Time to reflect on the first year of my 7th-grade PBL project
Year one is down! During the 2017-18 academic school year, my seventh-grade language arts classes started a project in partnership with the White River Valley Historical Society, a local organization in Forsyth, Mo., that preserves, promotes, and protects the cultural heritage of southern Missouri and northern Arkansas. Read other posts about this project here.
The project was to rejuvenate a children’s newsletter called Whippersnappers that the society had published previously for a few years, but later abandoned when its primary contributor, a volunteer student, grew older. Over the course of a few conversations last summer with the society’s director, it was decided that my seventh-grade students could contribute the content. Here’s the front page of our second issue:
To produce each issue, my classes thought up story ideas for the newsletter, wrote their stories, and shared in the writing process as they researched and revised their work for publication by the WRVHS. In October, our first issue was distributed. Just before Christmas break, our December/January issue was released. In March, the February/March issue came out, and the final issue of the year was released the day before school let out for the summer.
It was a whirlwind year, full of experimentation and unpredictability. I’ve listed below, in no particular order, some positives from the experience, but will probably think of more as the summer progresses. As I think of other positives, I’ll edit them into this post, so follow this blog to be aware of updates.
- Students were able to choose their own story topics; they had agency over the content. For the first couple of issues, we brainstormed ideas on the whiteboard. More than enough ideas were gained from these brainstorms that those first two brainstorming sessions created a topic list from which students could choose for the remaining two issues.
- Students had to consider their audience. The readers of the Whippersnappers newsletter are kids ages five to fourteen, which is quite a span. Writers had to decide exactly who, within that age range, their particular story appealed to, and keep those readers in mind with regard to word choice.
- Students were required to consider the criteria of the publisher. Stories had to contain a local or regional history angle. If that focus was missing from a story, students needed to figure out how to include them before their stories could be submitted to the publisher.
- It was satisfying for the students to see their name in print. (Due to privacy, students’ first names and last initial were used for their bylines.) In addition, seeing where in the issue their article was placed was important to them. They liked being on page one; however, when their story was placed last in the issue, we discussed the reasons publishers might have for doing this, such as space limitations.
- Students knew they had an authentic audience that would be reading their work; I was not the final audience. They knew that people in the community would be receiving these in their mail and that made their work more accountable.
- Field trips were fun! We took two, one to the WRVHS main office in Forsyth, Mo. and their newer museum in downtown Branson. This allowed them to see up close the work of the WRVHS and to hold some historical artifacts, as well as see the society’s archives and files.
- They learned by trial-and-error that sentence variety takes on new meaning with a publication. After our second issue was published, we held a “wrap-up” discussion and noticed that about half started with the question, “Did you know that…?” Seeing the over-reliance on this common introductory technique showed them the need to work harder at varying their leads. It also showed the importance of previewing the issue as a whole.
I’m glad there are only a few negatives to reflect upon. I would like to tackle these for the next 2018-19 school year:
- Research was limited. Students used an online database of the society’s quarterly magazine almost exclusively. This database, however, only had searchable issues through 1997, due to a grant partnership with a local library system. Students would reference information found in these magazines with standard attribution and speaker tags. The benefits of this was that students could safely and easily research their topic. However, using this one form of research was limiting. It would have been great to vary our research with interviews or in-person contact with researchers at the WRVHS, for example. Next year, I would like to address this issue. Another hurdle is that my students do not have email addresses, so that limits how they can contact sources. The WRVHS director suggested a private Facebook group where the students could post questions to anonymous research volunteers at the WRVHS. This might be an alternative.
- Classroom management was challenging. During those first few days of researching and writing, as students were grappling with their topics and how to begin, classroom management was difficult. Some students could work independently, which was a great help. Most students needed my help from time to time and if I was busy working with another student, they would just stop working and wait on me. Eventually, they would begin to distract others. And then a few students need constant help and/or redirection. It’s was very hard to find the balance needed to make progress. There were a few days when I thought, “Why did I ever think this would work?” Those were the days I wanted to break out our textbooks and do a simple read-and-response assignment.
- I need more defined deadlines. Kids need to see results. Quickly. Stories for our first issue were sent out and about a week later, the issue was published and delivered. The other issues did not follow such a tight schedule, and I wished they had. When kids don’t know when the issue will print, they lose interest and excitement ebbs. So for next year, I’d like to set up a schedule to see if we can have solid dates for 1) delivering the stories to the publisher’s offices, and 2) receiving published newsletters back at school. If the students know that on Friday, Sept. 2, for example, we are sending out finished stories with no exceptions for last-minute edits or revisions, perhaps we will later see more predictable publishing dates.
All in all, I think this first year was a success and I want to try it again next year. The students seemed to value the experience and see importance in it.
What curriculum did I have to alter or remove in order to fit Whippersnappers into my year-long plans? I moved a novel unit to spring and just planned more tightly so everything could get accomplished. Seventh-graders still entered all the contests they normally do and they still completed their Writers Workshop project list. They became accustomed to having several projects in-process simultaneously. After all, I told them, that’s how real writers work.
Thank you for reading! Feel free to comment away to share your own PBL ideas for your ELA middle schoolers! One more thing: I am totally open to suggestions for how to address any of my “negatives” above. If you’ve done anything like this before, please share your secrets for classroom management, student research, etc. Let’s learn from each other!