by Aaron Eisberg
For PBL teachers, the Holy Grail of project design is interdisciplinary projects where learners can see that content isn’t utilized in a silo. “In the real world” (as we often say) we don’t have set “math time” or “social studies” time; we use content knowledge interwoven throughout our day to solve the problem or task at hand. But as much as we would like to strive for this, logistics and schedules can get in the way.
When our high school was founded 22 years ago we started with the idea of interdisciplinary projects. Since then we have tried almost every combination under the sun for interdisciplinary projects, in classes like American Studies (10th grade ELA and American History) and BioFitness (9th grade biology, health and PE) among others. However, even these interdisciplinary classes still can become silos.
This year we are taking on the challenge to push the envelope again. At our core, projects are the driver of our work, so we decided to walk the talk and ask the driving question, “What does it look like when our students solve projects that matter that integrate all subject areas?” Our 9th grade team is now integrating seven subjects into one project. Our principal Riley Johnson gives an overview of why we’re taking this approach in this blog.
The Student Experience
What does the schedule look like for a project like this? To learn more I shadowed 9th grade students to get an in-depth experience of the project process.
The first project that students engaged in the first two weeks of school ended in a public display on Back to School night. Students designed lanterns for a local art festival that included public blog posts to highlight their design, the use of geometry to develop patterns, and explored the use of sustainable design to reduce the impact on the environment. The 9th grade class was separated into four different color groups (for ease of organization throughout the project). Each color group was determined by their core Computer Science & Design class. Within each color group students were placed in smaller groups of four to complete the product portion of the project.
Monday and Tuesdays are designed to be focused on collaboration group work, feedback and taking next steps in their learning. Both days start with 15 minutes of “motivation” through mindfulness. Throughout the day, students are organized by color group to work on the product portion of the project. In different timed chunks students used critique protocols to get feedback on their work.
For example, in one classroom the color groups Purple and White got feedback on their blog and their writing. During that same time, Black and Silver worked on the logistics of their website and blog, and put finishing touches on their lanterns. This was toward the end of the project process so they got feedback from peers and teachers on their product design, as well as the logistics for Back to School night to ensure their public product (blog, QR codes, website) were all set to go. Halfway through the process the “March of the Penguins” (our school’s mascot) happened when the groups would switch rooms to get feedback on different aspects of their work.
Balancing Work Time with Content Learning
During the course of the project we want to ensure that students are still getting the rich, deep core content that drives their learning. As shown on the graphic above, on Wednesdays, Thursdays and Fridays students go into their core classes for their core content (math, ELA, PE, art, Spanish, digital media). Each class aligns their learning outcomes to the context of the project. For example, in Spanish I class students were learning introductory phrases to introduce themselves and their team in a video that was going to explain the project to those in our community who don’t speak fluent English.
Mondays and Tuesdays have blocks of time with focused project purposes, as shown on this graphic:
The room for these activities may change, and the facilitator may change based upon students’ needs. Our 9th grade team makes the most of our flexible space and flexible tools on Monday and Tuesday to best support the integration of the project process.
Communication is key in the model, along with clarity on the location of where teachers and students are going to be at a given time during the week. Each day students receive messaging on where their color group (silver, purple, black, white) is to meet and either learn content, collaborate, or receive feedback on their work. Also, throughout our school we have monitors that always display what our schedule is for the day.
Over the course of the year we plan to work on being clearer on communication with teachers and students. It has been a challenging shift, but one that we think is worth it to help our students progress in their learning and to tackle problems and projects that matter. We will continue to improve our practice and be on the forefront of defining and implementing HQ PBL!
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