- Upper Division
By Jason DiGioia, Upper Division English & Language Arts Teacher
Project based learning (PBL) is a cutting edge educational process that asks students to think critically, creatively, reflectively, and to solve problems. PBL units are often grounded in real life scenarios and should be as “authentic” as possible. Our sixth graders recently demonstrated their expertise by taking on a science and English challenge: create a marketing tool, e.g. a website, travel magazine, or promotional video for a fictional island based on the island from Theodore Taylor's The Cay, which they finished reading in March.
To get an in-depth look at their work, check out two students' projects: Alyssa Kaufman and Shira Merenstein.
In The Cay, 11 year old Philip Enright is stranded on an island with an elderly African American man. The tension between the two is evident from the beginning: not only do the two have to survive together, Philip has to learn to overcome the racism he learned from his mother.
Middle school science teacher Mrs. Megan Zitron and I asked the students to imagine that the events of the book actually happened and that fans of the book have shown interest in visiting the island where Philip and Timothy survived. From there, students were given free rein to create their marketing tools. While there is an obvious level of fantasy in this PBL unit, the majority of the project is anchored in a realistic business framework, something the kids appreciated.
True PBL units include expert speakers who discuss their fields with students. Mrs. Zitron and I brought in Susan Gordon, a travel agent, to speak with the kids about the travel industry. Mrs. Gordon already has numerous connections to Denver JDS: her own children went to school here, and she also handles booking the HIP trips every year. Susan is an invaluable resource, and the kids really benefited from her years of experience.
There were numerous rubric requirements that students had to meet in this project. As this was a cross curricular PBL unit, writing and scientific research were key components; a detailed island history along with a breakdown of flora and fauna on the island were required. They also had to think like business owners trying to attract travelers. The students had to create hotel suite models, excursions that would appeal to fans of the book, as well as restaurants with menus. A hurricane readiness protocol had to be in place, and an island map had to be on the website or presented in class as a 3D model. The students also implemented environmental conservation techniques on their island which complemented their Geo-challenge projects nicely. Finally, the students presented their projects to parents, students, administrators, staff, and Susan Gordon. The authentic or “real world” audience is a key component to PBL, and though it made the students nervous, they appreciated having audience members who weren’t just classmates.
Upon reflection, students remarked that time management was one area where they felt they learned the most. Each day, students had to decide what achievable goals they could meet during class time. They really enjoyed designing their hotel rooms and determining how much to charge travelers. They also appreciated the ways that this project, though based on fantasy, gave them “adult” things to accomplish. Because the sixth graders felt they accomplished something meaningful and solved problems along the way, I would consider this PBL unit a success.