Going Beyond School

Connecting school and community in project-based learning

It’s easy to stereotype “kids these days.” Always on their phones, always taking selfies, tethered to a virtual world but disconnected from the real one. If you don’t work with kids, or know what is happening in schools, it can be easy to think of young adolescents in a negative way or with a deficit mindset. In many cases, this mentality is far from the reality of what is happening in schools.

Our communities rely on the creation of civic minded, engaged citizens that can become productive members of our towns, states, and communities, and more and more, schools are pulling these community members into the education process.

A growing number of schools are inviting parents and community members into their learning, using project- or problem-based learning as a model. Our organization uses project-based learning as a model, which focuses on these elements, based on the work of the Buck Institute for Education and others to make learning relevant, connected, and engaging. These are the components of project-based learning:

  • A driving question to promote inquiry
  • An exciting, relevant entry event to stoke excitement and curiosity
  • Student interest-driven research and inquiry with support and guidance from the teacher
  • Regular reflection to make meaning, connections, and solidify learning
  • Creation of a project or product for an authentic audience
  • Sharing this project with a wide, engaged, and relevant audience.

Teachers and students are finding ways to bring the community into this process at all levels in various ways. There are many reasons that connecting schools to their community is valuable, and the idea has been around as long as the constructivist philosophy of John Dewey and his groundbreaking 1899 book, The School and Society.

When students see themselves as learners that are creating products and projects for a purpose greater than the classroom and an audience of more than just one teacher, they develop strong bonds to the community and establish their own place in it. Students learn that their work matters to people outside of school, and they see adults in their community as co-learners and co-creators. This in turn can lead community members into seeing their middle school students as valued members of their communities, capable of making a positive impact. It is a WIN-WIN.

We are privileged to work in many Vermont middle schools that strive to be developmentally appropriate and student-focused learning centers. Our work often is to help teachers employ the practices of the project-based learning model, which includes creating authentic audiences for student work.

In these three examples, teachers meaningfully involved parents and community members in project-based learning during project creation and during the culminating event for meaningful feedback and an authentic audience.

Parents and Community as Critiquers

As community members walked into the eighth-grade classroom in Dorset, they were handed a clipboard, pen, and stack of feedback forms. On this day, parents and community members were invited to view prototypes of chicken coop designs and asked to give feedback and critique the students’ work. The informal panel of volunteers lined the room with a sense of purpose.

This rural Vermont town asked their eighth grade students to consider the benefits of raising chickens at their school. Students engaged in inquiry and research from a variety of levels, then worked in small groups to design a prototype coop that would be sustainable, efficient, and responsive to the needs of both the chickens and their farmers. The Chicken Coop Project is a great example of project-based learning, and what made this one special was the way the parents and community engaged with the project.

Despite assumptions or stereotypes about the agrarian way of life in Vermont, most of these kids had little to no experience farming. As a way of gaining appreciation for the lives of both farmers and chickens, students visited a local chicken farm and interviewed its owner. After the visit, students worked in small groups to design a prototype of the ideal chicken coop, including materials and blueprints. But in order to select and hone a perfect coop prototype, these students needed feedback and critique. Enter parents and community members.

Parents of these students received an open invitation to both prototype presentation days. They reflected on each design and gave constructive feedback to each group. After each critique session from parents, students in the group would alter and adjust the design. In this example, parents were a critical part of the research and development phase of the project.

This work continues at The Dorset School. Students are now raising funds for building materials and supplies in order to build the coop on school grounds in the spring. The engagement with community and parents for these eighth graders was memorable and lasting. Students conveyed a keener sense of purpose and engagement because of the real audience and community context for their work.

Community Members as Project Partners and Mentors

At Burke Town School, in West Burke, Vermont, eighth grade students gathered in the gym where they found more than 15 community members who had set up tables about their local organizations, which seek to improve community life. The event was a hive of activity on an otherwise gray winter day.

Students eagerly traveled between stations of community organizations to learn more about the ongoing work and the mission. They braved the sub-zero temperatures out to the snow cave set up by an outdoor education professor from Lyndon State College to learn about their outdoor education programs.

The students were embarking on a semester long project-based learning experience called Projects for Hope, and the entry event, or project launch, was a community event that partnered students with community members who were representatives of their organizations. After learning about the United Nation’s Global Goals and brainstorming what they thought was important and what they were interested in learning more about, students considered their local community. They brainstormed questions they wanted to ask community members, and walked around, clipboards in hand, interviewing the adults.

What followed were lively, personal, relevant conversations about their work and potential partnerships. Community members saw that the students were interested and focused on improving their community. The students saw adults in their own communities working to make a difference, saw potential career paths, and made connections with adults so they could help give feedback on projects.

Students continued working with community members in their task forces. Some students are coordinating increased access to wilderness first aid because of the Kingdom Trails trail network in their town. One group of students are taking a wilderness first aid course from community members and business owners and then teaching the skills to other students to increase the safety of their community. Others are working with rural development groups to secure grants and provide public relations for those efforts. And still others are partnering with local biologists to create maps and resource guides for the school campus. Community members are an essential part of the Projects for Hope at Burke, from the inception of the projects, to their culmination in the spring.

This work is bringing the community together in many ways. It promotes deep connection between students and adults in the work of improving their community.

Community Members as Readers and Literature Circle Participants

At Compass School in Westminster, Vermont, teacher Julia Taylor wanted to create a relevant, engaged audience to help her students explore the novel The Hate You Give by Angie Thomas. She wanted her students to explore topics such identity, courage, fighting injustice, and community/belonging, with an authentic audience for their writing. Her students created blogs using the Blogger platform and wrote four entries focused on themes from the book.

And that is when she reached out to the community, asking if folks in her parent and educator circles who had read the book would be willing to partner with a student, and read and comment on the posts. Community member partners would read the student’s deep thinking about their own identity, courage, and sense of belonging.

The exchanges were rich and full of quotes from the book and descriptions of lived experiences. The students were able to write for an engaged, interested audience that was beyond the teacher. The community members were able to understand a teenager’s perspective more fully, and to participate in the learning of a student around high quality literature. This was another win-win for all parties involved: teacher, students and community members!

In the three very different ways described here, community members are playing an important role in project-based learning—as collaborators, co-learners, engaged audiences, and another generation of people interested in a shared purpose. This is a powerful tool for motivation, for relevance, but also for creating stronger connections and bonds in a community. And these are only three ways schools are engaging the community through project-based learning.

What are the ways your school works with the community?