How I Connect Students Through Project-Based Learning

by Rachelle Dene Poth

One area that I’ve tried to focus on in my teaching recently is collaboration, specifically how students collaborate with one another.

I enjoy having students work together within the same class because I believe in the value of building relationships and establishing a positive classroom culture. I also know how effective it is to take advantage of the time in class for students to become more familiar with each other and to work together towards a common goal.

Understanding that not everything can be accomplished in a classroom is a big reason for this shift in my teaching–and this is where I believe that technology can be extraordinarily useful with a real sense of purpose.

The Tools Of Collaboration

I have been using various tools over the past few years which have really opened up the possibilities of how, when, and where students communicate and collaborate.

Our interactions are ​​no longer confined to being in the same classroom, let alone the same school. Collaboration can occur between students across the globe and does not have to be done synchronously. The nature of tools such as Padlet or Wikispaces for example allows students to collaborate on their own terms. Time and place don’t matter as much as purpose and connectivity.

Thinking Bigger

I recall driving home one day and trying to come up with innovative ways to have students create with the language.

I liked the idea of projects, but wanted something more than simply having every student completing an individual project on the same topic. Each of my Spanish courses were at a place where I thought it would be great for them to do a project and work through learning in their own authentic way, so I decided to go big and involve the students from levels 1 through 4 as part of a team project.

I didn’t have a clue how this would work, but it seemed worth figuring out. I hoped that something like this would bring students together and show them the power of technology for collaborating and putting a project like this together, so I gave it some thought and this is what I came up with: A cross-level, cross class team project.

Executing The Project In The Classroom

Here’s how it worked: Spanish IV students had been studying careers and planning for the future. Spanish III was focused on travel and preparing for a trip. Spanish II was learning vocabulary related to a community and and types of activities that one can do in a neighborhood. Spanish I was learning vocabulary for houses, chores and describing living arrangements.

Taking all of these themes into consideration, I decided that one student from Spanish IV would be the ‘Team leader,’ and their ‘mission’ would be finding a job to apply for in a Spanish speaking country with the idea of going to work abroad.

Their task was to create a collaborative space, whether that be by creating a Padlet or Google Slides or something else altogether, and share it with the other members of their ‘team.’

Team leaders also had to write a brief note to their Travel Agent, Community Specialist and Realtor (students from Spanish I, II, and III) to let them know their travel interests and needs they have for moving abroad. The team members would then take this information when creating their part of the project. Spanish III would then plan how their team leader was getting there.

To make it more fun, I included a requirement that each Team Leader wanted a chance to sightsee before starting work, so the Travel Agent’s task was to plan a two-day tour that would meet the interests of their client.

Spanish II would research the neighborhoods where the client would be living and let them know what types of services and businesses were available for their new community. Spanish I, with two members assigned to each team, had to prepare to real estate ads for the clients. Each group would take the information from the notes and try to cater to the needs of their client.

There was a tricky part to this which was that I had to be out of school for a period of time. I was not there to oversee the work, however I use messaging tools like Celly, Voxer, and edmodo to communicate. The biggest tool I used, though, was the concept of collaboration among students.

While I didn’t plan this wrinkle in the beginning, I started to see that I relied on them as much as they relied on me and one another.

Stepping Aside & Letting Students Work: The Outcome

I distributed list of teams to each student. I put the team list on the board and left a space for the team leaders to put their link and their notes or however they saw fit to share this information.

There were problems at first. Students said they did not have the link, or had the link but did not have access and a few other issues, all of which I had expected and told the students to send messages or leave a note on the board. Always plan for failure, and have a backup for your backup.

Ultimately, I wanted the students to practice the vocabulary in their respective Spanish classes, but I also wanted them to learn how to work towards a common goal and without having to be in the same physical space or during the same time. I wanted them to see what great resources are available through technology and how they can work as a team without being in the same place.

The team leaders had the opportunity to say whether or not they really liked what the group members had put together for them, and for me it gave me another opportunity to let the students be creative, independent, to decide whatever they wanted to in terms of this project and that’s very important.

Giving the students a choice in how they show what they know and can do with the material and being open to their ideas was crucial to the success of the project. When planning, keep in mind that even if things don’t turn out the way you had planned, if the critical objectives of the project are met (whether academic standard-based, soft-skill, or something else), then the project has to be considered successful.

While planning is important and leadership essential, the tighter you hold to your vision of things as a teacher, the less ownership students can take over their learning.

*previously published at TeachThought.com

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