I’ve had the fantastic honor these past few weeks of teaching an online class with Gifted Homeschoolers Forum called the Wibbly-Wobbly, Timey-Wimey, Project-Based Learning Course. I have eight kids in this Doctor Who-themed class, from ages 9-13 who live on the east and west coasts, and several places in between. We’re having a blast.
I structured the class as three major projects, providing general guidelines, but a lot of creative freedom within. We just completed the first portion of the class: a film-making unit in which I challenged the students to create a stop-motion video based on Doctor Who characters. They recently turned in their projects, and we all got together online with popcorn and headphones and watched them together. I’m going to share a couple in this post; follow STEAM-Powered Classroom on Facebook over the next week or so to see the rest.
Here’s the first. Watch carefully as the Doctor dives into the swimming pool, crawls back out, and jumps over. I really loved that bit. The music adds excitement too!
Providing Structure in a Project-Based Course
I am very committed to letting my students drive the creative force of this class. They are all brimming with excitement and ideas; my main job is to provide tools and a timeline, and then get out of the way. But don’t get me wrong: the tools and timeline are essential to a successful class. Here are some of the structures I’ve set in place.
Project Description and Resource Links
Each project has a full description of overall goals, and smaller weekly assignments. I am clear about basic requirements (you need to physcially write a script; you need to create a stop-motion film; it needs to be related to Doctor Who), but I also emphasize individuality and independent research. For example, questions I’ve asked the kids include:
- What does a script look like? How will you find out?
- What materials will you use for your stop motion film?
- How will you express narration? Will we hear it on the film, or will we see it printed somehow? Or will there be no narration?
- How long will your film be?
- What software will you use to create the final product? How will you learn how to use that software?
- How will you share your film with the class?
The whole point of the class is to challenge students to find things out for themselves. I’m allowing them to use the materials and resources that are readily available, and instead of giving step-by-step instructions, I’m asking them to identify and solve their own problems. However, I am not entirely out of the picture. For each project, I also have links to helpful resources such as YouTube videos, articles, and other examples. These resources are not requirements, but posted as additional tools. The kids see them as such, too.
The links are just a starting point. We’ve also brainstormed research options such as libraries, YouTube, magazine articles, local experts, and our small student body. The kids are encouraged to share their findings with the class, so that we can all expand our knowledge base. It’s fun, and they are becoming their own experts.
This film features some fantastic clay-mation, mixing it up with Doctor Who toys and setting the movie in the family backyard fire pit (an inspired choice that makes you feel you’re on a different planet.) Watch for the real flames and other special effects. I love that this student’s family was cast as the various voices in the film.
Everybody needs a deadline, no matter what age you are! Our projects are pretty sizable, so I like to help kids break them down into doable doses. Each week, we have assignments – often just email reports telling me where the kids are in the process. In the stop-motion project, I had them turn in their script the first week, build their sets the second, do the raw photography the third, and final editing and uploading for the fourth. Sometimes kids were ahead or behind the established timeline. That’s ok too. It’s provided as another helpful tool, and for the most part, students kept to it.
Modes of Communication
Gifted Homeschoolers Forum has set us up with two platforms for the online classes: Moodle (a place to park assignments, forums, and links), and Megameeting (kind of like Google Hangouts; it’s a place where we meet once per week at a specified time online. We can hear each other talk, and can take turns with the video camera to play show and tell).
Both platforms are helpful, but honestly, I’ve enjoyed email the most. Because I don’t see the kids every day, I’ve encouraged them to touch base with me via email anytime they like. It’s been so fun reading their correspondence filled with enthusiasm and problem solving. I also have strongly encouraged the students to look to each other for support. They usually sneak into class before I get there each week, so they can talk together in real time. And quite a few of them email each other pretty constantly, talking projects, class, Doctor Who fandom, and more.
If you’re a Doctor Who fan, you’ll know that the 10th Doctor was famous for wearing sneakers. This student chose to use an actual shoe to represent that Doctor, which our whole class thought was hilarious. I liked her use of close-ups to help you follow the action, her speech bubbles for narrative, and her special audio effects.
For each project, I assign student partners. The projects themselves are individual; every student turns in his or her own assignments. The partners are just available to each other for support. When talking about problem-solving options, we created a who-to-ask-in-what-order list. First, do your own outside research. Second, go to the project partner. Third, the class, or adults that you know who might have more information than you do. And fourth, me, of course.
The project partners have been a great component of the class, helping my little online student body feel more connected to each other. They are not limited to their assigned partner; they can reach out to anyone. However, they have to make sure their partner is well supported too. There is no concept of cheating in this class; I encourage them to work together to brainstorm and troubleshoot. Their combined brain power is something to behold.
Since kids used whatever technology they had access to, figuring out the myriad ins and outs of each film editing program was challenging. Class support in this case has been a life-saver, because let’s face it: kids know more than adults when it comes to tech. During one class meeting, I turned the camera over to pair of students who spent some time figuring how to add audio to a particular stop-motion app. They worked together over our video forum for a while, and then decided to connect via email after class to finish ironing out the details. After they got to a good stopping point, we turned our attention to other students and had them bring their challenges to the virtual table. In this class period, my main role was simply managing audio and video permission, giving various kids the center stage; the students ran the rest of the class.
Running an interest-based learning course with emphasis on student strengths, creativity, and problem-solving isn’t actually all that difficult, and the rewards are immense. Critical thinking, leadership, collaboration, technology, creativity, narrative… and we we’re only in the first of our three units! We’re doing history now. I’ll keep you posted.
Do you do project-based learning at home? If so, what do you love about it? And what’s difficult for you? If you don’t, what holds you back?
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