How does one design Project Based Learning encouraging student initiative and deep learning while covering the curriculum?

I posed the question in the title to this post at JedcampNJNY this past Sunday. Facilitating a session like this was not easy for me. I am used to making presentations where I have most of the answers. I love to present new ideas for effectively integrating technologies with  e the Smart Board, iPads, or Google apps into the curriculum to help increase student learning. While I welcome discussion and sharing by others in these sessions, these are also areas where I feel like I have a bit of expertise. I have at least some of the answers and believe that I have something worthwhile to share with others.

This session at Jedcamp was of a completely different kind. I presented a PROBLEM that I am having in my own class. One for which I do not believe that I have an easy solution. I have given many projects and at times have facilitated full fledged Project Based Learning where most, if not all, of the learning process is performed by the students working in small groups with me there not to frontally teach but to guide the students in their learning activities. I know that well designed project based learning activities when interspersed into a curriculum with many other teaching modalities (I am a big believer in variety in education, not all frontal, not all projects) can greatly increase student engagement and retention.

Many kids LOVE to do projects. (Not ALL, as my colleague at The Frisch School, Dan Rosen, so correctly points out in his recent post on Passover Based Learned.) Kids also remember projects for a VERY long time as I often experience when meeting former students. How many of our students will remember something you taught them 10 years from now? As Nechama Leibowitz Z"L often said, kids remember nothing. BUT they remember the experience. They will remember areas in which they invested significant time and energy to accomplish something special and unique. This is why project based learning can be so powerful.

However, I find two major impediments to projects, the first is one of time, the second of substance.

Project Based Learning takes a lot of time. For example, teaching a Project Based Learning unit about the trial of Jeremiah in chapters 7 and 26, which I described in my posting on the Oscars, took over a month. In this time, students researched the chapters, wrote screenplays, and then filmed two videos based on the winning screenplays that the students in class had chosen to be the best. If I would have taught this using a more traditional approach, it likely would have taken half the time. Now that we are in crunch time as the year quickly races to a close, I realize that I will be teaching one less unit. However, the fact that students will remember this project much longer than a regular learning unit might offset the extra time it involves.

I also have a second worry. How will the learning in a Project Based Learning assignment go beyond the superficial to something more substantive? My students can recollect the details of the trial of Jeremiah but do they understand the "big ideas" that Jeremiah was trying to convey? It could be that these same students would not get these "big ideas" in a regular classroom setting as well but when conducting a classroom discussion, I feel that I have many "tricks" I can use. I can call on students, question them using socratic dialogue, introduce new ideas for them to explore... When students are asked to learn more on their own through interaction with print or online sources and flipped videos that I have collected for them, I cannot question them as thoroughly. I go from group to group but I am limited in how much time I can spend when dividing myself amongst a dozen different groups rather than teaching one whole class.

I further wonder once the project went from the research and writing stage to the filming how much deep knowledge was gained. The filming reinforced the story line but unless the screenplays contained big ideas and ruminated on them, the filming was not necessarily an adequate means for enriching or stretching the learning.

I posed these questions at the Jedcamp session and got many interesting suggestions. Some emphasized sharing with the students rubrics prior to the project in which one of the items that will be assessed is deep understanding. I have experience with grading rubrics and often include something along those lines in them but mentioning deep learning in a rubric cannot magically make the deep learning appear.

Other teachers emphasized the importance of regrouping throughout the project. This I think is a more substantive suggestion that I could try in the future. I did some regrouping in the middle stage of the project, asking them to reflect on their research and writing before we began filming but perhaps I should do more of that. Just because students are involved in a PBL assignment does not mean that I cannot include within it from time to time whole class discussion about a big idea in the unit.

I then asked the Jedcamp group about the importance of a public audience in a project. This is something I believe is easier for a more halachic type of assignment one would do in Gemara than for a Navi assignment. How does one get a public audience for a Navi project focused on the prophet Jeremiah? I would want the audience to be genuine not an artificial creation. Why is such a thing considered to be so important in a PBL assignment?

When I posed these questions, Yehuda Chanales, suggested that it was not the public audience per se that was important but the fact that this gave the project authenticity. It was then not just a classroom exercise to make a video for example but an authentic learning experience for which students would be embarrassed if their learning was not perceived to be on a sufficient level.

Aaron Ross then suggested that perhaps you don't need a large public audience but even one outside expert or a small panel of experts would be sufficient. In the case of a project on Jeremiah, if I bring one expert known from the academy or the Yeshiva for her biblical studies into the classroom for students to present their work to, this would make the project more authentic.

I remember fondly experiencing this in my Gemara class as a student in MTA where Rabbi Paretzky Z"L served as the bochen or independent tester. He would take groups of us out of class to test us on the Gemara we were learning. This was not a scary experience, actually it was quite exciting for us as he was very gentle often peppering his questions with a twinkle of the eye accompanied by a joke or anecdote. His regular presence in our shiur lent our learning authenticity. Our Gemara skills and knowledge were important enough as young 16 year olds that a world renowned Torah scholar thought it worth his time to question us on what we were learning. This in turn made us want to excel in our limud Torah so we could impress him when tested. When teaching Gemara, at times I have brought in the principal to serve as the bochen who gives the class a farher, an oral examination, to try to mimic this experience. Maybe I should try something like this for Navi class as well....

Someone else, I do not remember who, gave a suggestion for a Navi PBL assignment for Jeremiah that would have an authentic public audience. He suggested that I solicit camps and have my class create Tisha Ba'av programming for them. Tisha Ba'av is one of those hard days in camp where you cannot really have sports, cannot really do regular programming, and there are not even too many films you can screen for elementary school age kids. (I mean how many times can we show the movie Operation Thunderbolt? I even wonder if it is appropriate for Tisha Ba'av considering it has a bittersweet but ultimately triumphant ending.) Camps might really appreciate programming created by high school students for their campers and Jeremiah as the main text for Tisha Ba'av might be the ideal text to create such programming. Maybe I will even suggest this to my students as a culminating project for the year. Hopefully, the urgency involved in creating something for younger campers will help them spend more time on creating something authentic that will involve deep learning. Of course if I gave this project, that would be one less unit I would be able teach these last few weeks of school... Is it worth it? I continue to wonder...

Please continue the conversation by commenting to this posting and if you know any camps interesting in collaborating on this project, contact me by email or Twitter.