{PBL} Projects + School

One of V's scenes in his organic farming movie.

One of V’s scenes in his organic farming movie.

One of my biggest frustrations with school is how much time it takes up. My oldest chose to remain in school, and I haven’t managed to support him on any self-led projects on nights and weekends, which fly by so quickly. The school describes its curriculum as “project-based,” but their definition and implementation is somewhat different than mine. Recently, my son completed a school project on organic farming. The curriculum is pre-planned, and my son chose the topic from a pre-set list. The projects had certain requirements—for instance, each student had to interview someone local pertaining to their topic, asking at least five questions. Interviewing somebody is great—if the student decides that’s the best way to get information that otherwise is unavailable. But assigning an interview takes away so much of the learning process…What do I want to know? How can I find it out? What resources are available to me? Instead, it seems like somebody else decided fifth graders should interview “experts.”

Several weeks ago, my son and I had a conversation that went something like this:

Him: I think I want to make a movie for my project representation.

Me: That sounds cool. None of us have experience with that. Can Miss [x] mentor you as you figure out how to do that? [Because that is what is supposed to happen in project-based learning; the student has a mentor.]

Him: I don’t know. I think there’s a video camera I can borrow?

Me: That’s a start. Do you have an idea of how you want your movie to be?

Him: Well, I want to start with a scene of fields, you know, with the crops.

Me: Okay. It’s December, though. You won’t be able to film that here, unless you’re okay with, you know, dead-looking fields.

Him: But that’s not what I want.

Me: Could you draw a background for that, maybe? Or perhaps try stop-motion? I can show you some examples.

Him, beginning to sound frustrated: I don’t have a lot of time to figure all that out! Maybe I’ll just do a poster.

Me, after a long thinking pause: I can understand, given that you have a deadline for this, why you would want to do a poster. I won’t think less of you if you do. But it makes me sad that you have an idea and don’t feel you have the time or support at school to see it through. I’ll do whatever I can to mentor you, if you want to try a movie. I hope, if you don’t do a movie for this project, we can come back to it when you have more time to dig into it.

And we left it there, for the most part. It seemed my son had decided on a poster. He let me know the materials he’d need (my role in his homework is mainly procuring supplies when necessary). For Christmas, we gave him the book Unbored, which I’d hoped to look through myself, but I can’t get it out of his hands! After his first day back at school, he told me he was going to do a movie after all. Unbored has a chapter on stop-motion, he told me, and now he had a better idea of what he needed. Awesome, I said. Make a list, and a storyboard. A storyboard? “Draw out each scene—figure out what you want to show and say. Then you can figure out what props you need.”

And this he did, in detail. After looking at his storyboard, I pointed out that it didn’t seem stop-motion would work, but perhaps a series of photographs? He brainstormed props. I thought I remembered a Duplo farm set…we checked his sister’s LEGOS and yes, indeed, she has not only a bus and a mailman but a farmer with flowers, a chicken, a pig, and a tractor. He received her permission to borrow her farm LEGOS. He figured out solutions for his other scenes—he transformed a bottle of spray fixative into a pesticide bottle by drawing a new label. We added an acorn and butternut squash to the shopping list. He painted grains of rice black, to represent harmful insects on the plants. We lucked out with a sunny Sunday afternoon, he set up each scene in natural light, took multiple shots, and chose the best ones.

Shooting film for his movie.

Shooting film for his movie.

I’d have liked to set him loose to figure out Movie Maker on his own, but given the time constraints, I tried to figure out the basics ahead of time so I could help him. Together, we added his photos, edited the duration of each shot, and recorded his narration, which had to be matched to each scene just so. He typed up the title and credits, and we strung it all together. It is amazing. If this were a home-based project, more time would have been spent on figuring out the program and investigating different methods of movie making. It’s hard for me to accurately describe what I see as the difference in school projects and home projects, but I’ll try:

School is more interested in showing what was learned about the assigned topic. The movie is a means to prove he learned about organic farming.

I am just as interested in the learning going on to create the representation. Learning about a topic is one part of the learning; acquiring skills to share information in a chosen way is just as (if not more) important. He drew a storyboard, wrote a script, arranged his scenes, photographed them until he was satisfied. He had a vision and manifested it. He struggled with the computer program, worked through that, we figured it out, and he created a finished product which pleased him. All of this is more important to me than the facts he acquired about organic farming.

I still hope he returns to this interest when he has more time to dig into it for the sake of digging into it rather than as a means to fulfilling a school requirement. I will nudge, and I will mentor. And I am so glad he chose movie over poster after all.

6 thoughts on “{PBL} Projects + School

  1. Rachelle Doorley (@TinkerLabTweets)

    Hi Amy,
    This is such a thoughtful post, and an important topic. I’m so glad you wrote about this. With my 4-year old quickly approaching Kindergarten age, I think a lot about what “project-based learning” will actually look like and how it will feel. Like you, I would want my child’s teacher to value the “doing” of the project just as much as, if not more than, the demonstration of knowledge. So many important messages in the form of scripts are lost when the production value fails to bring them to life. As Marhsall McLuhan said, “The medium is the message.” Your son is lucky to have you mentoring him and guiding him on his creative path.
    xo, Rachelle

    1. amy

      Thanks, Rachelle. I do think the teachers value “doing” to an extent (and I think that varies by teacher, of course). Of course when there is a time restraint and an agenda, it’s much harder to step back and let a class full of kids come to their individual paths of learning–like in my example of requiring an interview. My son sat there trying to think up something to ask these farmers that he hadn’t already found through his own research, and I just thought, this is so backwards. There is no authentic need to conduct an interview here, so it becomes one more requirement to check off a list. My older son is more or less compliant with that sort of thing. My middle child is not–he sees right through it for what it is (an externally imposed requirement) and doesn’t put in his best effort.

      I think the teachers value the learning, but I don’t think there is time or space to even think about valuing *learning how to learn*–how to decide what is the best way to gather information on a chosen topic, rather than being told how to do it. I talk to my schooled child regularly to check in on whether he’s getting enough practice deciding things for himself. I don’t want my kids to lose sight of who they are and what they want, because they are busy checking off assignments.

  2. Lori

    “Interviewing somebody is great — if the student decides that’s the best way to get information that otherwise is unavailable. But assigning an interview takes away so much of the learning process…What do I want to know? How can I find it out? What resources are available to me? Instead, it seems like somebody else decided fifth graders should interview ‘experts.’” — too many schools clothe themselves in the rhetoric but don’t embrace the actual meat of what PBL is. with no freedom and choice and decision-making, it’s only a shadow of what it could be.

    love seeing how you supporting him to go deeper, stick with his vision and his idea, and make the most of this experience. truly inspiring.

    1. amy

      Thank you, Lori. I have more thoughts on “projects” vs projects, but they are baby thoughts, and they’re still percolating. 😉

      (Clothing themselves in rhetoric, indeed. Like wolves and sheep…)

  3. Lise

    Amy, what a great job you’ve done supporting him in making this project his. I think you’ve really nailed the difference between the school’s perspective and yours. Thanks for sharing this!

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