ESL Classroom Projects: Steps to Meaningful Learning
Having long been an advocate of project-based education, I jumped at the chance to be part of Project IDEA. Arriving in San Marcos in October 1999 for our first cohort gathering, I began to learn how to incorporate project-based learning into the adult education classroom.
As the meetings began, I felt some apprehension about applying project-based learning concepts in the adult education classroom. Questions began to arise in my head, such as, What is considered a project? How many students are needed to do a project? How is a project incorporated into a class period? Over the course of the meetings, however, many of my questions and fears were put to rest. As I returned to my multi-level ESL classroom, I began to incorporate the advice, suggestions, and guidance provided at the IDEA meetings.
I learned some starting concepts for projects in the ESL classroom, such as:
- A project is anything that has a final product that can be of use beyond the immediate classroom. For example: videos, booklets, photo albums, yearbooks and various school publications, quilts and other crafts, murals, newsletters and pamphlets, parties, skits or plays for an audience, Microsoft PowerPoint® presentations, and Web pages.
- There is no set number of students needed to do a project.
- Teachers need to let the students decide on a project and take ownership of it. The teacher becomes the facilitator.
- The project should be one that interests and involves all of the students.
- A project is usually only part of the instruction. Other instructional methods and materials are incorporated as well.
With these ideas ready to put into practice, I proceeded to make my first mistake. I very strategically placed pamphlets around the classroom, in hopes that the students would pick up on my idea of a project and run with it. I attempted to guide them in that direction as I started the explanation of the project. As a result, my first attempt at a project failed miserably because it was my idea and not the idea of the students.
After that failure, I decided to just wait and let the students direct the second attempt. This attempt was successful and it became the ongoing project of the year. The students claimed it, shared it, and motivated others with it. The project was theirs - that was what made it a success. Out of the initial project, various mini-projects were developed. The following are brief descriptions of the projects, outlining the steps involved.
Classroom Album Project
The ongoing project of the year was a classroom album of all our ESL day students. The theme was the students' families. Students generated the questions they wanted answered in their writings. Students wrote, worked on vocabulary, and translated, if needed. At this point, students were given a mini-lesson on the keyboard and essential keys. Students began slowly typing stories into the computer. Stories were saved on disk and graphics were inserted. This required another mini-lesson on click and drag, cut and paste, insert text box, etc. The final product was displayed on the wall. This included family pictures, decorations, and computer printouts mounted on large colored construction paper.
Benefit to students. They lost a little of their fear of the computer and got a taste of what a computer can do. This project charged their batteries toward wanting more computer projects.
Mini-Project: Excel Graphs
- Students chose four categories of personal interest (music, food, color, etc.) Then they selected four choices under each category.
- Students polled each other as to their favorite choice in each category.
- Using this information, students entered their results into cells of an Excel spreadsheet.
- From the many examples of graphs, students chose and created the graph they wanted to use to represent their data.
Benefit to students. Students found the results interesting and the project meaningful. They learned how to make an Excel spreadsheet.
Mini-Project: Christmas Stories from the Heart
Each student wrote a story of a personal Christmas experience or memory, whether good or bad. They added Christmas graphics to beautifully enhance their text. Their stories were displayed in the Learning Center and read together in class. After Christmas, the stories were bound into a book for future use and sharing.
Benefit to students. Each learner's personal experience was appreciated and validated as meaningful.
Mini-Project: Letter to Governor George Bush
Students brainstormed on what they wanted to put in a letter to Governor Bush. A letter was constructed that included a list of concerns, thanks, and campaign cheers. The elements of a letter - the introduction, body and conclusion were studied and utilized for this project. Upon completion, the letters were mailed. The class received a two-page response from Governor Bush, thanking the students for writing and sharing their thoughts and concerns with him.
Benefits to students. They learned the basics of writing a well-written letter. Furthermore, they felt that they had a voice and were empowered.
Mini-Project: Pocket English
Students were continually asking how to say things in certain common situations.
- One day, students began brainstorming on recurrent situations when they go to various places (bank, grocery store, hospital, beauty salon, Post Office) in which English phrases were needed.
- Under each heading, learners came up with specific examples of situations they might encounter. They wanted to learn how to properly ask questions or make remarks in these specific situations, such as: Where is your produce section? I think you over charged me. Do you have this in another size? I would like my hair layered with a few highlights. May I see the manager?
- Learners then decided they would like to take this information with them when they were out and about. Also, they wanted the information to fit into a pocket or handbag. Thus, came the creation of a phrase booklet of easily accessible, useful sentences with English pronunciation, which the students called "Pocket English."
Benefit to students. As a result of their own initiative, the students generated a very useful resource.
In conclusion, my personal experience demonstrates that projects empower students by making use of the information students already know, allowing them to experience success in areas where they had previously lacked confidence, giving them a voice outside the classroom, and giving learning a meaningful context.
About the Author
Lori Northrop is currently a part time Adult ESL Instructor in Cleburne. She also works as editor of a small Spanish/English news publication. Lori lives in Cleburne with her husband Lloyd and their two daughters, Chloe 14 and Cara 12. She has a M.S. in Education with an emphasis in Science from Southwestern Adventist University in Keene, Texas. Besides spending time with her children, Lori enjoys reading non-fiction books in the area of autobiographies, religious material, history, and science. She also enjoys the Internet, working on her computer, drawing, and music.