I once had an idea for a book about a bunch of kids who were taken from their parents by an evil madman who gave them a rare brain-controlling drug that was found deep beneath the ground, and forced them to mine more of this brain-controlling drug in a pit under the Florida Everglades, all to sell to a corrupt government to give to soldiers, in turn making this mad-man very rich.
I remember the day I had this “brilliant” plot idea, and rushed home as soon as I could to start writing the story. At first the writing was easy. My fingers danced across the keyboards, and the scene of the protagonist getting taken from his mother came to life. I went to bed that night elated, excited by the fact that I was actually writing my first novel.
The next day I returned to the story and wrote more, but not as much as the first day. The problem was, once my protagonist got to his new prison and went into the Everglades mine for the first time, I had no idea what to write next. I did not know who the other characters were. I knew nothing about my bad guy, or what made him so evil. I did not know how evil would finally be defeated, or how the kids would return home to their families. In fact, I had not considered how a whole novel could take place underground where there are no lights or oxygen.
My story needed to be planned before it could take place. Without an outline first, and some calculated brainstorming, I could not sit down and productively write my story. Unfortunately I did not learn that lesson until later on in life, and so this book never got written- and the world is better for it.
J.K. Rowling spent five years creating the world of Harry Potter before she wrote a single word of the first book. She invented characters and imagining details about them that made them who they are. Rowling devised the world of magic, and all of the rules of her imagined universe. She created a very basic outline of the plot of her story, and even knew before she wrote a word of the first book how it would all end someday.
Of course her outline was rough, and the story took many different shapes as it was written, but she had a map to follow along the way. Outlines are a guide to keep a story on track and help the author navigate through previously unknown territory.
It is the same with epic projects. Before every single unit, I create an outline that will guide my class through the story. Like the outline used by an author, it is rough and not precise. No amount of planning can eliminate the unexpected, nor should you want it to. Plot diversions and unexpected twists are what give stories character and suspense. However, planning the basic elements of a story prior to a project ensures that the plot can unfold and students are making their way towards something.
There are several key components to include in a project’s story to make sure that there is a complete plot. The plot of a story and project serves the purpose of giving a framework for the hero to journey upon, and allows for key events to activate a student’s mind and ensure that information is lasting (think neural coupling).
Every story can look different, and so every class and project should look different. So before you start outlining a project and using any of my resources to plan, know that this is not a formula that has to be followed exactly. The more you incorporate story into your classroom, the better feel you will get as to how those stories should flow and unfold.
Your outline can be shaped like the plot of a story. In its most basic form, every story has a basic arc. From Aesop’s Fables to Game of Thrones, stories start with an exposition (beginning), there is a rising action as the story unfolds, a climax, a period of falling action following the climax, and ultimately a resolution. Each of these plot elements are a heading for a project outline.
Your outline will contain details about what each of these elements will look like. As I have repeated and reused many of my projects several over the years, my outlines have grown much more detailed. I often come up with new lesson ideas, professional audiences, and final products for my students, and so the outlines for my projects need to have a certain level of fluidity to them. But when creating an outline for an epic project for the first time, I make sure I have an idea what each section of the story will look like.
I use the project overview to layout all of my projects. It helps me hit all of the details that goes into planning a project, and has a calendar to give plan what each day will look like. You can get the project overview, as well as 3 other essential tools for a PBL classroom by clicking the 'Toolkit Link' below.
As always, I would love to hear about the stories that are helping create in your classroom! Please feel free to connect with me on Facebook at The Epic Classroom, on Instagram at TheEpicClassroom, Twitter at @trevormuir, or shoot me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.