There are many components that need to come together to establish a genuine project-based learning environment and experience. Over the years, we have embarked on numerous project journeys, but at the end of the day, we have not always been fully pleased with the authenticity of the experience we created for our students. Each project is a stepping stone, opening new windows and generating new ideas for next time.
The beauty and the struggle in PBL is the fact that every single project is a new project. We can’t repeat an exact project from year to year because a.) we have our students for three years in a row and b.) all projects should be revised to fit the needs of each group of students. If a teacher is simply reusing the same exact project expectations and routines year after year with no revisions, chances are many students are slipping through the cracks because they do not fit the standard mold that has been cut for them.
I am excited about and proud of the current project in which our students are partaking. We have challenged our students to work in a small group to write and produce a short film that tells an untold story about a significant person or event in history. Using the recently-released movie, Hidden Figures, which tells the incredible untold story of three African-American women working at NASA who served as the brains behind the launch into orbit of John Glenn, we introduced the idea of finding unfamiliar stories that deserve to be told and recognized for their significance in history. From here, groups were formed, topics were chosen, questions were generated and are now being researched and documented.
In collaboration with a local film expert, we split the creation of their short films into three segments: Pre-Production, Production, and Post-Production. Before students embark on each of the three segments, we have designed three mornings where our film expert, Mr. Carter, is coming to school to share his expertise on that particular area. Just last week, Mr. Carter came to discuss details related to writing screenplays, drawing up storyboards, and designing shooting schedules – all three of which our students are required to complete during their Pre-Production segment.
This week, he returned with opportunities for our students to explore production elements. Looking around the room that day was so fun. It was a day of play and exploration. Students were working together in groups using all sorts of camera shots and angles, exploring camera movement, and toying with lighting equipment. They got to share their short productions to receive helpful feedback from Mr. Carter. He will return one more time to discuss video editing and sound editing in their Post-Production segment. In this very low-stakes environment, play is critical, so they can apply that exploration and feedback to their actual films when the stakes are higher.
In my Humanities class, I have been really excited to supplement their film studies through drama. We have used fun theatrical warm-up activities and various improvisation techniques, along with the art of tableau, to explore storytelling elements, film genres, and creating purposeful dialogue. Everything we do in class directly correlates with their film projects.
Finally, when the finished products are submitted, a panel of adult judges from outside our school building will assemble to view each film. Students will be evaluated on the elements of all three film phases: Pre-Production, Production, and Post-Production. The judges will use a formal rubric to assess each film to select the top three. All students and families are then invited to a Film Festival hosted at a local movie theater in town where they can watch every film air on the big screen. The top three films will be announced in front of the large audience.
As said before, there are many components that need to come together to establish a genuine project-based learning environment and experience. This is an example of one we are doing well. We presented an engaging challenge and topic. We have a local expert sharing his knowledge and skills. We are supplementing with mini-lessons as well as opportunities to play and explore with equipment and film techniques but also with their bodies, minds, and imaginations. And we are presenting the final products in a very high-stakes environment to a live audience.
We do not have it all figured out. Every project is different and unique and offers a variety of prospects and challenges. We learn from missed opportunities and realize new directions to explore. We get better with every project, just as our students do.