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May 16, 2016
Hangout Recap: Middle and High School Project Spotlight

by John Larmer
Editor in Chief

For the past few years our May hangouts are among my favorites; there’s no particular topic, we just hear about projects done this school year. On May 24 we’ll discuss elementary school projects. Last week we heard about projects in middle school and high school from our National Faculty and a guest from Metro Nashville Public Schools, one of BIE’s partner districts. This post is only a summary – watch the archived hangout to get the full story of the great projects described.

Matt Baer is dean of students at Riley Street Middle School in Hudsonville, Michigan. At his school, all 200 8th graders participate every year in “Rocket Day,” a project that combines English, U.S. history, and science. Students learn about the Civil War by researching one regiment in the Union Army or Confederate Army, and create a display for a “showcase night” for parents and the community. In science, student teams build bottle rocket launchers and try to hit a target that reflects what actually happened in a particular Civil War battle. Matt showed some nice pictures of students and their work.

Another project at Matt’s middle school focused on the driving question, “How can I best demonstrate that I’m ready for high school?” In this 8th grade capstone project, students reflect on their work in middle school and on their skills, then make a “pitch” to an audience of high school A.P. English students. In a 6th grade ELA/social studies project, students investigate the driving question, “How can we, as citizens, inform community members about services that may affect them?” They create videos posted on YouTube and QR codes that take community members to websites of local nonprofits and government service providers.

Dr. Joshua Swartz is a lead teacher in a STEM program at Hillsboro High School’s Academy of Global Health and Science in Nashville, Tennessee. He described a 10th grade math, science, and ELA project that his students found highly engaging: it began with a visit to a mock crime scene, complete with yellow police tape, blood spatters, and… a dead body. They visited the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation to learn about the tools of forensic science. Students built their writing skills with formal research proposals for further investigations, which were presented on displays to an audience that includes local scientists and business partners. A yucky highlight was Josh’s photos (like the one above) of students checking containers to measure the decomposition rate of chicken bodies.

Josh also mentioned a 9th grade computer code-writing project, and a senior research project. He showed an especially cool example of how PBL builds entrepreneurship skills: one team of seniors created (and plans to sell) an app that allows a smartphone to take photographs of images in microscopes.

Telannia Norfar teaches geometry and precalculus at NW Claussen High School in Oklahoma. She told about a project in which students applied their knowledge of exponential functions to help local families answer the question, “How can we best save for college?” Student teams investigated current and projected future costs for four years at various state universities and created materials for their client families to read. Telannia reflected that, if she does the project again, she would make two revisions. One was to bring in the family clients sooner, rather than midway through the project, to make it more real for students right from the start. She also would build in more opportunities for reflective discussions. She made the great point that it’s OK if projects are not full-strength on all seven Essential Project Design Elements in Gold Standard PBL. Certain elements can be the focus of one project, and a different element emphasized in another.

Krystal Diaz teaches at Applied Technology Center High School in Montebello in SoCal. I loved hearing how her ELA/social studies project sprung from students’ concerns about what was being said about immigration by Donald Trump in the presidential primary election. She formed a focus group of students to co-plan the project with the driving question, “How can we give a voice to the immigrant experience?”

Students watched the PBS documentary Don’t Tell Anyone and an episode of the Queen Latifah show featuring three inspiring young women performing spoken word poetry. The class read the novel The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan and blogged about it. Krystal connected with the Get Lit organization, which provides support to schools for poetry slam events. Students memorized and performed a classic poem, plus one of their own, at a poetry slam for the community.

Our guests had some final words of encouragement for PBL teachers:

  • Matt: “Take a risk!”
  • Josh: “Keep your excitement!”
  • Telannia: (quoting an unknown source) “Kids don’t care about how much you know until they know how much you care.”
  • Krystal: (after telling about one quiet girl who’s now writing and sharing poetry) “Do it for that one student who was disengaged.” 

(mic drop)


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