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School Stories

A Trend Toward Project-Based Learning

Faculty from Grade 7, Grade 4 and the drama department traveled to California recently to attend a conference on project-based learning, a teaching technique that guides students in identifying a real-world problem and developing its solution.
One of the benefits of project-based learning is that it allows students to demonstrate knowledge as they progress through the unit of study, not just in a culminating project or assessment. 

Coming back to Graland from High Tech High (HTH), these educators were inspired to enhance and further develop their lessons. In the Lower School, Katie Stone, Grade 4, committed to giving her students more intrinsic motivation to do their best work. Based on Ron Berger’s Hierarchy of Audience, she is implementing ways for students to present to outside audiences, a strategy that can increase their engagement and improve the quality of their work. 

“If I ask my students to write a reflection about their field trip to AmeriTowne, their level of effort will change if I tell them that I will be reading the reflection, or that Mr. Cobb will read it or imagine if we chose a few reflections for Young Americans Bank to publish in their newsletter,” she explains.

Grade 7 science teacher, Steve Collins, also found inspiration for planning his everyday lessons. An activity they practiced at the conference involved writing down all the possible components and ideas for a project onto notecards and then organizing the notecards in different chronological sequences. “It allowed me to rapidly experiment with different ways of running a project and explore choices of what to include,” he says. “It forced me to pay attention to the pace of student engagement and made me recognize the importance of having a compelling launch. It also emphasized the need to include meaningful, empathic interactions with experts and primary sources.” 

One Middle School trip that will be impacted by this professional development experience is the Grade 7 adventure to Washington DC. During the conference, the teaching team re-envisioned how the trip can evolve into an even more student-centered experience. Their ideas were put to the test with the chance to get peer feedback from other attendees in a workshop designed to help them further “tune” the project. “The panel asked clarifying and probing questions, and then offered feedback and suggested tweaks,” Mr. Collins says. “It was amazing how helpful the tuning was and how much better the project was by the end.”

Drama and filmmaking teacher Dan O’Neill’s “ah-ha” moment came when he learned new strategies for getting students intrigued from the first moments of launching a new project. “The conference inspired me to make a big splash at the beginning of a project to grab their attention, and then space out the ‘wow’ elements throughout to keep them engaged,” he shared. In a drama classroom, this might mean offering acting students interim opportunities to perform a scene from an upcoming musical, or taking them off campus to see a live performance.

Over in the seventh grade math classroom, David Hill was impressed with two aspects of his conference experience: the emphasis on intentional creation of authentic work and the culture of collaboration which is both alive and growing at Graland. 

“Student engagement in work that matters to them is a fundamental design principle for developing HTH-inspired project-based curriculum,” he says. “Kids connect their work to the world outside of school and, in so doing, they create meaningful and beautiful products. The process and discipline involved in accomplishing original, elegant work that students are proud of requires passion, extensive critique and multiple revisions.”

Like Ms. Stone, Dr. Hill believes a profound learning experience can come from doing a job really well for a broad audience, especially when the project demands relevant and consequential material.

Universally, the teachers who attended HTH felt fortunate to be there as individual learners, but more so as members of a group investing together in providing the best learning opportunities for students. Activities like a “dialogical interview” in which they listened actively and sought to understand one another was one exercise that set the table for building a culture of collaboration that is already impacting student learning in new and significant ways. 
 
The conference was hosted by High Tech High, a network of charter schools serving K-12 that also provides professional development to educators. Participants from Graland included Steve Collins, Kelly Gaudet, David Hill, Dan O’Neill, Emma Perkinson, Kai Sionas and Katie Stone.
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Graland Country Day School

Graland Country Day School is a private school in Denver, Colorado, serving students in preschool, kindergarten, elementary, and middle school. Founded in Denver in 1924, Graland incorporates a rich, experiential learning approach in a traditional classroom setting, emphasizing the development of globally and socially conscious leaders who excel academically.