"Mangrove Canopy" by Sigit Deni Sasmito for CIFOR

Project-Based Learning: “Be an Activist,” Part 1

Over the next few weeks, I will be following along our first true PBL project in grade 6 at Uchon. Along the way, I will explore how we structure the project as well as my own reflections on its implementation. The resources I post are up for grabs. Feel free to edit them as they suit your needs. If you do opt to give this project-based unit a go, feel free to give me feedback.

Essential Skills for the 21st Century Classroom

Above all else, a 21st Century Classroom isn’t about any single practice: it’s about being prepared to stay current.
A little over a year ago, I explored the topic 9 Essential Skills Kids Should Learn based on an article at ZenHabits.net by Leo Babauta. He posed the question: how do we best prepare our students, our children, for a world that constantly changes? He suggested, and I agree, that we need to teach our students to adapt. A 21st Century Classroom, for all of the bluster the buzzword brings, is one designed to prepare students for tomorrow. This isn’t done by jumping on the hype of the next big educational practice, but instead by shaping our classroom practices through thoughtful inquiry.

Above all else, a 21st Century Classroom isn’t about any single practice: it’s about being prepared to stay current. We need to teach our students to engage the world around them, not because we say-so, but because they want to. And this is done by empowering our students to pursue the topics they are passionate about. Along the way, we teachers must afford our students the opportunities to share their learning with each other, with the school, with the world through a variety of tools and media.

Uchon Grade 6's Unit 3 Textbook

Uchon Grade 6’s Unit 3 Textbook

In keeping with this philosophy, the other grade 6 teachers and myself decided to open up our traditional unit 3 textbook some. While much of the content in the book is great, it suffers all of the drawbacks one might expect from a textbook. As a book, it appeals to a narrow set of interests. Furthermore, by simply being a textbook, students enter the game with a sour taste in their mouth. Even if our book were a literary and scientific masterpiece about planet Earth, the odds would be stacked against it.

Project-Based Approach to Activism

In a move to make our classrooms as student-driven as possible, to stoke student passions and peak motivation, grade 6 mixed up our third unit of the year into a project-based unit. Together, we began the semester overhauling our unit plan. We have designed a unit with hopes that our students seek the topics that interest them. By address the authentic problems of the world around them, both local and grand, they might achieve a result with tangible, real-world results.

By address the authentic problems of the world around them, both local and grand, they might achieve a result with tangible, real-world results.
Not one rooted in theory, not for the sake of discussion and the classroom. But instead, one that projects the change they seek in themselves to their peers and community.

Taking inspiration for passion projects or genius hours, we would not dictate topics. We provided simple criteria: the problem they explore must address the natural world. We then outlined the learning objectives to insure students meet the curricular competencies set out at the start of the year. From here into the rest of week 1, we had students brainstorm. We surveyed different models for the students. One fellow grade 6 teacher presented the documentary Paperclips where a modest group of middle school students put the holocaust to perspective. Students noted how a relatively small and simple task could affect many, and just how much of a difference an eleven or twelve year old might make.

Our other 6th grade compatriot presented a shorter-but-culturally relevant snippet from the Korean show Finding Genius. In her clip of choice, an elementary school Korean student builds awareness among foreigners about Battleship Island where hundreds of prisoners from the Japanese Colonial Period in Korea were forced into labor camps. We also explored different forms of environmental activism including a piece by Prince Ea.

All the while, students would scribble away in their binders. Any topic ideas that came to mind, project plans, or simple thoughts were added to worksheet for later reference.


What came from our blitz of samples and brainstorming was a flurry of ideas from students. After a little hard work, students are now curating a list of 9 possible environmental issues. These are the 9 they will choose from. Students will be making this choice next week. And though they have yet to fixate on a topic of interest, I have noticed a great deal of focus from students. Even the most reticent and apathetic have shown a greater focus. The occasional student is still convinced this project will be a presentation. For some, it might very well be, but we have every intention of helping our students aim and shoot high.

Already, based on the feedback from my own peers, the project is off to a positive start. Students will begin pitches next week. From there, they will polish their problems into real-world action plans. And we wait eagerly to see what our students can accomplish when we loosen the reins.

Stay-tuned for more as our first fully project-based unit ramps up.

Featured Image: “Mangrove Canopy” by Sigit Deni Sasmito for CIFOR
Licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0