It almost seems too good to be true… Students asking for more work? Using emoticons to describe an assignment? Taking pride in their work? But it’s not a just a dream, it’s reality. The following are real comments from my eighth grade English Language Arts students when I asked for their feedback about the project they had just completed:
“This was the best project I ever did! It helped me learn a lot and was not terribly boring like some projects” - Evan P.
“It was the best project I have ever done” – Patrick G.
“We should have more projects like this” – Giselle G.
“:D” – Jack M.
These were the results when I completely redesigned a unit to incorporate Project Based Learning using technology. I was glad that they enjoyed the project and that they thought it was as amazing as I thought it was. It’s always a plus when students think that learning is fun. But, it took comments like these for me to be sure that the experience was everything I hoped it would be:
“It helped me understand how to take information from research and apply it to a real life product.” – Julia K.
“I knew I had to get good information because other people were going to be looking at the website, so if it wasn’t good, people wouldn’t want to look at our website.” – Erin M.
This year, instead of doing a literature circle unit based on the novel Under the Persimmon Tree, by Suzanne Fisher-Staples, I decided to try something new. Students completed the reading independently, with “check-in days” at least once a week. During class, students created a documentary film or a website to explore the driving question: How does conflict impact people and places?
Technology is a natural fit for Project Based Learning. I am lucky to work in a district where we are in the process of moving to a 1:1 iPad model. Over the past two years, I have actually lived the SAMR model (substitution, augmentation, modification, and redefinition) of incorporating technology in my classroom. The end goal of the SAMR model, designed by Dr. Ruben R. Puenteduras, Ph.D, is redefinition. Redefinition requires a complete transformation of the task as well as the process. To truly reach the redefinition stage, students need to be able to do something new that wouldn’t be possible without the use of technology. While the benefits of this type of learning are numerous, most importantly, I wanted students to be able to develop their research skills while at the same time learning new digital literacy skills that they could continue to use long past the time they leave my classroom.
To create the project, students selected a topic that connected with the driving question about conflict as well as to the novel, which is set in the Middle East in 2001. Working with a partner, students chose a wide range of topics, from education in the Middle East to the history of warfare in Afghanistan. Most students opted to create websites rather than documentaries, but some students did go with the movie option. With lessons from the Media Specialist, students learned how to conduct advanced searches on databases. For their information, students used articles from the database Global Issues in Context as well as Internet sources. They had to evaluate their Internet sources for credibility before they decided to use the site as a source. Once students gathered their information, they used the Internet-based tool NoodleTools to enter the information for their MLA format Works Cited page, which was assessed independently from their project. They also had to incorporate the Works Cited page into their final product. For the next step, students used their information to write drafts of their scripts or of the pages they were going to create on their website.
Then the fun began… building the final product. Most students who created websites used the site building tool Wix.com. Some students used Google blogger, webnode.com, or yola.com. These are all free Internet-based tools that allowed students to create accounts using their school email addresses. There was a learning curve with all of these tools. We had to learn how to take an image saved on Google drive and insert it into the template on the wix page. We had to learn how to insert movie clips into a new movie, and how to add video and audio files to websites. Luckily, in every class there were at least a couple of students who were very knowledgeable about technology. It was interesting to see that those students were not the students who are typically top performing students in my class. Some of them even have language-based learning disabilities. But with this project, they got to become the experts. They were the ones their peers were looking to for help, and I could see their confidence growing every day.
From the beginning, I knew that trying this project could be risky. When one of my students asked what they were going to be doing while reading the book, I told him that they would be making websites. He said, “how are we going to do that????” My response, of course, was “I don’t know. But we’re going to find out!” I forged ahead anyway, with confidence that my students would rise to the challenge. They did not let me down. Their final products far surpassed anything I could have imagined. They created documentaries that could have been produced in a studio, not in a middle school computer lab. Their websites don’t look as though they were created by 13 year old students, they look like they were designed by professionals.
Overall, students were engaged during class and took ownership of their work. They knew that they were creating something “real.” They did not ask once when they were going to use this in real life, because what they were doing actually was real life. The depth of their real world connections and the knowledge they gained about their topics could not be matched without the use of technology. Although most students knew very little about movie production or web-design at the beginning of the school year, now they have experience with technological skills that they can carry with them into their futures. Not only did this experience redefine learning for the students, it also redefined my teaching practice. And now, I am left wondering how I can ever go back to teaching before the “R.”