Start with the dramatic, unexpected & memorable
Q: What do we really want from project-based learning?
A: We want students to care about this subject. To really, truly care about it from their own student perspectives. To engage the active learning parts of their brains and the moral imperative for the work.
Entry events are usually dreamed up during the planning stages of project-based learning. They’re just as much a part of PBL as the research, rubrics, and community connections.
So what can an entry event look like?
Take a field trip and ask a question
Take students someplace outside the classroom, either into the community or around the world, and ask them a challenging question. Ask them to consider something that might never have occurred to them, such as, “What would the community do if this resource was not here, or was unusable?”
- At a historical site, ask “How could our community engage more with this place?”
- At a landfill you could ask, “What will happen when this landfill is full?”
Students at Proctor Elementary School, in Proctor, Vermont, kicked off their project-based learning unit by visiting the WCAX television studios. Students will research extreme weather conditions and prepare virtual weather reports using a green screen, so they were unbelievably jazzed to get to see behind-the-scenes of how WCAX researches and produces their weather reports for broadcast.
Field trips can be real world or virtual
There are so many thought-provoking videos now on YouTube and TeacherTube that can be used to get students thinking.
Or try some of the new virtual reality tools, such as Google Cardboard. How can you leverage the empathy virtual reality can engender to make your question more powerful?
Do something dramatic!
Do something surprising in your classroom! Spread out a tarp and dump out your class’s trash out for all to see. How many recyclables are in there? How many compostables?
About to jump into a renewable energy PBL? Work with your school admins to cut electricity to the classroom for a day (okay just a period) and work through some everyday activities without it.
Renewable energy and food sourcing? Have students build their own solar ovens and work out how long it takes to cook an English muffin; extrapolate numbers (mm, math. Tasty, tasty math) to figure out how many solar ovens, how long, under what optimal weather conditions you could generate enough muffins to feed the school. Or just the teachers. No judgment here.
Studying sustainable transportation? Bring in a bike stand and a beater bike, and have students figure out what it would take in terms of time and materials to make it run again. Got shop? Ask your school’s shop teacher if your students can invade and poke around an old car while she guides them through necessary maintenance to make it run again. Get hands-on!
Or, do some role-playing: stage a scenario with another teacher.
One teacher I work with just did this to illustrate the concept of what a dictator is and how they can rise to power. He had a partner teacher come in and start giving orders — which students can sit where, which students benefit more than others, what colors they could wear. This certainly got a reaction from students!
Bring current events into the classroom
Grab a news article about a problem in your community you are thinking of exploring. Here is a great resource about invasive species in Vermont, used by a second grade classroom. Or a compelling personal story about a national or international issue could be the entry event, such as this story of a young Syrian refugee in Toronto (a similar story struck a chord with my students).
Does your community have an expert in the PBL topic? Ask that person to come speak with or present to your class on their area of expertise. Everyone loves being asked to share their knowledge!
Students at Hazen Union School kicked off their community-based PBL unit with a visit from a local historian. Students will use the resources she shared to write historical fiction about their town.
Picture books? Yep!
For the younger classes, selecting an exciting read aloud book that launch into a discussion and project might be just the right thing. Thought-provoking books such as The Lorax, or The Sneetches can provide just the right frame and context for PBL with younger classes.
Make an event out of a compelling image
Sometimes a photo is worth a 1,000 words. Humans of New York captures the essence of so many New Yorkers and the American story.
A similar project could be done in any town — in your town, or even your school.
For instance, for a PBL unit on community storytelling or history, make an entry event out of having your students take each others photos and write 50 words describing the thing they most want everyone to know about them. Create a gallery from your photostories displayed in a prominent place in the classroom.
What are some of the creative ways you have launched PBL?