“Hands-Joined” Projects

A framework for co-developing projects with teachers and students.

Ask a middle school teacher to explain why student-centered projects are a logical choice for young adolescents and you are bound to hear about the numerous ways in which these projects provide students with opportunities to actively participate and voice ideas and in so doing, increase motivation, engagement, and enjoyment. The student-centered approach, which has its origins in democratic philosophies of teaching that reach back to the days of John Dewey, is a foundational construct of middle school philosophy and is thus evident in many of the key characteristics of the AMLE middle school concept including relevant curriculum; active, purposeful learning; and multiple learning and teaching approaches. Likewise, shifts in standards toward an emphasis on skills rather than knowledge (Common Core State Standards, Next Generation Science Standards, Framework for 21st Century Learning) have resulted in new attention being given to approaches to teaching and learning that emphasize inquiry and cultivate self-directed learners.

If you ask the same middle school teacher to describe some of the challenges of implementing student-centered projects, however, you are likely to receive an equally enthusiastic list.

First, there is the do-ability challenge. Teachers navigate numerous curriculum expectations, which can serve to limit teacher freedom in designing learning activities. Additionally, as a result of the numerous competing demands placed on instructional time, teachers often feel pressure to stick to the traditional curriculum, which may exclude student-centered learning experiences.

Another significant challenge exists in the moving target of relevance. How do we help create and communicate relevance to 120-150 students?!? While a one-size-fits-all project is unlikely to be relevant to all students, it can be challenging to provide the necessary support and resources needed for 120-150 students to complete student-centered projects on any topic of their choice. Finally, many teachers struggle to find an appropriate balance between 1) the scaffolding required for students to successfully complete student-centered projects and 2) the goal of active, purposeful learning, which asks that students take on some of the cognitive work of planning and self-direction. In other words, how can teachers support students in hands-joined planning without doing all the heavy lifting for them?

Our experience in working in middle schools across multiple states has been that despite significant variation in school expectations and configurations, there is space for student choice and student-centered projects if we resist our tendency to adopt extremist all-or-nothing approaches.

Each school context comes with its own set of limitations and restrictions in terms of teacher freedom, especially as it concerns the curriculum. With this in mind, rather than thinking of projects as curriculum-centered or student-centered, we find it more useful to think of project approaches existing on a continuum from most student-centered (student has full discretion to investigate and create whatever they want) to most curriculum-centered (students complete a project that is scripted by the curriculum and uniform across students).

The “hands-joined” approach presented here offers an opportunity to meet in the middle, creating a context for purposeful choice while acknowledging the realities faced by teachers working in schools with more prescriptive approaches to curriculum. Additionally, it seeks to address the challenges of relevance and scaffolding by balancing choice and structure.

The Framework

This framework picks up on the notion of “hands-joined” learning activities introduced by AMLE in the following passage from This We Believe in Action: Implementing Successful Middle Schools (2012):

Developmentally responsive middle grades educators take the concept of hands-on activities further by promoting what might be termed “hands-joined” activities, ones that teachers and students work together in developing. Such activities foster ownership and lead to levels of understanding unlikely to be achieved when students are simply completing teacher-made assignments. (p. 16)

The idea of uniting teacher and student hands is compelling in that it captures the tension that exists between competing demands such as student choice and teacher accountability, student self-direction and teacher scaffolding. Our experience has been that while this term is helpful philosophically, it quickly becomes muddy when teachers consider implementation. In other words, teachers are likely to ask “I like it … but how …?!?” The framework outlined in the sections below is thus intended to make concrete one way in which the notion of “hands-joined” learning can be implemented in the middle school classroom. The framework borrows from a range of pedagogic approaches including thematic instruction, negotiated curriculum, orbital studies, problem-based learning, project-based learning, and service-learning. With the aim of do-ability and flexibility, however, this framework is specifically designed to address the following question on the minds of so many middle school teachers we meet: How can we develop hands-joined projects without driving ourselves and our students crazy?!?

Phase 1: Identifying a Theme of Student Interest

The first step in creating a context for hands-joined work is to identify an overarching theme that will serve as a common thread across student projects. Since the theme will have serious implications for student work, teachers should consider several factors in deciding upon a theme. For many teachers, the most logical starting place is to consider which themes naturally present themselves in the curriculum and standards for your grade level. Ideally, themes should be interdisciplinary and developed within the context of team planning. Examples include legacy, sustainability, poverty, self-exploration, health and wellness, and food scarcity. Curricular alignment alone does not guarantee that a theme will be developmentally appropriate and engaging to your students. For this reason, teachers should also think through the following set of guiding questions when considering themes:

  1. Is this theme likely to be interesting to my students? How do I know?
  2. Is this theme relevant to the “real world” of my students and community? In what ways can we make local connections to this topic in our community?
  3. Is this theme rich enough to be explored from multiple perspectives and angles? Is it likely to inspire many student questions?

In keeping with middle school philosophy and the hands-joined approach, teachers should engage their students in the planning process beginning with this phase. Although it may be necessary to initially make educated guesses at themes that may be engaging to your students, going straight to the source not only presents an opportunity to avoid miscalculations before it is too late but reflects the hands-joined nature of this entire project sequence. This can be accomplished by using a simple survey tool such as Google Forms to collect data on student interests, collaboratively brainstorming a list of possible themes at the start of a unit, and soliciting student feedback on proposed themes.

Phase 2: Co-Developing Inquiry Questions

Once a theme has been selected, the next step is to co-develop inquiry questions for individual exploration. These questions serve as the driving force for student projects so it is important to spend the necessary time during this phase teaching students what makes for a high quality inquiry question. If the theme is to be used as the anchor for a larger unit, the ideal approach is to begin by sharing a few broad essential questions for whole-class exploration. Using the theme of sustainability, for example, two essential questions could be: 1) What is sustainability and why is it important?, and 2) How can we live more sustainably? In keeping with the backward design model, these questions would then guide the learning experiences of students within the unit, the hands-joined projects included.

Co-developing student inquiry questions thus begins by working with students to develop more specific “I wonder …” questions that are inspired by the essential questions. A collaborative brainstorming session to generate a list of questions can be an especially powerful experience since it often leads to a richer list of questions than students can develop individually and can also be used to support students who may find this stage especially difficult.

At some point during or after brainstorming, students should also be aware of the student learning objectives that you aim to assess at the end of their projects.Identify a core set of standards that best align with your theme and overarching standards. These standards can thus be used during brainstorming to refine and/or remove specific proposed questions. Table 1 illustrates an example of what this might look like using the theme of sustainability.

Table 1
THEME: Sustainability

Example student learning objectives
I can…• Construct an argument supported by empirical evidence that changes to physical or biological components of an ecosystem affect populations. (NGSS. MS-LS2-4)
• Use random sampling to draw inferences about a population. (CCSS.MATH.CONTENT.7.SP.A.1)
• Solve real-life and mathematical problems using numerical and algebraic expressions and equations. (CCSS.MATH.CONTENT.7.EE.B.3)
• Gather relevant information from multiple print and digital sources, using search terms effectively; assess the credibility and accuracy of each source; and quote or paraphrase the data and conclusions of others while avoiding plagiarism and following a standard format for citation. (CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.W.7.8)
• Integrate visual information (e.g., in charts, graphs, photographs, videos, or maps) with other information in print and digital texts. (CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RH.6-8.7)
• Analyze issues by stating and summarizing the issue, evaluating different viewpoints, and drawing conclusions based on data. (Derived from Social Studies indicators for several states)
• Describe the environmental effects of human action on various aspects of the environment. (Derived from Social Studies indicators for several states)
Overarching Essential Question #1
(to be explored as a whole class)• What is sustainability and why is it important?
Overarching Essential Question #2
(to be explored as a whole class)• How can we live more sustainably?
Example student-generated questions

1. What are the main habits of sustainable living?
2. How has our use of energy affected the environment?
3. How does excessive water use affect the environment and our community?
4. Why is it important to buy locally?
5. To what extent does recycling make a difference?

Example student-generated questions

1. How can we make our school more energy efficient?
2. Does our school compost? Why or why not?
3. How can we improve our recycling program?
4. What can I buy locally?
5. How can we reduce the water consumption in our school?
6. Can we start a school garden and if so, what would it be like?

Before collaborative brainstorming:

  • Give students independent think time with question starters such as “I wonder why …” or “I wonder how …?”
  • Think-pair-share so all students hear several ideas

After collaborative brainstorming:

  • Create an “Essential Question Bank” and post it somewhere accessible for students to reference during co-planning

Phase 3: Co-Planning

After students select an inquiry question that is of particular interest to them, the co-planning stage begins. This stage essentially consists of creating and having students complete a variety of planning activities to help students create a learning and project plan. At minimum, teachers should provide:

  • A concise overview of project expectations, including a clear list of due dates for project work (completed planning tools, drafts, etc.) and a clear date for authentic sharing (see phase 5)
  • A calendar for student use in setting weekly goals for project time
  • A common rubric that is clearly aligned with the learning objectives to be addressed (see example at the tinyurl below)
  • A series of planning prompts and graphic organizers designed to help students think through the various components of their project, including the product they would like to create to share what they learned (see Example Planning Prompts)

We would like to underscore the importance of allowing students to pick the format of their final product (e.g., a PowerPoint, a script, a Stop Motion video, a digital story, a website, etc.) but also caution that students will need guidance in making wise choices to ensure that their product allows them to address the rubric criteria within the time constraints for the project. For this reason, providing students with feedback on planning before students progress to the next phase is essential.


Some students are overwhelmed by free choice. To support these students, consider offering a “menu” of ideas for student products, adding to it as the year unfolds.

Example Planning Prompts

  1. What question do I want to investigate? Why these questions?
  2. How will I investigate this questions? What resources will I need?
  3. Who will I reach out to in order to learn more?
  4. What’s my purpose? What do I want to accomplish?
  5. What will I create as a result of this learning?
  6. How will I show that I have mastered the learning objectives (be sure to reference each part of the rubric criteria)?

Phase 4: Facilitating Inquiry

Once students have developed a plan and received feedback, the teacher’s role shifts considerably from that of co-planner to facilitator. In this phase, the majority of project time should be devoted to providing students with the structure and time needed to successfully complete their project. Although this may sound simple, it has been our experience that this phase is where many “student-centered” projects fall apart since it can be difficult to find the appropriate balance between providing developmentally appropriate support and active, purposeful learning.

Teachers should dedicate predictable project time and be prepared to protect this time against the many competing demands that are placed on the classroom. When projects are repeatedly placed on the back-burner, they can rapidly lose momentum and students may begin to feel that they are not a priority. Teachers should establish routines and procedures that encourage productivity and monitor progress.

Suggestions for project time include an opening and closing circle, adequate independent

work time with clear goals and time constraints, opportunities for peer feedback, regularly scheduled student-teacher conferences, in-class sharing, check-ins of work at regular intervals, and small-group meetings with students who are doing similar work or have similar needs.


  • Provide starting points (GOs and preliminary websites to explore)
  • Bring in community experts on your topic to serve as project coaches on designated days
  • Use technology to monitor and document progress (Google Docs, Socrative Student, Nearpod)

Phase 5: Authentic Sharing

The final phase of the hands-joined project framework is an extremely important component of project work: authentic sharing. Creating a context for students to share their work with an authentic audience, including other classes, family members, and community partners, increases relevance but is also a powerful source of motivation. We continue to be surprised by the extent to which authentic sharing can motivate even those students who are not especially driven by grades. Our hunch is that this has to do with two factors: 1) the social pressure of having to share work with a “live” audience, especially via face-to-face interaction, and 2) the opportunity to feel like an expert as their work is appreciated by an audience beyond the classroom.

As has been the case in all phases of this framework, we recommend engaging students in planning the sharing event. This begins by seeking out student ideas for a venue and format for sharing their work. Likewise, as students finish their projects and/or await feedback, students can begin planning and advertising for the event.

Since students are likely to finish their work at different times, having a list of planning and advertising tasks to complete can be an excellent way to continue to engage these students in purposeful work. Example activities include: drafting a letter home, a flyer, sending letters to community partners who may be interested, creating a marketing video, writing a blurb for the school newsletter, thinking through the logistics of the day, etc

Example Sharing Events

  1. Interactive fair, open house, or gallery where students share their work
  2. Town meeting or school assembly
  3. Workshop at a local elementary school
  4. Video presentation curated on a school website or YouTube Channel
  5. Proposal presentation to key school/community stakeholders


The hands-joined framework presented here is one among many possible approaches to embracing student-centered work. It is pragmatically oriented in that it is designed to address the challenges experienced by middle school teachers who are committed to student voice yet limited in their curricular freedom. By addressing curriculum expectations and student choice, self-direction and structure, our hope is that the hands-joined framework will invite more middle school teachers to experiment with student-centered teaching and in so doing, more middle school students will have opportunity to make meaningful choices in their learning.

Additional Resources
Links to additional resources, including sample project overviews, an example planning sheet, and an example ELA rubric can be found at the following link: http://tinyurl.com/handsjoinedresources.