Want Engaged Learners? Sign PBL Contracts.

There was a time when my sole purpose for living and breathing, my ultimate dream, was to sign a contract — a contract to play professional baseball. I simply wanted the opportunity to work hard in order to create a better me for the entire team. “Give me that pen,” I remember thinking. “I’ll sign for a Coke and a smile,” I told anyone who would listen. That day never arrived.
Thanks to two amazing educators and baseball coaches, William Booth of Hartselle High School and Joe “Jabo” Jordan of Southern Union State Junior College, I learned the meaning and value of sacrifices and team rewards. These two, highly positive and tough teachers challenged me to surrender selfish goals in order to accomplish a larger vision, one that benefited the entire team.
Ironically, however, one of their shared techniques for molding a greenhorn baseball student into a selfless teammate was to set up a creative, engaging, and rigorous learning environment that highlighted my various strengths and weaknesses. It was not uncommon to complete a multi-hour practice only to wipe away the diamond dirt and grass and reveal a truer self. Afterwards, I knew what I could do. I knew my talents. I knew my faults. I knew my place on the team.
Although I often marvel at the fact that many of my greatest classes and lessons as a student were encompassed by chain link fences and boisterous team supporters whose loud cheers were muted only by the demands of two, farsighted leaders, I try my best to create a similar environment in our Language Arts classrooms. Only without the dirt, the grass and the fences. So far, the most masterful lesson I have to offer is one that is predicated on signing a contract — a problem/passion-based learning contract.
An American Literature Contract
Recently, our American Literature class began a contract-based, project-based learning (PBL) assignment by determining the required literature and accompanying standards, while offering all students a chance to demonstrate their mastery through any appropriate project of their choice.
It’s as simple as this: The standards and literature are mastered while students ultimately learn about their talents, interests, strengths and weaknesses through student-prescribed projects that challenge, engage and invigorate our team learning environment.
Students often choose to create songs, parodies, video mash-ups, green-screen newscasts, thematic websites, fictitious products, slideshow presentations, and live drama skits. For tech projects, our creative gallery of technology links is shared via a Symbaloo webmix on my teacher page. For any non-tech project, I revert to Coach Jordan’s simple, but powerful, field directive, “Find a way to make it happen.” We do just that. Whether raiding the drama department’s closet for character clothing or bringing in our own props, students in Studio 113 are encouraged to make no excuses while finding a way to make their vision a reality.
Co-Authoring the Contract
After introducing the literature sections, related standards and literary terms, students are encouraged to suggest the structure and guidelines of the project. The decision to include the students during the drafting of the contract is powerful. By giving students a creative voice throughout the entire process, the classroom-learning environment is shared. All present are stakeholders. With their priceless input, we agreed on the following sections for the contract:

  1. An abbreviated list of the standards/literary terms
  2. An assigned literature section with matching numbers for associated standards
  3. The project and presentation grading criteria
  4. A larger area for a handwritten project proposal
  5. A contractual agreement that solidly sets a foundation for each team’s attitude, project appropriateness, responsibilities, and collaboration
  6. Materials and/or additional help needed
  7. Names of team members and their mutual responsibilities
  8. The due date
  9. A link to our Symbaloo webmix of technology resources
  10. An area for the teacher’s and students’ signatures of agreement

The Sacrifices with PBL Contracts
Anyone who says project time for students affords teachers time to catch up on grading must be a superhero. Maybe it’s my inquisitive nature, but I continually found myself involved in riveting discussions with individual teams about their shared vision for the original project.
It seems with each new seat I took, I was allowed to share in the excitement and strategic planning of a new rap song, a dramatic rendition of a Puritan love poem, or a silent film set to colorful placards. Simply put, I witnessed the inner workings of creativity. But to be perfectly honest, I would be misleading you if I didn’t list my sacrifices, all of which I will gladly relinquish for a classroom of ecstatic learners:

  1. The illusion of classroom control: On any given day, I would rather manage students’ creative energy that originates from an engaging assignment than to discipline minor classroom infractions that stem from boredom.
  2. The pressure to be the creative leader: Need a spark for a new lesson plan? Take a look at your students. They will provide the ignition for a real-world project. Just ask them.
  3. The door lock: I quickly realized last week the classroom doors were going to be virtually invisible during our project. The day after announcing the assignment, students were beating down the doors before, during, and after school. To my amazement, we had a team of three come to an afterschool help session immediately after a two-hour softball practice. How could I lock the door on such dedication?
  4. Time: Whether eating a five-minute lunch, staying after work a few hours to help students, or communicating with parents to invite them to the upcoming presentations, your time will be affected by a challenging PBL assignment.
  5. Inflexibility: Yeah, you read that one correctly. However, let’s drop it like it’s hot. Isn’t it quite challenging to work so hard on developing a golden lesson plan for several years only to have it challenged by students’ creative directions? Well, don’t hold on too long lest you get dragged. Besides, the students’ end result will be better than you could ever imagine.

As I ponder the above sacrifices, I am again reminded of my two, kick-butt, hard-nosed teachers who taught me the values of maintaining a selfless attitude in hopes of success for all. When presentation week begins, there will surely be technology glitches, unfulfilled responsibilities, and clarification of the assigned standards. In a nutshell, there will be problems. I am not worried. I’ll coach them through it.
I’m just pumped I finally got to sign the contracts, and I can’t wait to see what our team produces.
(Are you interested in seeing the students’ PBL creations from Studio 113? Tune in two weeks from now for a viewing of the best projects and for a beneficial list of my mistakes/successes.)

John Hardison

John Hardison is an interactive facilitator of learning and blended learning specialist at East Hall High School (Studio 113 & EPiCC).

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1 Comment

Andrea Williamson-English, RN

Fascinating! Thank you for sharing!

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