Project-Based Learning and the Research Paper
When kids reach the eleventh grade in my county, they are expected to write a research paper or create a product. In the past, I relied on the traditional paper format, mostly because it was comfortable for me as an English instructor to use that format. I’m capable of writing papers. I am capable of writing essays. I can provide input and guide you through the editing process.
Although it was a risk, I took a chance last year and told my pupils that instead of the typical paper, we would be beginning on project-based learning (PBL) adventure. They appeared ecstatic, primarily because they believed they would not be required to write a report. In the end, they accomplished far more than that.
PROJECT-BASED LEARNING IN HIGH SCHOOL ENGLISH
I divided my students into groups and then assigned each group the job of selecting a topic that they were interested in learning more about. To complete the assignment, you would need to come up with a suitable solution. Our class discussed a wide range of important issues, including school shootings, poverty, LGBT rights, bullying, and homelessness. We also discussed local issues, such as the need for more vegan and gluten- and dairy-free options in school lunches, as well as the need for more options in school dinners.
After that, students had to come up with ideas for possible resources and questions they would need to answer. That is the beauty of project-based learning: because I couldn’t predict every need, students were forced to take responsibility for their learning and solve challenges as they arose.
MINI-LESSONS AND FORMATIVE ASSESSMENTS
Their first formative assessment came about spontaneously as they realized they would need to email professionals who could answer questions to assist their research and serve as a starting point. Our school’s principal and security team, as well as representatives from the local government, were among the adults there. Students reached out to their local delegates and other elected officials, including the congresswoman for our district. They received positive responses.
My students wrote their emails after I gave them a mini-lesson on how to write a professional email, which I led by example. My input and constructive criticism (formative evaluation) were given to the students before they sent the messages. Then the messages were evaluated and revised by me.
When we returned to class the next day, my students were faced with one or both of two variations of the same problem: either their recipients had reacted or they had not; in either case, my students were at a loss for what to do.
A mini-lesson on how to follow up with an email when someone doesn’t respond and how to proceed when they do respond was given. They wrote follow-up emails, which I once again checked before sending them. Several groups approached us and requested whether they could poll the staff or their peers on topics such as school food options, improving school security, and enlarging the school parking lot while we awaited responses. We thought that this exercise would be beneficial to all groups, so we assigned it as the next job.
I demonstrated how to develop an online survey using Microsoft Office 365 for them. Their surveys have to have at least two graphics and ten good questions to be considered (open-ended, multiple-choice, or order of importance).
During this time, students received responses to their emails from their email recipients, prompting them to schedule interviews with those individuals. The following mini-lesson focused on how to craft effective interview questions. My students were mostly uninformed about how to conduct an interview and were unaware that the questions they prepared were crucial in obtaining the evidence they needed to support their suggestions.
For example, a group that wanted to increase the school parking lot shifted from asking broad questions such as, “Do you believe we need a larger parking lot?” to asking specific questions like, “Do you think we need a larger parking lot?” “How many accidents have occurred in the parking lot since the school first opened?” is an example of a more precise question. One group interviewed residents of a local homeless camp with permission from their parents, while another conducted interviews over the phone with participants from a local homeless shelter with consent from their parents.
Students were also required to locate at least three credible sources and take notes that would be included in their final work, along with the appropriate citations. They gathered facts and data to back their recommendations, and they made sure to answer any counterarguments that were brought up by others.
THE FINAL PRODUCTS
I provided my students with a variety of possibilities for their final products. All of them were required to include their survey results, research, as well as emails and interviews, in one form or another, in their presentations. Some of the concepts they came up with included a public service announcement, a formal proposal, a law, an educational video, a photo essay, and a piece of music or artwork.
I established rubrics and examples so that students would understand what I was looking for. I didn’t want to be overbearing, but I did want high-quality products on the market. It was with a variety of authentic audiences that they presented their final products, including their congresswoman, our principal, a county supervisor, and our security team.
As a result, I assigned a single summative grade to each group; however, I want to split the mark between the future such that 70 percent of each student’s grade will be based on their group’s work and 30 percent would be based on my observations, students’ self-reflection, and peer reflections.
Following the presentation of students’ work and discussion of the process as a whole, a few things became evident to me. First and foremost, I will never teach the research paper any other way again since the PBL methodology we employed helped build real-world problem solvers, thinkers, and doers rather than rule-followers in the classroom. I discovered that to inspire kids to venture outside of their comfort zones, I also had to walk outside of mine. However, wonderful, true learning occurs when we create the appropriate conditions for it.