Kick off project-based learning with a community event

Hope launches in the Northeast Kingdom

real world project-based learningAs part of participating in the UN’s Global Goals, students at Burke Town School, in West Burke VT, kicked off their service learning projects by inviting their community’s leaders to come to the school and ask for what they needed. What would make West Burke a better place to live? And how could these students help?

Introducing “Project Hope”.

It takes a village

kick off project-based learning with a community event Burke Town School

Walking quickly through the freezing morning toward Burke Town School’s gymnasium, I paused at the sight of a small yellow tent set up outside. A rough path led through the snow toward it. I only had a few moments to wonder at the sight before continuing on my way, determined not to be late to the morning’s launch.

Inside, the gym was already bustling. To my right a woman with a board of bike tools and colorful signs was explained the questions she had about her cycling organization’s connection to the school event.

“I really need someone to design the space for the community bike shop. How would you make a space that the community can use to fix their bikes?”

Four eighth grade boys listened attentively as she spoke, taking occasional notes on their clipboards.

kick off project-based learning with a community event Burke Town School
“I really need someone to design the space for the community bike shop. How would you make a space that the community can use to fix their bikes?”

Everywhere I turned, groups of students were listening intently to Burke’s community leaders explaining what they do, what their organization’s focus is, and how students could become involved.

At least 10 organizations from across the area showed up to participate, and the 8th graders got busy interviewing them. The community had needs, and the students were after opportunities.

Welcome to the official launch of Burke Town School’s Projects for Hope.

This day had been a long time coming.

Teachers at Burke had identified a need for a longer term, engaging and hands-on project based learning unit that increased students self-direction, motivation, engagement in learning, and skills for the future.

Burke is a K-8 school, and at the end of eighth grade, students are launched into the high school environment. Eighth grade is the last opportunity for these students to engage in meaningful project work with students and adults they have known their whole childhoods.

The school had already been engaged in the important work of creating relevance for students. They collected WHAT/WHY data, asking all students at various times WHAT they were doing in class and WHY.

If students couldn’t answer both questions with fidelity, the teachers regrouped, and worked on providing relevance and clarity.

Burke’s teachers presented on Project Hope at the 2018 Middle Grades Conference, in Burlington VT.

With all that progress behind them, they embarked on planning a robust PBL unit for the 8th grade students at Burke, rooted in the U.N. Global Goals, and focused on improving local communities. Through this work, teachers Morgan Moore and Des Hertz realized that their work aligned with the work of the Vermont Rural Partnership and the One Burke project. By collaborating with these organizations, teachers were able to create a meaningful launch to their Projects for Hope.

But how did they do it?

Scheduling the event

Teachers had to use the largest space in the school complex: the gym. So teachers had to sign up to use this space, and make sure the whole school community knew when the event was happening.

Contacting local organizations

kick off project-based learning with a community event Burke Town School

Teachers reached out to area organizations, who responded with great enthusiasm and interest in the idea of engaging with students interested in their work and possible participation. Before they knew it, they had 15 community partners interested in setting up stations to share information with students.

Generating student excitement

A key element of PBL is going beyond the audience of one, toward a relevant, authentic audience. Real people to the real work of improving communities were coming– and students knew this mattered.

But teacher Morgan Moore described seeing her students’ faces, as they realized that all of these people came to talk to them: that they mattered, that they are powerful and can make positive change.

All of these people are here for us?– eighth grader at Burke

Creating an activity for students

Because many students aren’t used to talking to adults about serious issues, the students needed something to do, a place to gather information, take notes, and record ideas. Morgan and Amelia created interview questions and gave each student a clipboard so they felt engaged, prepared, and ready to talk with the community organizers.

kick off project-based learning with a community event Burke Town School

The launch event

This event was a hive of activity on an otherwise gray winter day. Students eagerly traveled between station. They braved the sub-zero temperatures out to the snow cave set up by an outdoor education professor Ben Rush from Lyndon State College to learn about their outdoor education programs.

Reflection and dotstorming

kick off project-based learning with a community event Burke Town School

kick off project-based learning with a community event Burke Town School

After the event, students helped clean up the gym for others to use, like a fine working machine. Then they headed back into the classrooms and started ordering the UN Global Goals based on what they had learned about organizations in the Burke community. They wrote each goal on a piece of chart paper. Then the students had 4-5 dots, which they placed on the goals they found most compelling.

Google Form/Survey

Finally, students completed a google form survey about their individual project interests based on these experiences. Based on this and the dotstorming work, students were placed into task forces to begin their Project for Hope.

The project continues, with many exciting developments:

  • the students presented their grant applications in task force teams at the Vermont Rural Education Partnership meeting in Cabot
  • students are planning on presenting their projects at the final VRP meeting this spring
  • and at the Cultivating Sustainable Pathways conference, where schools engaged with work around the U.N. Global Goals will share their work, process and projects with each other
  • students also hope to present at the Dynamic Landscapes conference this spring!
  • and at a school fair featuring their work. Talk about multiple opportunities to have authentic audiences!

Why does this work matter? Let Avery and Ellie tell you:

Katy Farber

Farber joined TIIE after 17 years as a classroom teacher in central Vermont. She is passionate about promoting student and teacher voice, engaging early adolescent students, sharing the power of service learning, and creating inclusive communities where joy, courageous conversations and kindness are the norm. She lives in central Vermont with her husband and two daughters and loves being outside with family and friends, listening to music, writing about the world, and jumping into Vermont ponds and lakes.

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