Authenticity is key in a successful project-based learning environment, and even a traditional learning environment for that matter, and I could write a book about that fact (I actually am working on that book, keep an eye out for it).
But this post is about finding that authentic audience or authentic element for your projects and lessons. I have found that teaching in a new and fresh way means that my planning time can look very different as well. I spend a significant amount of time during the planning stages of projects brainstorming potential organizations, people, and communities who might want to partner with my class on projects. I'm going to spend the rest of the time in this post describing what that looks like.
1. I figure out what the project is roughly going to be about.
Do any themes emerge from my content standards that helps the standards relate with each other in some way? Once I identify a solid theme within a group of standards, I ask the question(s): What can we do that is important that will help students understand these standards? Is there a problem my students can help solve that relates to this theme? Who can I contact to partner up with me and my class?
2. Once I've got my basic idea, I do some research.
Nothing complicated here. Just get on Google and start searching for organizations or businesses in the area that are doing something that relates to your project idea. I had a project idea that involved refugees. So I simply Googled: Refugees Grand Rapids, MI
Here's the thing though: you do not have to limit who you work with based on your original idea. I find that some of the best project ideas come from brainstorming with non-education professionals. I knew I wanted to do something with refugees, but did not know exactly what. After sitting down with a social worker for an hour, who knows far more about the story and the plight of refugees arriving in America, we had an awesome task and problem for my students to help solve. So be open to who you contact during the research phase of this process.
3. Lastly, it's time to COLD CALL.
Cold calling, meaning contacting someone you do not know at all, can be scary. I think it can be scary because it can be so unfamiliar for us, especially if we have been working in a teaching environment that has never required it before. The idea of calling professionals to provide an authentic audience for my students was never once mentioned in my education program in college. And to me, that is travesty, because cold calling is what has brought some of the greatest success and motivation to my classroom. Here's some things to keep in mind while cold calling:
- The phone is better than email. Don't get me wrong, email is fine sometimes and for some it's the best way of communicating, but I have had so much more success getting a hold of people and arranging professionals to come work with my class by picking up the phone rather than emailing. It's personal, it's intentional, and shows the person you are contacting that are serious about them working with your students. Not to mention, emails get lost or buried in inboxes. If someone gets a voicemail from you, and then does not respond, they almost always will get back to you after getting another voicemail. Sometime you have to be a squeaky wheel to get the oil (I sound like my grandpa). But it is worth being squeaky if you can bring your classroom to the next level!
- You get more yes' than no's. I worked in business development prior to teaching and I heard the word NO 9 times out of 10 when calling on businesses. But it is far different with teaching. I find that businesses and nonprofits WANT to be a part of schools; they want to be a part of the community. Especially if you are offering to help solve a problem for them. When I called the refugee social work agency and told the social worker that I wanted my class to get to know some refugees in Grand Rapids, hear their stories, and find ways to help out; do you think she said NO? Of course not! She said, "Oh that is awesome! We'd love to work with you guys. Can I come to your school and talk with you about it?" I've heard this enthusiastic YES over and over again. From retirement homes, books stores, microfinance banks in Africa, and even TEDx, people want to be a part of what we are doing as teachers.
- And if they say NO, so what? Seriously, if someone doesn't want to work with your class, find someone else. The word NO does not hurt that bad, and it means you reached out and asked. You will not get something if you do not ask.
Be bold in what you want for your classroom! There is so much out there for our kids to explore, be exposed to, and serve, and I think it should be one of our primary tasks as teachers to help create those opportunities for them.