Are you daunted by the prospect of projects in your classroom? Don't be. Year-long projects can ignite passion and focus in your students if you make them meaningful to both of you.
Taking on a Year-long Project
When teachers think of projects in our classrooms, there are few mindsets we typically approach them with. The first is that of something students do entirely independently, on their own at home. The other is one your students may work on for a week or two in class and then move on. If either one of these sounds familiar, then taking on a year-long project in the classroom may seem like a daunting task. However, if you choose to pursue it, your students will become more focused and passionate about your content.
Make the Project a Win-Win for You and Your Students
When you are doing small isolated projects in your classroom, you can sometimes ignite moments of passion in your students. If you are lucky, you can keep the embers burning for a few weeks. However, the odds of those embers burning all year long are slim. Taking on a year-long project with your students can be just the thing to sustain your students' excitement about learning in your classroom.
Whereas small projects in your classroom can be done in isolation, tied to a few standards within a unit, year-long projects are trickier but more worthwhile to get going. When working on a yearlong project, it has to become part of every unit you teach throughout the year. In doing so, it gives your content a greater meaning beyond a string of units in the year. That is, if you can find threads to tie all of the parts together in a way to excite your students.
In getting my project started, I also had to come up with an idea that both myself and my students could get passionate about. As a science teacher, I am passionate about the environment. In more than a decade of teaching, I have learned that environmental issues are usually good for engaging the interest of most of my students. So I built my year-long project around the lake next to my school. This gave my students opportunities to get out of the classroom regularly which we both enjoyed. Using the lake as our theme allowed me to bring in lots of different science content and skills needed to teach, and it provided opportunities for social action because middle school students tend to be very passionate about any sort of injustice, even dirty water.
Organize Teams for Success
How you group your students can be a way to increase their focus in the classroom. Since my project was organized around the lake, I decided to create specialist teams students would work in for extended periods of time. Each specialist group had a different focus, from animals to water, which gave students choices about what content they wanted to work with. Giving students a choice helps build intrinsic motivation.
Some of my groups focused on wildlife, while others who preferred to get a bit dirty went digging around in soil or explored the water. Regardless of the group, however, they were all focused on working on the same skills - though I disguised this reality well.
Additionally, students became even more passionate about the content their group was working on because they ended up, most of the time, in groups of people with shared interests. Believe it or not, I had groups who were passionate about soil while others were passionate about observing birds. Often they were students who rarely worked together, but these shared common interests inspired them to take our project to the next level.
Design Year-Long Project Activities
Here is a harsh reality of a year-long project with your students: If the activities aren't interesting to your students, it won't make them more focused. Designing effective project activities was my critical task if I wanted to get my students focused and passionate about our project and my course content. So I started by combing through my standards for the key skills that came up over and over again. Then came the hard part - figuring out ways to incorporate these skills into engaging activities that would help my students focus and dig into the content.
Since most of my skills involved different aspects of the scientific method, I used this as a starting point. For each specialist team, I created a few core activities we could do at the lake that all taught the same skills - but were differentiated to match the focus on each group. That way, I could teach the skills I needed while at the same time letting students' passions thrive by working in the area of their choice. Since students got to choose a different focus group 2-3 times a year, they repeatedly practiced the skills without becoming bored.
Bring it All Together
So the kids were outside learning, which was awesome. They were all working in content that they were passionate about while learning key skills, which was amazing. But this was a year-long project, so to help students focus on what they were doing and see its purpose, I handed over creative control of the final product to each team and required a real-world, community or school application or presentation.
You may be uncomfortable handing over that much control to students, but if you want to keep their passion going, it is the best approach to take. Now, handing over control doesn't mean you let go of quality control. You can still control the rubric, what you want them to include, etc. However, give them the freedom to decide the mode of presentation, as it empowers them.
As the Buck Institute for Education points out, in order for projects to be successful, they need to be authentic, which means involving the community and mirroring the type of work done in the real world. Let students decide what the next steps will be, but make sure they involve a real-world presentation or activity in the community.