The Launch: a make or break moment in PBL

25 09 2014

Great beginnings can either sound off with the roar of a mighty cannon or be set in motion with the softest whisper.
Either way, greatness grabs your mind, body, and soul, and it won’t be denied.  

Somewhere in a classroom near you, there is a middle school history teacher who loves to get her students excited from inside the project they’re about to start. What I mean to say is that she works hard to put the student in the story from the very beginning. She relishes the first few minutes of introducing the topic to the students and works hard to find ways to keep students on the edges of their seats. Teacher at The Launch, questioning, driving questions, PBL

She moves around the room in a manner befitting the story. Some days she walks slowly and mournfully, while other days, she flits quickly around the room, eyes flashing with her voice echoing the mysteries of years and civilizations past. Watching each student carefully, she weaves her words carefully, revealing the juiciest portions of history’s story, tantalizing her students to ask questions, to want to know more. Sometimes she answers those questions which spill forth from an eager student’s lips moments before her story takes a turn to sweep up that very bit of detail into the fabric of her story. Sometimes her passion for the tale wells up through her wavering voice and causes her eyes to mist over for a moment. But that only creates goosebumps on her children’s skin as they see that the story means so much to this wonderfully odd lady.

And just when the students can’t wait a moment more for the story’s conclusion, she pauses and smiles, knowingly. The students breathlessly ask, “What happened?” And at that point in the pause, smoothly, she caps off the project launch:

She lies to her students.

With that mischievous smile and teasing voice, she says, “I don’t know. We have to find out!”

Little pockets of breath are exhaled forcefully and the students are hooked. They are compelled to do whatever it takes to know the rest of the story, solve the problem, or answer the big driving question.

The launch is a true make-or-break part of the project. It is where students get the first introduction to what the project is, what makes it interesting and engaging, and why it’s important to embrace the hard work that it will take to make it happen. The first experience of the project and how that initial foundation is built is what can set the tone for the entire project.

Therefore, The Launch has to be exciting. It has to be engaging and deeply interesting to students. It has to be a story or a question or an event challenge that is presented in such a way that students feel absolutely compelled to get involved, to know more; it’s as if they can’t help themselves. Finally, the launch has to present enough information that students will have a place to start their research and learning, but not so much info they don’t need to research.

Thinking of the disengaged students in our classrooms right now; you can see that The Launch can be a tall order for some teachers as they begin to think of themselves as part educator, part silverscreen showman.

[this is an excerpt from “The launch,” a chapter in my upcoming book aimed at helping teachers understand how to move from traditional teaching and learning toward a more learning by doing PBL environment.]

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