A Genuine Spark

The first week of a brand new quarter is always energizing. It feels fresh and relaxed. We reflect on the good, the bad, and the ugly from last quarter’s project experiences and design brand-new project plans for the quarter ahead. As we near the end of another year in the ARCTIC Zone, a few things stand out to me. First, though the project process we use today is SO much more supported and authentic than it was when we started three years ago, we are still finding ways to improve it. Second, each new project holds real potential to touch students’ hearts or open their eyes in profound ways. And finally, my students continue to surprise me in so many ways, but that’s old news.

On several occasions, I’ve talked about the project process we follow called the LAUNCH Cycle which is discussed in length in the book, LAUNCH, by A.J. Juliani and John Spencer. If you haven’t checked it out yet, I’m confident you will not be disappointed. It is such a great template to follow when designing projects, despite your level of experience using project-based learning.

We have been using this cycle consistently with our projects for some time. We and our students have become very comfortable and familiar with the steps. However, the phases within the process weren’t necessarily becoming easier for students to complete on time from project to project like we hoped it would, given their added experience each quarter. It seemed that the first couple phases, especially the dreaded research phase, were pulling them underwater. They found themselves drowning throughout the middle of the project, leaving them just gasping for air in order to quickly pull off a completed project by the end of the process. This has resulted in lower quality projects in many cases along with quite a bit of added stress and disappointment along the way for individuals and groups.

This is a system problem. With so many students struggling to breathe by the end of a project, we knew we had to do some rethinking about our project process. With middle school students, it became obvious that time-management, prioritization, and chunking of tasks needed to be even more supported somehow. We landed on an idea we believe will be transformational to the quality of final projects moving forward as well as the confidence and overall attitudes of our students regarding their project work.

For the big project this quarter, phases L, A, and U will be completed in Humanities as a group. So this week we all worked together to break down the L Phase checklist into smaller chunks. We discussed our time-management plan by the day, and checked things off as we completed each task throughout the week. I am happy to report that all students submitted their L Phase requirements on time today.

The same will happen with the A and U Phases, where we work to map out a plan and complete the checklist together. Mixed in with the phase completion, I am able to add in opportunities for very purposeful exploration and discussion of the topic. I have two hopes with this new system of support. One, I hope to be able to better teach time-management and prioritization skills through modeling and practicing them together in the early phases of the project. After submitting their L Phase requirements today, I heard several students comment with a, “Well, that was easy!” Yes! And two, with quality exploration of the project topic in class together, I’m hopeful when it comes time for them to break away from class and complete the second half of their projects on their own, they will be better prepared to design and execute products more meaningful to them and to the project purpose.

The obvious hope with each quarter project topic is to light a genuine spark of passion in as many students as possible, knowing that not every project will strike the same cord for everyone. With real-world connections, meaningful topics, and authentic experiences, the potential is there.

This quarter is divided into two different quarter projects. Our 8th graders are embarking on their culminating project in the ARCTIC Zone as they set out to write and present their very own TED Talk at the downtown Grand Theater in June. Though we haven’t officially begun to dig into the project quite yet (due to Forward testing – blah!), it has been a frequently addressed topic of conversation throughout the year, and many students have already started narrowing down their topic ideas. Though no topics have been officially chosen, yet, I am already incredibly proud of the profound, challenging, and meaningful topics they are exploring. Stay tuned for more about these in a future post as they take shape in the coming weeks.

Meanwhile, our 6th and 7th graders have been challenged this quarter to connect with one of today’s pop culture media sources and to work to persuade them to rethink a message they are sending to their audience. Project time for them this week has been spent exploring various media sources and subliminal messages being sent to audiences, both good and bad. We focused specifically on the power advertising has in its ability to either perpetuate or break down existing stereotypes in our society.

Discussing stereotypes and digging into some tough and sometimes uncomfortable conversations has very clearly sparked an honest curiosity in many of them. More students are participating in discussions (both in-person and online) than ever before. I even received the following email from a student one evening this week in reference to our discussions about several stereotypes that are often perpetuated in advertisements:

Hello! I would just like to say that I love the topic in humanities. It made me happy to talk about not because I support it but because it’s so interesting. I actually got carried away with writing in the discussion post and typed 400 words.

Spark … lit!

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