By Pamela Brennan and Brandi Zivilik

Students can’t learn to become a “good person” by doing a worksheet, and their creativity can’t be measured by taking a test. With that said, as teachers, we often feel that it is our duty to teach them to master academic standards, while also empowering them to think creatively, work together, and above all, learn to be upstanding citizens who care about others.

We have been able to bridge the gap between the classroom and the real world using high-quality project-based learning (PBL). Engaging students in projects that connect them to their local community opens up the door for them to show compassion and give to others in need. During the projects, students learn to work in teams, all while flaunting their individual creativity. Developing this style of projects does not have to be difficult or time-consuming. Plus, seeing the developmental growth of your students is 100% worth it.

Brandi Zivilik

Encouraging students to make a difference gives them a bigger purpose in life and motivates them in and out of the classroom. It lets students know that their thoughts and ideas are important and worth listening to. Additionally, learning is more enjoyable because they feel there is meaning behind it.

One way to engage students in this type of meaningful learning is through project-based lessons that ask students to solve real-world problems. PBL provides students an opportunity to apply what they have learned on a deeper level and develop skills that will make them successful in college and beyond. An example of this was a project I implemented last year where my students had to research a cause they were passionate about, and work together to raise awareness of it by creating fliers, fundraising sites and more.

To kick off the project and hook the students, I had a guest speaker from the WE organization come in and speak to my 6th-grade class about making a difference in the world. During the speech, he asked the students about what causes are important to them, and their answers included a wide variety of topics from suicide prevention to pollution of water in third-world countries.

Each student had his or her own reason for selecting a cause, which made each group enthusiastic about researching and presenting their information.

My classroom ran like a business, and students were challenged to act as advertising analysts to create a campaign to support their cause. Although each group had a different focus area, they were completing the same tasks and learning the same skills. Students set goals at the beginning of the project, and every day they wrote a three- to four-sentence summary of what they accomplished and how it impacted their final product.

During the project, they had to identify their audience, work within an ad budget, and consider how different ads appeal to different audiences, to help with research. Creating cross-curricular, project-based lessons from scratch is extremely time-consuming, so I use Defined STEM to provide students with credible, vetted resources including text, articles, and videos.

Each project required students to research, develop their ideas, analyze their results, and share the data through an end-of-project presentation. They reviewed a wide variety of ads to identify the power of symbols and patterns while analyzing market research reports to determine which advertisement would work best for their audience. Students were able to spread awareness in a variety of creative ways, such as sharing posters and TV announcements in whatever way they could. Some even started their own GoFundMe accounts, and one student asked that I receive board approval for her to sell the bracelet she designed to raise money for the water crisis in Afghanistan. I look forward to seeing her do it!

PBL offers creative freedom, which gives the students a sense of agency, purpose, and bring even more relevancy to learning – engaging them in making an impact in their community and exposing them to local careers. Not only do authentic, community-focused tasks prepare students for what they may encounter as an adult, but it also empowers them to think creatively, work together, think about their future, and above all, learn to be upstanding citizens who care about others.

Pamela Brennan

The Outsiders, by S.E. Hinton, is a staple for students in the Hopatcong School District. My class had just finished the part where Ponyboy, Johnny, Cherry, and Marcia met at a drive-in movie and I asked, “Have any of you ever been to a drive-in movie?” There was only one hand up. That is when I had the idea of recreating our own theater.

I spoke with the other 8th-grade teachers about weaving the recreation into a PBL opportunity. We brainstormed how to fit the recreation of the drive-in project into the subject area. Bringing teachers from different disciplines together to work on a common project and teach the concept to students who meet at different times is the true definition of collaboration.

In math, students worked with a drive-in movie owner to share business history, do cost comparisons on running a drive-in versus a traditional theater, and discuss proportions and ratios, which came in handy as the students had to figure out projector and screen size and the distance to project on the outside wall of school building. The science teacher worked on a quick lesson about “What makes popcorn pop?”

English classes worked in groups to research a variety of topics, including the history of drive-in theaters and the vocabulary associated with them. Students then reproduced advertising posters and a newsletter from the 1960s that revolved around the plot and characters from The Outsiders.

The community involvement with this project really made it come alive. Members of a local car club volunteered to bring their old cars to the movie and were thrilled to share their love of cars with a younger generation. The PTO volunteered to set up and run a concession stand, purchased 30 copies of the book to give away as prizes, and provided each moviegoer with treats.

Observing students at work was my favorite part of the whole process. They were able to discover their strengths and focus on tasks that interested them. The project also allowed students to push past their comfort zones. Students had an “I Can” attitude, and a large project was completed in a short amount of time with input from all. No one worked in isolation.

When you involve the community in student learning, everyone wins. Adults feel more connected to their children and the school, while students are empowered to use their knowledge to make their community a better place to live. Projects like this empower students to learn, bring relevancy to learning, and teach them to be overall “good people.”

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Brandi Zivilik is a 6th-grade social studies teacher at Viking Middle School in Gurnee, IL. Connect with her on Twitter: @BZivilik

Pamela Brennan is a teacher at Hopatcong Middle School in Hopatcong, NJ.


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