How To Launch A Project And Engage Your Students

Jun 29, 2021

Have you ever given up on a book after the first few pages because nothing in the story made you want to keep reading? Or have you ever picked up your phone and went back onto Facebook a couple minutes into watching a movie because you were already bored with it? The beginning of stories must be interesting if there is any hope of people listening, reading, or watching to the end. The beginning, the exposition, is essential. The same holds true when we think about the beginning of projects when we launch them to students.

I once met a teacher with an incredible project idea that had real purpose and an exciting authentic audience for his students to work with. Before the launch of this project, the teacher could not stop talking about the work his students would do, and how excited he was to see them dive into this project. 

The teacher launched the project by having his students take a pre-assessment covering the standards for that unit, followed by reading an article about the problem they would solve.

That was it. That was how the story was introduced, and throughout the project, this teacher saw minimal engagement from his students. The students never deeply engaged with the conflict of the story, the authentic problem they had to solve. The teacher was so disappointed that the project was not the huge success that he dreamt up.

Upon reflecting with him, we determined the kids were not disengaged because of the project idea, or because of how the teacher taught throughout the unit. It was because the students never developed excitement and curiosity for the problem when it was introduced at the launch. If a student isn’t invested in the problem at hand, why would they sacrifice their time and energy? If there is no connection to the problem, what will fuel them to make efforts to understand or interact throughout the length of the project? This teacher spent so much time devising an authentic audience and lessons to support this great project idea, but he dedicated very little energy to how he would introduce this experience to his students. 

When we think of projects or learning experiences as unfolding stories with students, we have to dedicate time to an intriguing exposition.

Viewing Projects as Stories

The beginning of the story should be seen as a hook or attention getter, an experience to draw participants in and make them see why the remainder of the story is worth their time. The exposition is the starting line, or the launching point for a major part of students’ lives for the next days or months. 

We have to think of projects this way, because when done well with purpose and authenticity, what a student works on in your class is a major part of their life. It is what occupies their minds at school. It is the discussions they have with parents around the dinner table. It can be late nights and early mornings as stress builds and deadlines approach. Your projects can be one of the only creative outlets a student has in their day. 

Creating Suspense Before a Project Launch

So the project needs to be treated as such, and you can do this in part by building up anticipation for the beginning of each project. I love to have an ongoing suspense in my class for upcoming projects. I once had a student named Daniel who is a total film buff. He loves all things cinema, especially classic films like Star Wars and Mad Max- totally an old soul (No offense people born in the seventies, you’re not that old). So one day, as the World War II project we were going to do was approaching, I walked up to Daniel and casually told him that he is going to love the next project. Then I walked away and said nothing more. Daniel asked why, and I just smiled and said, “You’ll see.”

Real nice, right?

For the next couple days, Daniel would not leave me alone about my short comment, and kept asking me why he will love the next project. I replied that he needs to just trust me, and that this project is going to rock his world. 

He became almost angry in his frustration, and wanted to know why I couldn’t just tell him what the project is. Other students began asking about the mystery, and I told them they’d just have to wait. 

Suspense was building in the classroom. 

Finally the day to start the project came, and a Holocaust survivor named Diet spoke to the class about living in and escaping a concentration camp. This experience alone was riveting, and most of my students learned for the first time that people like Diet were even still alive, and more blown away that such people still live in our community. When she was finished with her story, I asked the class if they had any ideas of how we could make sure stories like Diet’s could be preserved long after Diet and other World War II veterans were gone. 

Most students’ initial ideas were to preserve these veteran’s stories by writing their biographies and taking their pictures. I loved their investment already and the ideas they had to serve veterans and Holocaust survivors. It was clear to me that having Diet launch the project had a positive impact and created an effective hook.

Then I looked in the back of the room and saw that Daniel’s eyes had a fire burning in them. It turns out, the moment he heard Diet begin to tell her story, Daniel began to imagine telling it on film.

And that is exactly what Daniel got to do for the next month. It shaped the way he saw school forever. 

Because aside from being a film buff, Daniel is also a foster kid, and being at a new school every few months for his entire life, and being distracted by intense anger towards his abusive parents, and having teachers tell him to pick his head up off his desk every time he needed to take a nap- has made him a less-than-exemplary student. 

Daniel’s experiences have led him to hate school. But projects like the World War II one  has redefined this experience. Not only did he get to experiment with a new set of skills that he’d only viewed as a spectator before, but this story he got to be a part of seemed to be designed specifically for him. 

And it was. 

The importance of a strong project launch

This is why the exposition, or the introduction of a story is so vital. It sets up an experience that has the potential to have a major impact on a student’s life. Breeding suspense prior to the project was not difficult, it just took some confidence on my part that the project could live up to the expectations I was setting. You have to believe the effort of the project will be worth it if you want your students to believe it as well. Not every project, and exposition for the project for that matter, has to be a bombastic experience that requires your blood, sweat, and your every waking minute to make it happen.

However, every project should be treated with dedication and importance, because it is an integral part of kids like Daniel’s story. And for there to be a buy-in, a sacrifice on a student’s part to give their time and energy to something, there should be suspense leading up to it.  The exposition is about introducing students to a new environment that they can embrace and be engaged in.

The Entry Event

In story terms, the project launch is the inciting incident. It is where the conflict of the story is introduced. In Project Based Learning, it is called the Entry Event, where the authentic problem is presented to students. It’s the event where inquiry begins and students start developing what the project will look like. Hearing Diet’s story was the inciting incident (entry event) for my World War II unit. However, the entry event does not necessarily need to be a guest speaker.

You could show an engaging video, read them an email or letter from a professional, design a simulation, take them on a field trip, or really anything else that gets them asking questions and raises their curiosity. Because when you have curious students, you have engaged students. And that engagement does not just end at the end of the entry event, but instead lasts the rest of the epic learning experience.

For more on Project Based Learning, check out The Epic Classroom book!

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