Tuesday, October 1, 2013

PBL and the Search for an Authentic Audience - A Success Story

I have written before that one of the most difficult parts of constructing a true Project Based Learning project is finding an authentic audience for the project.  I spoke at length with the wonderful Suzie Boss (@suzieboss) about this topic over the summer, and we agreed that sometimes you have to "invent" an audience.  By that I mean that, as I wrote in the linked blogpost, sometimes you set up someone or a group of people to be an audience, and for the purposes of the project they play the role of someone who has a genuine interest in the project.  Think about a school science fair - most parents who come to view the projects have no prior interest in any of those topics (even the topic chosen by their own child), but they take a momentary interest during the fair - then go home and more or less forget about all of it.

However, I am happy to share a true success at finding an authentic audience.  My colleague Simcha Schaum (@simchaschaum) conducted a project last spring with his 6th grade class where he asked them to learn material relating to some of the seasonal changes made in the prayers.  He charged the students with creating bookmarks that theoretically could be handed out in shuls (synagogues) so that people would know what changes to make when, and what to do if they made a mistake.  Rabbi Schaum had a couple of local Rabbis come to class so the students could present their bookmarks, and the project concluded with some very wonderful presentations and some very gracious Rabbis.

However, the project did not conclude there.  This past week on the Jewish calendar was one of the times when changes are made to the prayers.  And a day or two later, Rabbi Schaum received the following email from one of the Rabbis who visited his class back in May:

Hi Rabbi Schaum,

As [you may have heard], the bookmarks were a huge hit in shul on Shmini Atzeres.  I distributed them (and explained where they came from) and went over the related halachos [laws] before Musaf, and that was the heads-up to begin saying Mashiv Haruach.  Everyone has been using the bookmarks to remind themselves to say Mashiv Haruach and enjoying them.

Yasher Koach [kudos] to you and the students, and thank you!

Wishing you much hatzlacha [success] this year,

The "pretend" authentic audience, which at the time was sufficient to motivate the students to complete their projects, has successfully become a real authentic audience!  While not every project meets with such success, it is inspiring to know that our audience is out there - we just have to set the wheels in motion so that we can find them.


Simcha Schaum said...

Thanks for the shout-out!
When I shared the news with my (former) students, I didn't really expect an enthusiastic response. After all, these are now 7th graders, and this was a follow-up of a project "way back" in 6th grade. However, the kids showed real excitement about what they had accomplished and its positive impact on the greater community.

Simcha Schaum said...

One slight clarification:
I did originally intend for the bookmarks to be distributed to shuls, and I told the kids that when I presented the project to them. The kids presented their bookmarks to the rabbis of those shuls back in May, but by the time the bookmarks were printed, it was too late in the year for them to be effective, so the shuls waited until this past week to distribute them.
Back in April, the kids' projects culminated with their presentations and that seemed fine: it was exciting to present their learning to someone important from outside the school and the kids prepared hard and presented well. However, now that the bookmarks were finally distributed and used in such a wonderful way, I think it was even more exciting for the kids - despite being almost a half a year and a full grade level later - because of the authenticity and meaningfulness of what they accomplished.
The issue of creating - or finding - an authentic audience has been a major struggle when trying to create PBLs for limmudei kodesh and your posts on this topic have really resonated with me. Glad this one seems to have worked!

Suzie Boss said...

Great example of authentic audience. The face that students were getting feedback half a year later reinforces the value of what they created. Their product has a lifespan that's longer than a school term. Nice!