student projects

Creating Something of Which to Be Proud is a Key to Engagement

A former student emailed me recently to find out if I had a copy of a video project they did during their junior year as a part of a project based lesson I had students do. They were talking about the project with some friends from high school and wondered if by chance I still had a copy as they had lost theirs in a move to college. They were proud of the work that they had done from nearly nine years ago and hoped they could take a look again.Sadly, I did not have the requested copy, but it definitely got my wheels turning.

This morning I put my mind to creating a wooden piece for my boat. By NO MEANS would I call myself a wood worker, but I used all of the patience and know-how I could muster and turned out a pretty nice replica of a broken plastic piece that I can no longer buy. I sent pictures to my wife and dad immediately, and I was just sitting here thinking about some other wood working projects I could do around the house. Needless to say, I'm pretty proud of that work.

It's a long lead in, but hopefully both examples remind us all of that feeling we get when we do something we are TRULY proud of. Often that feeling comes from doing our best on something that we found challenging, maybe even overwhelming at times; something that proved we could do a task we weren't completely confident we could handle.

Thinking back to high school, there are only a few academic experiences that I'm truly proud of. That seems a shame to me. Plenty of extra-curriculars come to mind, but few academic encounters hold that same weight in my memory. Now that I work with teachers, I hope I can inspire some of my colleagues to change that for our students today. The beauty is, it probably isn't a difficult as we might make it out to be.

Content is the Kindling

Teachers who love their content are infectious if they can sell that passion to kids. Even kids who don't love the same content (or any content) are amused by teachers who do. By their very nature, teachers are constantly delving into new topics, ideas, and subjects that can be used as a springboard for a project. As long as the content provides an opportunity to explore, to break out of a mold of everybody doing the same thing, and as long as it (and the teacher) allows students dig into elements of the topic that others may not venture into, the content will suffice. This gives a wide variety of students the space they need to expand and find a niche in topic that others haven't already filled. This matters when you are a teenager and making this consideration for kids will be enough to get the fire started.

Set Forth a Challenge They Can Engage In

Inspiration can come at any time, but the greatest inspirations seem to come as we attempt to resolve an issue we face. When we find a problem or issue that we deem challenging, most people set about the work of solving it both consciously and sub-consciously. We become engaged in the task of resolving that issue. If engagement is what our students lack, perhaps it stems from the idea that they do not see school as a worthy or meaningful challenge. Yes, content can be challenging. So can playing bridge, painting, or learning to dance. It doesn't mean that we all find those endeavors engaging or motivating. Here is where teachers have to use a little bit of their teaching sense!

What are your kids talking about? What do they crave? What might motivate them to stand up and get involved? Is there a local issue they can take on? Is there a way they can have their voices heard? Is there a local group that will rock your students world if they can engage with them (even if the kids aren't aware this group could do so)? The hard part about project based teaching is that teachers have to be flexible and aware of how to engage their students in the project. This means the set up from year to year, or the project, or the audience all has to be flexible. However, the end result has to be the same -- the students have to feel authentically challenged so that they can engage in the problem solving process.

Create Conditions You Can Live With and They Can Overlook

Great teachers understand that they don't necessarily help students to learn; great teachers create the perfect conditions for their students to learn in! This definitely becomes the role of a teacher in a project based unit or classroom. The reality is that teachers have content to cover and need to ensure that students are learning the identified targets. For that reason, teachers have to lay ground rules, create assessments, and determine checkpoints that allow them to do their job. However, teachers also have the responsibility of getting those things out of the way as much as possible. Rubrics and checkpoints wreak of "school" and "grades" and "assignments." They detract from the authenticity of a project and they serve to kill student motivation. Although it is a delicate balance, create conditions in which you get what you need, students get what they need, and the project is still engaging and authentic for students!

Have Students Make Something of Which They Can Be Proud

As I mentioned in the intro, to have students talking about a high school project six or seven years after college suggests that they were truly proud of that work. That depth of pride is powerful, and it tends to spur on even more engagement and passion in future projects.

For many teachers the trouble is the time these products take to complete. Often the end product is itself outside of the focus of the course or content. That trade-off, though, is likely worthwhile if students can commit more deeply to the work they're doing. I struggle to recall a single worksheet, test, or even paper that I wasn't deeply tied to. That is not true of the few projects I was able to complete during my schooling. I remember them well and I remember the content they were tied to. While that is just one perspective, the ongoing adult conversation I have with my friends about school reveals a similar truth for them. Often these projects were self-selected, determined by choices we made as students or a group of students, and had to fit within certain parameters. The investment of time and energy, along with the feeling of pride when being finished, is largely what makes them so memorable.

The more opportunities we can give the students to create something, to get hands on and see a project from start to finish, the more likely they are to be invested in this project, in future projects, and in the whole concept of learning.  That's an important trade-off when you consider what data suggests about our students nationally related to school engagement.

Find an Audience Students Care About

Think back to being a kid, specifically a teenager. What were the things that most motivated you? What were the things that drove you crazy? These are hooks that we can use to encourage kids to engage more meaningfully in school related projects.

One driving force that most teens can relate to is the issue of voice. They want to have a say and how things go and they want to be heard. They want an audience that they care about (unfortunately, this USUALLY does not include teachers)

This should be an essential part of the work we doing a project-based classroom. It is a natural way for students to meet a raised expectation (they are presenting to an audience after all), and it needs a central need that most students have of wishing to be heard.

The challenge for teacher in a project-based classroom is finding that audience. That is the beauty of technology used appropriately in our classrooms. It breaks those walls down and makes anybody in the world a potential audience member. Start dreaming about potential audience members.  Chances are likely if you can dream it, you can probably find it!


This may seem like a tall order, but remember, the work for teachers is generally done in the planning stages.  Then the students take center stage and do the heavy lifting (as they should -- the workers should always be doing the majority of the work).  The dividends this project based approach to learning will pay far outweigh the time and "risk" put into trying something new in your classroom.  Trust me from experience on this one -- nothing feels as good as knowing your students were so deeply engaged in learning that they are still talking about it years later.  That's the experience every child should be able to have while at school!

Social Research Project - Project from a STEM School

One of our favorite things to do is to demonstrate the real work of our staff and students to provide an outlet for student publishing, but also to serve as a model for reflection related to the skills demonstrated and the learning opportunities presented.

In this post, we have some special guest posters for this blog.  Special thanks to Mikayla P. and Jayden R., 7th grade students for their work and reflection, and to their teacher, Tina K. for providing the opportunity for students.

Project background from the teacher:

This project is called the Facebook Page Design Brief.  Students, paired in groups of two or three, are to choose one of the candidates (president or vice-president) to create a Facebook page for.  The page must encompass who they are. This is a project with specific criteria to follow, and a template formula is provided to jump start research and the project framing properly.

See the Students' Submitted Project:

Student Reflection on the Work (in the students' words):

What did you learn? (Social studies, writing, & 21st century skills)

"We learned about the candidates and their lifestyle around politics. The facts we
found about the different candidates were very intriguing. It was interesting to learn that
they do things just like “normal citizens” do in their life. As writers, we learned how to
combine several facts into organized paragraphs and sections of the project. We looked
at several websites, and learned that one resource is not always the best way to go.
Jayden and I made sure to find the most reliable sources and base our information off of
those. As twenty first century students, we learned to problem solve along the way, and
the first idea doesn’t always work out."

What process did you go through as a learner? (21st century skills)

"We went through many steps through our few days of working on this project. The
first step we went through was collaborating among ourselves to come up with initial
ideas on how to put our page together. The next step in our process was to split the
work load up between the two of us. For example, one person found facts for one
section, and the other found pictures for that part of the project. Next, was to actually
find the information. For some facts and information, we found that as researchers,
we had to dig deeper to find information. Most of it wasn’t just on the first link when
we searched on Google. After we found the facts, we jotted main ideas down in our
notes, instead of long sentences. Next, we had to piece all of the information together
to form paragraphs. Instead of just plopping random facts on the project, we wanted to
make sure the sentences flowed easily and the information was organized. Finally, after
organizing the paragraphs on the page, we revised each part of the project. We wanted
to make sure the project looked neat, and not just random pictures and paragraphs
randomly put on the project."

Should school challenge you in this way?

"Both of us think that school should challenge you to dig deeper when displaying
your information. Instead of just writing down notes and answering questions, we think
school should encourage you to display your knowledge in an interesting, fun way. We
know that when we finish a project, we feel proud about our project, and what we did. It
is a fun way to share what you know. Projects also are more intriguing to the audience
instead of just facts."

Some Final Thoughts to Consider:

At first blush, this project may not present itself as academically equivalent to longer, more complex research and writing tasks students traditionally assigned to students.  However, evaluating the demonstrated skills more carefully, there are some very advanced skill sets, some application of knowledge, and some design principles in place within this sample of work.  Solely in the ability of the students to pare down big ideas into quick, easy-to-understand postings in common language demonstrate that the culminating work reflects deeper research and authentic engagement with the work.  Further, to quote the girls, "School should encourage you to display your knowledge in an interesting, fun way."  The assumption that school work can be fun and that students do take pride when partaking in meaningful (yet challenging) work, is important to acknowledge as we plan our way forward in re-thinking teaching and learning.