Let students drive the bus in the classroom

Kerri Carr

Project-based learning can incorporate students’ interests into their learning, which will engage them further, a Centre for Professional Learning conference heard last month.

“All students have interests and passions that go beyond the traditional school setting. When students are able to explore and further develop their interests while simultaneously meeting classroom learning objectives, great things are possible,” Jane Sherlock, retired head teacher said.

“Students want to have a voice in their learning process and want to share ‘their’ way of doing things — let’s tap into students who have new, fresh and different perspectives. Let them drive the bus sometimes and not always be the passenger,” she said.

“Take the risk that your students can and will learn without you being at the front of the classroom.”

“Teachers are not the font of all knowledge and wisdom that they once were. Given kids’ knowledge from the internet they have a lot to offer,” Ms Sherlock said later in an interview.

The rapport between students and their teacher can change for the better when using project-based learning. “Students are looking to their teacher for partnership and camaraderie in regard to learning and growth. It’s this shift in traditional mindsets that really strengthens trust and collaboration between teachers and students,” Ms Sherlock said.

Project-based learning is learning by doing, so students, rather than teachers, are at the centre of the process.

Rosemary Henzell, teacher at Willoughby Girls High School, shared a successful project-based learning experience she had with year 10 students, where she hoped to engage them with pre-20th century literature by studying Jane Eyre for their final exam.

There was a complete change in student rapport

Ms Henzell said students studied Jane Eyre in its traditional format and then she introduced the concept of a StoryWeb, “an online experience of a story world, which goes beyond the original text and uses multiple forms of media such as video, audio, animation, text, Twitter, YouTube, Facebook and Instagram”.

Concepts in the book were divided into six sections based on locations and events. Groups voted for a section and then each group identified aspects of the story in their section, imagined new perspectives, responses or events not mentioned in the original story and altered, removed or reimagined characters, events, settings and themes. Ms Henzell said students “worked non-stop with little to no management from me” for three whole school days and developed 80 elements for the StoryWeb.

“The rapport between students, and with me, changed completely,” Ms Henzell said.

“Their attitude towards the study of Jane Eyre became very positive.

“They did well in their final exam, showing strong textual knowledge.”

The conference looked at the benefits of fostering creativity in the classroom — possible with a project-based learning approach — as it can lead to better student outcomes.

Jackie Manuel, Associate Professor in English education in the Faculty of Education and Social Work at the University of Sydney, told the conference the Sydney Story Factory approaches writing and creativity as a process, not a product to be evaluated, when it runs creative writing and storytelling workshops.

She said evaluation of student progress after two workshops showed students’ imagination and inquisitiveness had increased, as had their confidence to share ideas in a collaborative fashion. They had expanded their repertoire of skills in planning, organising and elaborating ideas; increased their capacity to acquire and then develop strategies for problem solving, editing, persevering with a task and concentrating on the quality of their work; and increased their capacity to take risks and experiment. The students reported enjoyment, increased confidence, motivation to write, pride and enthusiasm.

Guerilla poetry took all forms at Taree High School

Researchers felt factors underpinning student achievement included the choice provided to the students, time afforded and because students knew their work was not being assessed, they felt no pressure and had the freedom to explore and enjoy their studies.

Dr Manuel contrasted the approach to much existing classroom-based writing, which is often linked to assessment, individual, monitored by the teacher and teacher-directed (choice of topic/form).

Project-based learning provides opportunities for students to be given choices within set parameters.

“One-size-fits-all doesn’t help kids who are not interested. If kids feel they have choice, they feel they have agency,” Ms Sherlock said.

Jowen Hillyer, a teacher at Taree High School, shared a project-based learning experience that gave students choice.

Learning started with small-group brainstorming of Thomas Gray’s quote: “Poetry is thoughts that breathe and words that burn.”

Ms Hillyer said the idea that poetry needs an audience and a platform led to a discussion about guerilla poetry (publishing poetry in unexpected and unconventional ways in unexpected and unconventional places).

Students were asked to email the teacher photos of their guerilla poetry activities.

Army parachute toys with students’ favourite quotes were dropped from the school's second-storey windows, wooden spoons with lines of sonnets were left in a jar on the principal’s desk, poems were placed in pigeonholes and poetry was pinned to a “poet-tree”. The photos were uploaded to social media.

Conference participants were encouraged to grab some stationery supplies, write some of their favourite lines or create a poem and leave it in an unexpected place.

Ms Sherlock acknowledges project-based learning is not appropriate in all instances but is a way to vary students’ diet, saying, “Sometimes you have to do skill and drill but it’s easier if the students are now receptive to learning.”

The Secondary English Conference 7-12 was held on August 12. Deb McPherson was also presenter and major contributor to the planning of the conference.

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