Over the years, I’ve had the good fortune to participate in a number of large schoolwide projects. These experiences have provided me with much to think about in terms of how to ensure such events are as successful as possible, especially in the areas of planning, scheduling, engagement, group sizes, and in the culminating task. It’s important to be intentional in the organization so that your project runs smoothly, and transcends what would have normally been taking place in the classroom.
Everyone who will eventually be involved in the project should be part of the planning of the project – this includes both faculty members and students.
For students, inclusion in the planning process is an important opportunity to make their voices heard. According to Douglas Fisher and Nancy Frey, in their article Speaking Volumes, student voice is critical because in “classrooms in which student discourse dominates, students know why they’re completing tasks and how those tasks relate to their learning goals.” This understanding of the why behind the project, along with a significant role in the planning, will promote stronger student involvement.
For teachers, inclusion in the planning process is important because (as with students) early involvement in planning develops buy-in and commitment to the goals. And, in practical terms, getting the input of experienced peers means you identify (and solve) the inevitable project glitches long before they appear. This idea isn’t new. Successful stage and screen productions regularly use the table reading practice for the same purpose. According to a 2021 article about table reads on Masterclass.com, “writers use them as an opportunity to fine tune their stories, sharpen their dialogue, and make other necessary screenwriting adjustments. For actors, the first table read with other actors is an opportunity to discover a character out loud and begin making choices that will carry over into the actual performance.” In the same way, the participating faculty team should meet in advance to walk through the project step-by-step and highlight issues, and – more importantly – discover opportunities to take the project to another level.
Another benefit of including more voices in the planning process is broader diversity in terms of organizational ideas. When only one person is driving the project, there is a danger that only one set of practices, or one overall instructional philosophy, will dominate the process – which might not be a good thing if those ideas are not founded on research-based practices, or real-life experiences. With more voices included, more perspectives will be included and the quality of the entire experience will be elevated.
Every plan has glitches. You either address them calmly and effectively in advance, or you are forced to do some fretful firefighting as you go. No one likes rebuilding the airplane while you’re in the air!
Any time is a good time to pause day-to-day instruction to get the school community together to explore a new concept or make a difference. But…sometimes you need to consider extenuating circumstances. Recently, I’ve participated in two large projects that were scheduled during the closing weeks of the school year. And yes, this timing makes for a perfect opportunity for students to apply all the knowledge and skills they worked on throughout the year. However, some students interpret this timing as a signal that the school year is ending early. Once outside of their normal classroom routines, away from their peers, and/or away from their regular teachers, students may not see the project as actual school at all and may start behaving accordingly. This then requires some time and effort by teachers to refocus and re-energize students.
In addition, scheduling large projects at the end of the year is problematic because it’s the end of the freaking year – teachers are almost burned out. Changes that teachers could easily roll with in October seem like insurmountable obstacles in May. So, be mindful when building your schedule, and – if late-year timing is unavoidable – be extra supportive and understanding of your colleagues. Jump in if you see someone close to the edge.
A different scheduling option, one of my colleagues shared recently, is to place projects in between the first and second semesters. This way students get to apply newly acquired skills from the first semester, and still have half a year to connect their newfound understandings and project experiences to their remaining classroom discussions and activities.
Another scheduling concern is how teacher time is allocated for large-scale projects. It’s important to ensure that teachers are scheduled in an equitable way. Sometimes you find a few teachers assigned to every stage of the project, while others are responsible for only one block of time. These kinds of mix-ups may lead to hard feelings among colleagues and impact the faculty’s overall sense of collective efficacy, which – according to the work of John Hattie – is “strongly correlated” to student achievement.
One final note about project scheduling: remember to share the schedule with students. Schoolwide projects disrupt normal routines and this lack of predictability can produce anxiety in some students. According to inclusionED, an online professional learning community for students with diverse needs, providing students with a visual schedule can help them understand changes, remain calm, and transition independently between activities. And, it reduces the number of times that you will be asked “What are we doing today?”
Ensure that what you are asking students to participate in is intrinsically compelling and captivating. Students should want to be a part of the project. If the project goals are not engaging, vaguely communicated, or missing a context, then students will struggle to connect. In order to refocus disconnected students, you force teachers to play the role of project cheerleaders, or that of compliance cops. Both of these roles are draining, especially so if teachers are facilitating a project in which they themselves feel little buy-in.
Having said that, it is important to remember that a compelling topic is different from a stressful topic. According to the Centers for Disease Controls and Prevention (CDC), almost 40% of American young people between the ages of 12 and 17 had “had persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness”, while almost 20% had “seriously considered attempting suicide”. This data was collected in 2019 – before the pandemic and the shift to online learning. Perhaps students don’t need additional stressors in their lives. Can we teach students project-management skills and how they can make a difference without making them feel personally responsible for the catastrophic real-world crises that we adults haven’t yet been able to solve?
Furthermore, in terms of the activities chosen for the project, it is also important to remember that challenging is different from rigorous. Is it best practice to prepare students for a process they need to know in their 20s, by having them go through that exact process when they are 11? Is there a way that complex processes could be broken down into age-appropriate and scaffolded chunks? Could you provide helpful tools along the journey, such as sentence starters or paragraph frames? In my mind, the objective of projects is for kids to walk away with new knowledge and skills so they can apply them to make a difference in the future, not for students to make a difference right now. There’s got to be a way to raise the bar without raising the stakes.
If a project involves putting students into groups, it’s important to be intentional about the number of students placed in each group. A 2021 study by the University of Rennes’ Department of Psychology determined that “learning gain was greater for students discussing in four-member groups”. Furthermore, students who participated in a study conducted by Georgia Southern University in 2016 reported that they “felt a greater sense of commitment” when working in groups of four or five. Larger groups, participants stated, created a sense of “social loafing” where some students did not work as hard because they felt that others in the group would pick up the slack. Indifference about group size will undermine the sense of community that the project is attempting to foster, and will have a negative impact on student learning and buy-in. No amount of ice-breaker activities or teacher “enthusiasm” will fix this. Have a plan for organizing student groups in a manner that minimizes their anxiety, and maximizes their effectiveness.
Experienced teachers are mindful of the clock. We know at a glance that particular activities may require more time, or that some are too brief and may finish up well before the bell rings. If you involve teachers in the planning, we can identify these areas of concern quickly and then develop meaningful ways to manage the time before the situation arises. How many projects have you participated in where teachers have been asked to fill a 20-minute chunk of unanticipated time by “facilitating a discussion about the topic” or organizing/running an activity of some kind. Unplanned gaps are death for teachers. Students can smell these transition gaps and will exploit them to meet their own social needs. Plan to achieve your objectives, but have an arsenal of authentic and meaningful back-up activities/extensions ready, just in case.
When organizing a large project, always ensure that the final product – what/how the students will share their learning – is authentic and public. As educator Mark Wilbert, in his Edutopia article ‘Authentic Assessment in Action’ explains, this means that the demonstration of learning should be “consistent with how our disciplines function outside of an academic environment.” This kind of outcome will drive the energy and passion being poured into the project, and will justify the classroom time sacrificed during the process.
Large-scale, whole-school projects are an amazing opportunity to break down the silos that build up throughout a school year and to bring a school community together. To maximize their impact, create projects through a thorough and collaborative process that involves all the impacted constituents. Be mindful and intentional about when you schedule them. And, build them around compelling topics while utilizing engaging strategies.
I’ve learned that success won’t happen by accident. You have to make your projects matter.