Project-Based Learning (PBL)

Taking the Plunge: Diving into a Collaborative Project

December 18, 2008

Months before Americans chose Barack Obama as their forty-fourth president, Crista Lawson, from Aubrey Park Elementary School, in Eugene, Oregon, had a hunch that the 2008 election would prove to be historic. "I wanted my kids to pay attention and be informed about this election," she says.

She had another hunch, too: Getting fifth graders to pay close attention to the presidential campaign and election would require different teaching methods than she had used in the past. Lawson notes, "In previous election studies, it always seemed more like theory and not like something that was happening right now that could affect the kids' lives."

Venturing into New Territory

To make this national event more immediate, relevant, and memorable, Lawson decided to tackle her first collaborative project with teachers and students in locations across the United States. That meant using a variety of digital tools and resources, many of them new to Lawson, to connect and collaborate with classes in New York and Pennsylvania and elsewhere in Oregon. "It was a steep learning curve for me," she admits, "but I wanted to do whatever it would take to make this election relevant for my kids and to get them thinking about the wider world."

Lawson got a running start by taking a summer course called Reinventing Project-Based Learning, led by my colleague at the University of Oregon, Jane Krauss. The intensive professional-development experience caused Lawson to rethink how she operates in the classroom, even after more than a decade of teaching. "When I did project-based learning before," she reflects, "I had everything spelled out for the kids. I'd say, 'OK, you're going to do this, this, and this.' I didn't allow them much choice or direction about where it was going to go."

According to Krauss, the key to designing a more meaningful project is to ask oneself certain questions: "Why does this matter?" "What's important about this?" "Why is it worth my kids' time -- and mine?"

"It's important for teachers to ask those questions all the time," she says. Lawson took those questions to heart as she mapped out her instructional plan for the Kids Decision 2008 Project.

The summer course not only gave Lawson extended time to plan her ambitious project but also gave her a crash course in Web 2.0 tools. Lawson mentioned, for instance, that she might want to find some teachers in other states to join the project. Krauss immediately sent out a call for collaborators on Twitter, illustrating the value of that microblogging tool for connecting with a network. (Read this article and this Spiral Notebook blog post about Twitter.) "It was all a little overwhelming," says Lawson, "but I just went with it." She felt encouraged when two of the teachers who joined the election project turned out to be old hands at teaching technology-rich projects.

Hand in Hand with Students

Fall arrived, and Lawson shifted from planning to implementing the project with her students. And as the election project unfolded, her learning curve continued. Instead of giving students step-by-step instructions to follow, she focused on more open-ended questions and pushed herself to give them time to think about how they were going to do things. "I took time to solve problems with them. In the past, I just did it myself," she explains. "This way takes more time, and for some kids it's uncomfortable. But my goal is to get them to think for themselves, and this is how you do it."

Seeing how students have responded to the election project has convinced Lawson that it's been worth the effort. Before the election, her students interviewed their parents to find out which issues mattered to them. Then they analyzed the candidates' stands on those issues. On conference calls, they compared what they were learning with what students were finding out in other communities across the country.

As the election drew near, Lawson's fifth graders paid close attention to the trends on projection maps and followed the presidential debates closely. The students showed an interest in subjects ranging from third-party candidates to the mechanics of the Electoral College, which surprised Lawson. "They brought up all kinds of questions I didn't expect," she says. They even got interested in local election issues. Fully informed about the presidential candidates, her students took part in an online mock student election. And after the official results were tallied on Election Day, they spent more class time analyzing video clips of Obama's acceptance speech and John McCain's concession remarks.

The Final Product

The election has now become a part of history, but Lawson's students are still going strong. With their partner schools around the country, they are producing a video that will capture their own messages about the future that they want to pass along to the incoming president. "We hope to have it ready by January," says Lawson, just in time for the inauguration.

For other teachers new to a project-learning approach, Lawson acknowledges that it might be easier to start with a less ambitious plan. "It would have been nice to join someone else's project the first time around to see how it all works without having to take the lead," she notes. But at the same time, she knows that she's showing her students what it's like to take risks. "I keep telling my kids, 'I've never done anything like this before. We're all going to learn together.'" And that may turn out to be the most memorable lesson of all.

How have you taken part in collaborative projects with your students? What made it worth their time -- and yours? We look forward to reading about your experiences with this process!

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  • 9-12 High School

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