The Power of Projects in Engagement

Projects are nothing new in education.  One of the great things about projects is the ability to engage students with them.

Here’s how I see projects engaging my students:

1. The Power of Choice.  As Kim, OCBeachTeacher discussed earlier this week, choice is a key component of engagement.  The advantage of choice is that students get a sense of control over their work.  They can pick something that is interesting to them or aligns with their preferences or skill set.  Particularly with reluctant learners, half of my battle is getting them to do the work– so if I can entice them with a fun idea, they may actually complete it, and in the process they may be learning or practicing skills.

This might include the type of project or activity– for example, when we do predictions or summaries on a section of text, I frequently give students the choice to write their response as a narrative or to create a short comic strip to demonstrate their knowledge.  Some students, who find physical writing laborious but are artistically inclined jumped at the opportunity to use a different medium.

It might also include the topic or approach to an issue as well.  I almost never give just one essay topic.  While abstract questions are great for test preparation, they are torture to concrete thinkers– these students can demonstrate their ability to write with organization and support when not confronted with a question that, to them is absurd.  Similarly, the wording of thinking vs. feeling can make a difference in an essay question.  Different choices allow the student to show what they really do know (and sometimes this is because barriers to success or reminders of past failures are removed.)

Every body is a Genius

2. Variety. Related to the above, variety means that students are liable to find something they actually would like (or tolerate) completing.  Students get to try out different writing types, for example, or can try a multimedia project if they hate essays.  They can demonstrate their knowledge in a video game design, which may show more than an essay ever would of their critical thinking.  Being an English teacher and knowing that part of my job is getting them to write, I do always include some component of reflection on their project, where they may write about what they chose to do, elements of the text they used, and other things.  But it’s not a dreaded essay, and at the end of a project, they don’t seem to mind.

4. Real world relationship. I try to include real-world projects that appeal to students– things like designing a video game or creating the movie version or mapping locations from the text.  In addition, I emphasize the real-world equivalent of other tasks: comparing two items critically is important in choosing products at home or work; understanding context is important in understanding a message; and, in general, being able to respond thoughtfully and with good support is good in everything from asking for a raise to negotiating with a lover.  For reluctant learners, many of mine who are unlikely to go to college, understanding when they would use this later helps– so making real world related projects shows them this connection.

My students, who might not show what they know or understand in an essay or on a test, have come up with some truly amazing projects that showed depth of knowledge and analysis. Sometimes, they surprise even themselves, which is also great for reluctant learners who frequently, and incorrectly, think they are “not smart.”  Nothing like a taste of success to keep them going, in school, and beyond.


CDickson Profile PicClair Dickson, high school English teacher, likes free eTexts and Project Based Learning to stretch her meager budget.  Visit her store High School English on a Shoestring Budget to stretch your budget.
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