Managing Project Work Time in the High School Classroom

When one walks in a class in the midst of project work time, they might see a number of different activities. Some of these activities might be what we would expect to see in a traditional classroom (students writing, sketching, researching) and other activities might be better suited (circular saws, sanders, singing, rehearsal) for a shop or the playground. How do you go about managing project work time and hold students accountable for the work they do during that time? This is a question that I am quite often asked when I work with schools who are planning to introduce project-based learning within their schools.

There are often three roles teachers play in project-based learning classrooms. While these roles are ones that exist in the ‘real-world’ the teacher has to wear these hats almost simultaneously. In some conversations they have two or three hats on at time, and that is why I believe that it is a set of tensions that pull us from one direction to the other. See the diagram below:

The ideal situation is when students themselves are acting in these roles. Take a project I completed a few years ago, called the Mood of America. In that project, students were producing a graphic novel that synthesized their learning on the issues of bullying, Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, and teenage pregnancy in the United States. In the structure of the classroom we had departments, led by a department head and then an editor-in-chief who oversaw the entire project. In those groups, and during project work time, I often saw students taking on the role of manager — keeping their group members focused and deciding the tasks for the day. This allowed me to be in the more mentor and teacher areas of the diagram.

Accountability is a word that is consistent in a classroom that is working diligently within project work time. That being said, how do you hold students accountable for not just the work they complete, but how they go about completing that work. What does ‘good’ project work time look like, and how do you set a professional standard for not just the product students create, but the process as well. This question I am posing to my students in the ReVision Project, and check back for more about their thoughts. Our goal is to create a prototype to test for the remainder of the semester in this project.

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