What Does Project-Based Learning Mean for High School English?
As I rushed around the Friday before school closed a month ago, I thought, I have to grab everything I can. I grabbed my folders, essays, books, and more books. It wasn’t until I got home that I realized, my students don’t have the next novels, Exit West, by Mohsin Hamid and The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri. What better time to expand on project-based learning.
It’s close enough to the end of the year where we ask our students to make sense of all the ideas they encountered and make meaning from them. What will they do with what they learned? How will they use it in the world they live in? For my seniors, these questions, the problems of the world they need to solve, suddenly and quickly, close in on them like a summer rain.
Every teacher defines project-based learning in their own way. Every few months, I stop class for a week to pull things together and just chat. I never really know what we’ll talk about, or for how long. But here’s a loose idea of how I organize the project, where I mostly ask questions and listen. This year, I titled it, “The Creativity Project.” I have a few quotes about creativity, but we go off in a million directions, which is the point.
No matter the topic, I think it’s important to start the conversation with real stories. I allow my students to summarize a podcast, short documentary, or personal narrative. I have a long list of suggested sources, like “Learning to Read and Write”, The Tables or Girls in Chess, but I always allow them to pick their own. It’s a way to start small – what do real people have in common with the characters we study?
This is the human part of the project. My students can sit down with whoever they want to discuss their lives, opinions, and the topic. Sometimes I allow students to create a podcast for this part of the project. I make the interviews or podcasts available online and each student can discuss their interview when they present a summary to the class. It’s not as human when students do this virtually, but it’s definitely possible.
During this week of the project, we talk about issues and topics that impact large amounts of people. By politics, I don’t mean just government and laws - anything can be political. I give them the option to read essays from Al Gore, Judith Butler, Stephen Hawking, Susan Sontag, and Chinua Achebe, just to name a few. They can read “Stop Googling. Let’s Talk” by Sherry Turkle, or watch a Ted Talk. I have a list of podcasts they can listen to, like Freakonomics or Hidden Brain. Like the other parts of the project, they can read, watch, or listen to whatever source they want. We focus on philosophical ideas and on what’s relevant.
During the last few weeks of school, I really sit back and listen. Students can talk about anything loosely related to the topic, anything. I’ve had students present on Frank Lloyd Wright, Arizona, Coldplay, and a souvenir from Mexico. One year a student spoke about a random book that they found in their basement. Another talked about Goodnight Moon. One year a student brought their guitar to class and sang a song they wrote. They talk about things that change them, that inspire them, or that they think are beautiful. It’s my favorite part of the year and I do absolutely nothing but listen.
Since I teach seniors, the final product of the project usually has to do with the topic, and graduation. I ask them to talk about how it feels to graduate and what they learned. I ask them to think about the future. They write an essay first, then record a reading of the essay, and then create a video essay with images and videos that correspond to their words. I tell them to make something that they can look back on, and I always have them upload the file into a shared online folder. This year, I also threw in an assignment where students have to work in groups to create a children's book.
These seniors will lose so much. It’s more important than ever for teachers to lead and encourage students to make the most of their time in school, even if it’s virtual. We may talk a lot about the dangers of too much screen time, but right now, these screens are all we have. They’re little, incredible machines. Let’s use them to inspire students to connect with each other, explore the world they live in, and then think about what kind of world they’d like to live in.
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