Building Projects #4: Find a Cliffhanger

It’s 7:38am, you had intended to be to work sooner to set up for the day. You get inside and hear it – “Help!”. Where is it coming from? You move quickly to the center of the room, then toward the storage room. Your hands fumble with your keys as you attempt to quickly open the storage room’s door. “HELP!” The cries intensify…

It’s 7:38am, you had intended to be to work sooner to set up for the day. You get inside and see that your coteacher already got there, and set the activity materials up for you. You open the blinds. You sit down and enjoy your coffee, running through the plan of the day together…

Which story was more interesting? A story that grips you with conflict – something to figure out or over come – is more engaging. My kids have the most engaged play IMG_0520when there is an element of danger, some problem to solve, or an element of the unknown.

We left off with Building Projects #3: Rethinking Content as Stories and Skills. This brings us to Step 4: identify a timely, relevant cliffhanger.  By the way…I’m having a hard time right about now saying that these steps are in sequential order. They aren’t. It’s more like an average order, but there’s a lot of going back and forth and overlap.

Great projects have a cliffhanger, and the best projects are nonfiction. Even better, there’s a local setting. A great project is a story the students are living and experiencing, connecting new insight to their own stories in ways that are meaningful and lasting.

In my experience, students are most engaged in a project when there is a clear and immediate need for their effort. This could be a need of their own, or of someone they care about. That’s pretty broad, right? There are so many ways to do this!

Student Life

You can look for stories that your students are already grappling with by asking them. This might happen through surveys, interviews, sitting and having lunch and chatting with one student, or chats when walking around the block in PE. Here are some questions you might ask:

  • What’s the age you’re working with? Do they have something approaching that will impact their lives? Driving? College applications? Interviewing for jobs?
  • Where do the students live? How do they get to school?
  • What are their goals? Short term & long term?
  • What are the issues facing their family members?
  • How do students spend their time?
  • What are their worries?
  • What makes them angry?
  • What do they wish was different about their education?
  • What do they enjoy doing most, but don’t have much time for?

Community Partners

There have been times that I have sent an email with stories and skills listed to a community partner and said “do you guys use this stuff?” only to have them lead me down a great direction.

Some of our community partners for Biofitness include Napa Resource Conservation District employees (Eric McKee, Chino Yip), Friends of the Napa River ecologist (Shari Gardner), Kaiser doctors, Queen of the Valley Hospital health educator (Kristen Polakiewicz), Community College professor, my own Grad Program professor, a Personal Trainer, a Marriage and Family Therapist, local nonprofit Napa Learns (which helps me form new partnerships) a well-known Napa Artist (Gordon Huether), a local Mining Company (Syar), an Engineer (ZFA’s Chris Warner), owner of a Sustainability Consulting Firm (Gopal Shanker), Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Intern and NTHS Alumni (Gia Peralta) local Master Gardeners, a Culinary Institute Teacher & Chocolatier, and more.

Other questions to ask community partners might include:

  • What are you working on right now?
  • What’s been challenging for you?
  • What do you wish other people understood about your line of work?
  • What are your worries?
  • What’s something you wish you could do better/more of/over again?
  • What’s something you need help with?

I can’t emphasize enough how thankful I am as a teacher that I have had these partners throughout the years!

An example of a project that was designed in this fashion is the Recipe for Health project in Biofitness. We worked in partnership with Kaiser Health Educator Kristen Polakiewicz to better understand and articulate a challenge facing Napa’s community health that relates to nutrition. Kristen helped us narrow the focus to type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease – two preventable diseases that are costing local families years of their lifespans, and that many student families are affected by. Students designed a community education cookbook for Kristen to make available to her clients.

Local News

The local news, in particular, provides a current event that impacts stakeholders in your local community. This type of project makes finding community partners who are invested in the issue much more streamlined.

Here’s an example we used in Biofitness and Environmental Science around a local land use conflict regarding a well known community-owned park and a local mining company.  This project was designed in our PLC – Professional Learning Community – the collaborative effort of 4 science teachers around one news paper article.

Sometimes, the Cliffhanger Finds You

I want to acknowledge, sometimes you don’t even have to go looking for these cliffhangers that are locally impactful, authentic and relevant. The project cliffhanger might come in an email from a colleague, or at best when students see a need.

For instance, a few years ago I had a group of students who said they wanted to garden. They had so many great ideas – we met, planned, gathered materials, and went to it. The garden struggled and failed to thrive, and the students became disengaged in the process. I asked the students what happened, in their perspective.

The students (there were three, all high achieving and responsible students) said that they just didn’t feel they had time to do it, there was always something else that came up. They still wanted a garden at school badly, in particular one that they could work on from time to time and one that had flowers and berries.

The next year, I designed a project around this in my Environmental Science class. The students used the design process outlined by Stanford’s d.School to design the student garden, starting with an interview. The students found that every empathy interview had a common thread – a desire to feel connected with others through the garden. Some of the interviewed students wanted to be engaged in the gardening and growing, some wanted to just hang out in a garden, some wanted a beautiful outdoor place they could work on projects with team members, surrounded by natural beauty. The project yielded learning focused on food sovereignty, water conservation, and soil. This year (the following), two of the Environmental Science students who had engaged in the Garden Project decided to focus on the garden for their senior projects and took leadership of it – one with a focus on gardening and mental health and the other with a focus on the growing food aspect.

So, what’s a problem, design challenge, decision to be made? How will you engage your students in the story? Is it a true story? Does it have local implications?





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