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Taking the Plunge: Diving into a Collaborative Project

Suzie Boss

Journalist and PBL advocate
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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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Suzie Boss

Journalist and PBL advocate

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Brandon Q.'s picture
Anonymous (not verified)

As a high school teacher, I can find a thousand excuses to not use semester long project based activities in my classroom. One big excuse is that there is not enough time due to standards and high-stakes testing. Standards and high-stakes testing can often force educators to abandon student-centered approaches and focus on teacher-centered instructional practices (Vogler & Virtue, 2007). I do a good job of creating mini-student-centered activities, but I fail to allow my students to work on a semester long project. I cannot justify allowing my students to work on a semester long project revolving around a single standard. It would be careless.

During Christmas Break, I am working to remodel projects I have currently created to limit my direct control. I will divide my students into different groups, but I will allow my students to choose how they will present information they are studying. For example, my students must "describe the settlement of New England; include religious reasons," (a portion of GPS SSUSH1 B). I will give my students the location where they can find this information, but I will allow my students the opportunity to choose how they will produce the product for assessment. Students will have a wide avenue for expression of learned material (PowerPoint, discussion, role playing, poster board, report, graphic novel, song/rap, and anything else they can develop). This is an example of what I call a mini-student-centered project.

I would love to hear suggestions about how I could incorporate a semester long project based activity that would last the entire semester like the presidential election example listed in the above reading. Also, I would enjoy hearing about other types of actives (i.e. PowerPoint, discussion, role playing, and etc.) I could use in my classroom.

Georgia Performance Standards (GPS)

Vogler, K., & Virtue, D. (2007, January 1). Just the Facts, Ma'am: Teaching Social Studies in the Era of Standards and High-Stakes Testing. Social Studies, 98(2), 54-58. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. EJ767652) Retrieved November 19, 2008, from ERIC database.

Suzie's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

As you're thinking about longer-term projects, you'd be wise to consider those questions Jane Krauss poses: Why does this matter? Why is it worth the time (for me and my students)?
The Election Project actually addresses several standards (Social Studies and NETS-S), demonstrating how a single project can achieve multiple instructional goals. Any chance you can team up with a teacher from another content area (at your school or in another location) to develop projects that address standards across disciplines? English comes to mind, of course, but you could also look for shared learning goals in math, science, or technology.
I'm curious to hear the ideas other educators offer for project remodeling. One suggestion: Give your students more responsibility for gathering and evaluating information (instead of pointing them to recommended sources). Think about the behaviors and skills that historians use, and then teach students how to engage in those activities themselves.
Other ideas?

Suzie's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Here's another timely election resource: Students from around the world have shared messages for the new president through this ePals project. Watch the Presidential Minute videos

kevin stellman's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

My students wouldn't listen to your music. I let them lesten to THEIR music. They will respond to rewards they choose. I don't mind as it gives me achance to know their world.

Brian 's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

As a 5th grade teacher, I took a keen interest to Ms. Ross's election project. I wish that I could have taken part with my class.

I am wondering if there are any exchanges out there with Projects that classes and educators can join in or post for others to join.

As we near the end of school I'm sure all of us are reflecting back on their school year and are thinking ahead to what they can accomplish over the summer. If anyone out there knows of where an inspired educator can go to get more involved with project-based technology learning, please share.



Suzie's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Hi Brian,
You might want to consider ePals ( or Classroom 2.0 ( as a places to connect with other teachers who share your project interests. I like to think of projects as heavy on the front end--they tend to get better (and easier to "lift") each time you do them. So, you're wise to be thinking about how you can reuse or revise what you've already accomplished.
Happy summer!

Daniella's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I was student teaching during the election in a sixth grade classroom, and I had my students go to and create political campaign posters to hang on their lockers. Students got to research why political posters are made and PBS provided the pictures and tools to help them create their own.

Debbie's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I'd like to offer another perspective on the collaboration effort that Ms. Lawson took under her wing.

First, as a college educator, thank you for giving your students the opportunity to think of solutions to problems on their own. It's marvelous that you were there as a connector to help students stay on track and guide them.

By the time I get your students, many of them have no idea how to work together in a respectful manner to work toward a common goal. Communication skills are lacking significantly. While many students actually do complete a group project, the dynamics of the group have fallen apart. Either a dictator has emerged from the group or no one wants to take responsibility and everyone completes their own project! That's definitely NOT collaborative effort.

I have found in my tenure of playing group-project-peacemaker, that the smaller the group, the better. I think that goes without saying. In fact, on the other end of the spectrum, I have found that many students become friends and network together throughout their careers. That's a pleasing end to a group project.

I just can't help but wonder if it's simply too late to teach these types of skills to college students. Communication skills, problem-solving skills, and critical thinking skills are all necessary in collaborative efforts. Many students feel very threatened in a group project in a college environment. I'm not certain it's all about grades, however. I think many students don't want to feel inept or insipid.

Thank you Ms. Lawson, and teachers like you, for going outside your comfort zone to try to help your students gain the skills they will need throughout their lifetime. You gave them an enormous gift in which we will all ultimately reap the benefits.

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