that can correlate entry events within projects to higher understanding/achievement.

Hard questions -- I know :)

Suzie Boss's picture
Suzie Boss
Journalist and PBL advocate

Hi Elana,
Not sure if there's research that looks at PBL with such a fine focus, but I know that my colleagues at the Buck Institute for Education consider an entry event to be an essential component of a quality project. In doing professional development with teachers, I always emphasize a strong project launch to spark inquiry and get students engaged--fast.
There's another idea at work here, too: Projects have clear boundaries, specific start and end points. They aren't ongoing. The entry event and culminating event (which is the focus of my next post) are the bookends.
I've started a new discussion to gather ideas for entry events at different grade levels, and look forward to crowdsourcing more suggestions here:

Teresa Price's picture

Hi Suzie

Your post is very interesting and informative. I'm always searching for new ideas to motivate my students and keep them engaged in my lessons. Setting the scene as you mention in your post will definitely get their attention and make the lessons more memorable. I use a lot of visuals to make my lessons interesting, so I'll be sure to check out the visual prompts by Dan Myer as an additional resource.


Shelley's picture

Hi, Suzie!
I found your blog tonight while working on a class in my master's program. I have been trained by the Buck Institute and have taught/written 4-5 PBL's in the past few years. I love the information you have provided in this blog. I plan to follow to gain more ideas and investigate the videos and sources here. I have played out my own character to launch my pbl but what I saw here put me to shame! Today was my last day of school and this got me excited to begin planning next years major project with my team.

One problem I have encountered is getting everyone on board with the idea of problem-based learning. Although our administration is requiring 2 per year, many of the older faculty is resistant. Any suggestions would be helpful.

Shelley's picture

So glad I found your blog! I attended a week training sponsored by state presenting the Buck Institute PLB. My school has been developing pbl's for the past 2 years and I really enjoyed reading through all the information posted here! Love the launch of the problem. I plan to watch more of the videos to get some more ideas! Today was my last day of school, but I'm ready to plan for next year now. My only problem is working with my team. We have 2 members who think this pbl stuff is nonsense. They could retire any time now, but stick around dragging everyone down because they don't want to try anything new. Any suggestions?

Scott Parks's picture
Scott Parks
high school math, Algebra, Geometry, Calculus

I really like this, you mention get them asking questions first. Dont give them answers first. Teach later, have them discover. Thats really neat!!

Susan Riley's picture
Susan Riley
Arts Integration Specialist

I love how this ties into the Kodaly music curricular method of "prep, present, practice". It's not until after we prepare and excite our students, let them discover the material and experience the concept that we actually provide it with a name. Kicking off projects in such a celebratory manner just adds to the excitement. What a way to engage students!

Allen Berg's picture
Allen Berg
curriculum and projects learning centers

Dear Colleagues,

Now that summer is official (Summer Solstice was June 21st :-) some of you have some time to breathe slower and browse longer...and have fun...

Addressing the issue of starting a Project, I can offer a very visually engaging discovery learning website that lists over 100 projects with a STEAM = STEM + Arts focus, but can easily be adapted to many other subjects as well... Although it is called "HS Geometry Adventure" it is also adaptable for all grade levels and covers the world of subjects and skills: reading, writing, math, science, history, social studies, research skills, arts & crafts, sports, videos, photography, on and on...

It is enormous in scope, so take your summer-time to browse for project starters and activities and ideas...
If you want to start with a smaller selection of about 30 photography-documented arts & crafts projects, go directly to "Allen's Photo Albums" (All the Subjects are listed alphabetically in the left page margin of the website.)

Just have fun exploring and brainstorming your own creativities and connections for learning and leading your classroom...

Comments and collaborations are most welcome...

Allen Berg

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