English Language Arts are one of the most creative subjects on the school curriculum that can have a major impact on the minds of young students. In many English Language Arts classes, the teaching follows a linear path where students read a novel and work on a project once the novel has been finished. Before finishing the project, students take quizzes, participate in discussions about specific parts of the novel, complete worksheets and sit through lectures. The project is then designed to be a culmination of all they have learned while reading the novel. With project-based learning, projects in the ELA classroom become less of a culmination of what students have learned at the end of a unit. Instead, students work on the project as they read and use the project as a tool to help them learn, not just to show what they have learned.
Project-based learning focuses on a specific problem or task, and through collaboration, peer instruction, authentic tasks and using the teacher as a guide, culminates in a presentation or performance. Through this type of learning in the ELA classroom, students can meet standards by producing texts and presentations that develop literary ideas and experiences. They can also respond critically to texts on the syllabus, and hone in their English language skills both orally and on paper.
Drilling down into more detail, project-based learning takes multiple forms in the ELA classroom. It can be used as students read a novel or short story as a way of helping them analyze and understand the text. For example, while reading a Shakespearean play, students may be asked to answer the question, “How is Shakespeare still relevant today?” and conduct research, note instances in the text and create items to show that relevance. Project-based learning can also be used as the central focus of a grammar or writing unit, helping students build their skills as they solve a problem or complete a task. A common example of this is when students learn about persuasive writing and propaganda while creating a campaign for school president.
Research has found that using technology, such as laptops, in ELA classrooms can improve grades after a year compared with traditional teaching tools. The key to successfully implementing project-based learning for ELA classes is to scaffold activities around the goals and objectives of the lesson. Technology is full of resources to help with this. For example, when tracking a theme in a novel, students can use a mind-mapping app such as Idea Sketch or Popplet to organize their thoughts and connections to the theme. Programs like Evernote, and all of its connected applications, are also ideal for project-based learning in an ELA classroom because they help students access, annotate, organize and present all sorts of information.
One of the key elements of project-based learning is providing students with an audience for their learning. Through games, students can access a much broader audience for their projects. For example, students can create and interact within a virtual world while playing Minecraft, using the game to create visualizations related to a text, interact as a specific character or write about their experiences with the game. Those who want more of a pre-planned project can build their reading and writing skills through websites such as Youth Voices and Evoke, which feature games full of texts for students to read and discuss, as well as problems for them to solve.
Many project-based learning activities have students develop games of their own. Typically, students create the games by hand, using markers, scissors, glue and poster board. However, students can also create games online. EdCreate, Purpose Games and Zondle allow students to create simple educational games, particularly those that involve quizzes and riddles. Resources such as Sploder and the CBBC Game Builder are slightly more complex and encourage students to think more about the instructions that go along with their games.
Students can also use different app-based presentation tools to help document their learning in the ELA classroom. Students can summarize a novel they read or turn one of their own stories into a short book with the FlipBook or StoryKit apps. Photographs can be doctored and turned into entertaining slideshow presentations with apps such as SonicPics and StripDesigner. Presentation apps such as Keynote, Animoto and even Sock Puppets help students to share their research or visualize answers to overarching questions in creative ways.
The key to project-based learning in the ELA classroom is figuring out what students should learn, providing them with a few overarching questions to consider and then giving them the tools or suggesting specific mediums for students to use to answer those questions. Students may keep an online diary to help them analyze a character while reading a novel, create a game to go through the process of writing a short story or develop a sock puppet presentation to highlight some common propaganda and persuasive techniques. Whatever students are tasked with and however they display their learning, the goal is that students are discovering and learning for themselves.
Sarah Hunt-Barron, writing for the National Writing Project, outlines how she used Wikis and Web Quests for her seventh grade students studying Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston’s Farewell to Manzanar.
Kim Dechant has created a project, aligned with 9-10th grade US learning standards, based on replicating a period newspaper using various photo editing software tools such as Photoshop.
Educational resource site Internet4Classrooms has a great list of project based resources for ELA students ranging from biographies, to data sources, to inventors.
This interdisciplinary lesson plan by Marian Johnson which looks to explore India’s path to independence includes project based activities using technology such as a news broadcast, a seminar and online research.
Younger students may warm to the Fairy Tale Cyber Dictionary project which aims to create a dictionary using each letter of the alphabet and relating it to a fairy tale story object. This collaborative project uses drawing apps such as Kidpix or Paint to create the content which is then uploaded into the dictionary. The site has some excellent lesson plans, rubrics and resources to make this project flow easily.
Focusing on literary skills, photography and the narrative form, ‘A Hero in My Eyes’ is a High Tech High project where students produce text and a presentation based on someone who has made an impact on their life.
Another innovative ELA project from High Tech High teachers, Dr Suess Project, has students author and illustrate their own Seuss-inspired books using Google Docs, PhotoShop and an online publishing site.
Project Exchange is a resource site for teachers to share their classroom projects for others to read and expand their knowledge of project-based learning. The projects are all aligned with state standards and are carefully laid out with great detail for educators to follow. With a healthy list of ELA projects, this site can be used both for developing project ideas and to see how other educators are using technology in the ELA classroom.
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Samantha Kotey is the editor for AvatarGeneration and has a background in educational technology and virtual worlds. A mom of two, she is passionate about all things related to toys and technology.