Semester Project || Project Semester

Students brainstorm what form their class’ political translation project will take.

I n this earlier post, I laid out my motivation for changing my pedagogy in my second semester teaching English as foreign language. In this post, I want to provide some basis for my curriculum and roughly outline this semester.

Disclaimer — this post has ballooned, and you might better spend your time reading the simple syllabus I gave my class.

Beside the devouring dark corners of the internet looking for education pedagogy and theory, most of the basis for the project based learning (PBL) elements come from my reading of Most Likely to Succeed and Setting the Standard for Project Based Learning. While the former gave me insight into the method, the latter is more of a playbook for designing a PBL course. Though I think the more I freestyle with my design, the further I get from what they call the gold standard.

Another source of inspiration in design stems from emulating some of my college professors’ practices. A few activities I did daily or weekly in their classes struck me as meaningful integrated language activities (they were English classes after all) and meta-cognitive activities. Tweaking and including them (our vocabulary and discussion letter activities) seemed like a natural choice.

These methods made me feel like a more competent and better researched teacher than I was in the previous semester. But my search for them began with my philosophy for the course. I wanted the cornerstone of this class to be creativity, curiosity, and improvement.

That is, students will create original work or share their own opinions about about creative examples we examine in class. Students will follow their own interests and curiosity to create meaningful examples of their skill in English. And students will be assessed on their improvement of every aspect of this class including improving how well they improve.

I had a professor at Michigan, Ralph Williams, who inspired me to study English literature. It may have been the course topics and materials that converted me, or it may have been his unrelenting student-centered approach. He began each class shaking every student’s hand — in one class of his I took, that was nearly 200 people — greeting most by name. One of his many mantras came whenever we prepared for an essay or exam. He’d say “we can run a train through what you don’t know. I’m more interested in what you do know. Show me what you know.”

My textbook and exam driven previous semester, penalized students for the knowledge they had failed to acquire. That knowledge was mostly acquired from a 20-year-old textbook and used briefly through in-class activities. This semester I want to reward my students for the knowledge they acquire to fulfill our projects even if the survey of the English language is narrower, hopefully it will be deeper and individually driven. Simply, I want my students output to increase significantly at the expense of reviewing a few more grammar topics.

Finally, my experiences working at a residential summer camp in the San Juans outside of Seattle birthed in me a driving desire to keep everyone interested and engaged. There’s something about how the context of summer camp and traditional classrooms differ. At summer camp, the expectation is UNLIMITED NONSTOP FUN even if in reality it primarily becomes personal growth, empathy, and problem solving.

In the classroom, it seems many teachers resign themselves to the dubious conclusion that (at least) some students will simply not be interested or engaged in (at least some of ) the course work. This conclusion is probably easier to justify in a high school classroom than in an upper-level university classroom, although — without placing blame — its presence in either seems like evidence of failure in at least some small part.

I reject this assumption about my students. At camp, the moment I saw eyes dropping or staring a thousand miles away, I knew I had lost. That’s not to say there isn’t a time for quiet reflection, but when leading an activity, my goal was engagement. I have the same goal for my class. Present activities that will keep the highest amount of kids engaged for the longest amount of time. If engagement starts to drift (based on my own split-second determination), add encouragement, or shift the focus and/or activity.


Design a PBL curriculum for Mongolian university freshmen studying English as a foreign language.

A few parameters

  • One class of thirteen students
  • Sixteen credit hours, Tuesday through Friday
  • Mixed skill level classroom from beginner (one) to advanced (one) and most others intermediate — all students have at least 3 and at most 8 years of English study prior to this class
  • Assessment on what they know and their improvement from January to May
  • Activities and projects should include as many of the four skills (reading, writing, listening, and speaking) as possible
  • Most students will attempt to transfer to universities in North America after two years of study in Mongolia

Outline of Projects

In my reading, I saw many example projects act as unit replacements. For example, instead of a textbook and workbook unit on the past progressive, a student would replace that book work with two weeks collecting family stories and presenting them in a novel way. Project requirements would dictate a certain number of constraints designed to minimally encourage past progressive practice as a learning outcome.

Because my students have, on average, 6 years of English, most of these concepts are familiar even if not fully mastered. They have an average of intermediate level because of a lack of practice in an immersive English environment. In Mongolian in public schools, English is largely taught in Mongolian. Even at my university, the classes taught by my Mongolian colleagues at the beginning of the year (they have already done a lot to change this) featured the teacher speaking for 80% of the class, primarily in Mongolian.

So this understanding and my desire to watch continuous improvement over the entire semester prompts my first break from so-called “gold standard” PBL. This semester will not structured around six or eight two-week project units. Rather, I tried to design five ongoing projects (depending on how you define “project”) which will take place over the whole semester in and out of class.

I started designing these projects thinking each would have a different sized group, some different level of organization. As I planned, that kind of organization didn’t emerge, instead I have multiple projects that involve individual or pair work which is then shared with the rest of the class either in groups of four to six or as a whole.

Click any of the headings below to go to an updated post about that project’s progress and iterations/changes.

Class Translation Project

This is a democratic project directed by the class’s curiosity and enthusiasm. When originally planning, I thought I could have a few individual projects, a few group (of varying sizes) projects, and one all class project. As it shook out, this all-class project survived and the rest became individual or paired projects.

My students named this project “Reflection Insiders” referencing their choice to translate interviews, op-eds, speeches, and other source materials from Mongolian politicians. Most will be eligible to vote for the first time in the upcoming June 2016 elections, and something about this idea caught on and carried through the contentious rounds of voting.

Two students pair up, find material to translate (it must be a politician espousing their opinions in some way), and propose it to the class for questions and approval by committee (the rest of the class). In the next few weeks, they present a summary, transcript, their opinions and research, and lead a discussion with the class before uploading their transcript and summary to the class blog.

I thought it would be great if they put up their brief analysis and opinion of the transcript online along with the transcript and summary, but I was awkwardly vetoed across the board. “Ciarán… journalists are killed in Mongolia.” Okay! Fair enough. In public we’ll just stick to scholarly translation!

Click here to see our class blog.

Weekend Skills

This project is colloquially called the genius hour project. I’ve been trying to find my original source for this project. I read somewhere online or in print — a quick (Google) search returns many, many results — about a fifth grade class inspired by Google’s 20% time. 20% of an employee’s day should be spent on a passion project. Their results sounded fabulous.

Like the ten-year-olds I read about, each student has chosen a skill or project that they are genuinely curious about. They spend two hours every weekend working on this skill before reflecting and posting a short summary paragraph to our class’s (poetically just) Google Drive directory. In our next class period, they share their progress and reflect on it with small groups or with the whole class.

Discussion Partners

This project arose from the daily warm-up questions I had students pose to each other during our first semester. My TOEFL trainers and foreign language learning experience made this simple activity a no-brainer, but I wanted to add more depth and give the students an opportunity for choice and individual research.

Now, students have a dedicated discussion partner that they talk with every morning. Each weekend, they write a short letter to their partner, sharing their experience during the week as well as recalling and adding to one of the daily warm up discussions. If a student doesn’t want to talk about any of the warm up topics (or can’t recall them), they can jot down some thoughts about the most recent reading they’ve done.


This project is a little more traditional and, like the discussion project, is inspired by a want for greater depth from the writing prompts we responded to most days of the first semester. During that semester, we worked on argumentative or persuasive writing, but I felt we focused too exclusively on that form. I thought students might be more engaged telling stories about themselves and sharing them with each other.

Rather than prepping for a TOEFL test, they’re preparing to share compelling stories about themselves with others — at this stage perhaps most importantly to college admissions officers in the States. With that in mind, we write everyday, workshop different stories once a week, and will begin focusing on two stories from those workshop sessions to expand into longer pieces in the second half of the course. Students will workshop these longer pieces as well.

Reading Comprehension and Academic Writing

Argumentative or persuasive writing is still a key skill they need to gain competency in before transferring to a North American university. To reach this end without drilling the TOEFL-style four paragraph essay like last semester, students are reading and discussing a couple of different novels. After each reading (1–3 chapters), I have them prepare a written check-in in class or online before our class discussions.

Like the translation project, the students voted to read the The Golden Compass from a group of candidates. As we approach the end of the novel, the next book will be chosen individually and written about less formally. While reading this second novel, students will work on a more traditional argumentative essay using close reading skills.

There are some activities we do nearly everyday in class.

  • We respond to a writing prompt, and share our responses with each other. These will be a mix of short argumentative essays, personal responses, and free writes.
  • One student brings in five vocabulary words and teaches them to the rest of the class. Students choose five words to memorize and practice their usage for a weekly checkpoint.
  • Our warm-up discussions range from informal debates (What should the drinking/voting/driving ages be?) to student generated topics (“what is the best-sounding car?”). On Tuesdays they discuss the letters they sent to each other over the weekend.

Additionally, each week one student tries to master a grammatical topic of their choosing before teaching it to the rest of the class. Students present a short lecture and lead reinforcing activities.

I take a back seat (I literally sit in the back of the class) during this 40–60 minutes and ask clarifying questions (for myself AND the students). I work behind the scenes (and kind of on the fly) to assimilate that grammar into the rest of the week’s discussions and activities.

Submission and Final Assessment


I was so conflicted on assignment due dates last semester! I was pretty squishy often allowing students to turn in late work — whether they came late to class or turned in the work the next day — without any penalties.

This semester, students upload many of their assignments to a class Google Drive directory. Now I can verify the date of their submission and the time-stamped changes made to the document (if they edited it in Google docs). I can also give comments and edits online — super useful.

Final Assessment

In lieu of a final exam, students are preparing portfolios with the final, beautiful copies of many of their assignments. In the last week of class, I will spend up to an hour with each student talking about his or her portfolio. We’ll also talk about their cumulative work over the semester represented by their Google Drive directory, writing notebook, attendance, and participation.


This is our class outline at the time of publishing, about a third of the way through the semester. Our project plans have become concrete, and some have already begun to change from my pre-semester conception. This post will stay largely the same, but posts linked above — both projects and everyday activities — will be updated as we iterate and figure out what works and what doesn’t. I’ll also give updates about specific checkpoints giving results and reflecting on whether or not they give the kind of ongoing assessment we need to output our best work.

I’ve admittedly gotten caught up in the design and research for this course, but the only thing that really makes it workable for a novice teacher is the really amazing group of students I have. They are a truly bright cohort, and, while I can only imagine the difficulty of taking 16 hours of foreign language per week on top of 8 more credit hours of econ and business, they still come to class ready to do any weird shit I throw at them, totally accepting curve balls and providing actual feedback on activities. Together we are flexible in our methods but firm in our learning goals.

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