"How can I make a difference?"

Yesterday our team held a "meeting of the minds" using Elluminate to attempt to identify the guiding question for our PBL unit. Following the first meeting a few weeks ago, the team assembled a very impressive list of possible questions and topics surrounding the theme sustainability. Topics included students' roles in environmentalism, comparing/contrasting carbon footprints to those in other schools, connecting with schools in other countries to compare our impacts on the environment, research around energy consumption, video/documentary creation, trash or treasure?, and so much more! This made our role of identifying a burning question to drive our PBL unit quite the tricky business.
How do we design a unit that meets the needs of a K-12 student audience? How do we guide their thinking without stifling the inquiry process? Don't we want students asking the big questions?
After much discussion, we decided that we'll begin by identifying this driving question: How can I make a difference? Broad? Yes. But, we're going to use student voices to help us refine our goals for the unit. Each teacher will go back to her students and hold a brainstorming session, asking them to provide input about what this question means to them. By doing so, we believe students themselves will be responsible for shaping the PBL unit, to make it as passion-driven and powerful for students as it can be.
Teachers will be commenting on this post to share the results of their student brainstorming sessions, and we'll begin to see our project come to life!


  1. I started this process with my fourth grade students today to get an idea of where their thoughts lie. I gave them the task today of thinking about problems, needs, or issues that they see in our surrounding community and world. My class came up with a diverse list of topics, ranging from larger world issues, to smaller more local problems that they've observed.

    I can tell from the list that we will definitely need to do some more discussion to begin to narrow down our focus and think of how our class will be able to make a difference. This was something I expected to happen because the students immediately think of large global issues that they hear about on the news or in the media.

    The next challenge I posed to my students to consider for my students at the end of today's discussion was to tell them that tomorrow we will start to think about which of these issues we will be able to have the biggest impact upon as a group for students. Immediately, they started to talk amongst themselves and focus in on topics that they felt were more manageable. I'm interested to see where our discussion leads tomorrow!

    Just from today's discussion, I could see my students' enthusiasm and passion about some of these issues coming to light. I think this topic and guiding question will be a great way to pull out a project idea that my students are passionate about and include their interests in an inquiry-based learning experience.

    1. Katie,
      What an exciting start! So great that you have facilitated your students' thinking around local, global and manageable. I'm wondering if you and they will be considering how technology can amplify so many ways they want to make a difference, perhaps even creating a wave across schools and districts?

      I love when you concluded:
      'I could see my students' enthusiasm and passion about some of these issues coming to light. I think this topic and guiding question will be a great way to pull out a project idea that my students are passionate about and include their interests in an inquiry-based learning experience."

      I'm looking forward to hearing more!

  2. Katie, thanks for sharing the outcomes of your brainstorming sessions! I look forward to hearing about how your students narrow their focus and decide together how they can make an impact!

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  4. Well, I was excited to introduce this topic to my class. We have just finished up the last project we were working on and I wanted to devote a good chunk of time to this. I followed Katie's lead and began a brainstorming session. In the morning, I invited students to make a list in their writing journals about all of the problems they see in the world. I gave very little direction other than that. Then, today, I clarified that it could be community, school, world, whatever. They wrote. Some of them took the entire time and had a list two columns long. Some had only a couple of ideas.

    We collected the ideas on chart paper and I nearly ran out of room!! What we wound up with was an ecclectic list of problems varying from childhood obesity to unnaffordable health care. The list included topics such as global warming, energy drinks, speeding, terrorism, credit card debt,natural disasters, endangered species, friendship problems, and so on and so on. What a collection of thoughts. I then realized this process might take a bit longer than I anticipated.

    I will continue to follow Katie and group the suggestions tomorrow, although I will need a MUCH larger sheet of paper, and we will then begin to narrow it down to the ones we can affect and those we can't.

    I am torn though, I'm not sure how to move forward. I want them to try to identify something we can make a difference to, but I don't want them to lose sight of selecting something they are passionate about. Do we narrow it down first and then select our passion or vice versa? Any suggestions are welcome. I am glad to see my fifth graders see more of the world than I would have expected, but then again it is sad as well.

    1. Kristen,
      How exciting! and to need more sheets of paper--

      So I'm wondering can you and your students create buckets and put all the ideas into the buckets? guide them the way Sheryl guided the us in the webinar around baseball?

      Personally, I'd go with passions-- what if you did? Were you thinking the entire class would work on the same question? If some were more passionate than others about one topic, could they do that?

      After you and they have decided upon their greatest passions, can you then work together to determine a feasible way to make a difference within that? Is it possible they've ideas of something they really could accomplish with your, your network, and your community's help?

      I wonder if there is also another piece? Questions under your big umbrella that you add because they are a passion for you and you know that you can map them to standards?

      Thinking here, your team has this big umbrella question. You as teachers create questions around passions, ones you need to incorporate standards and then your students questions where they can follow their passions--

      Does that make sense? Does that help at all?

    2. I would love to have my students follow their own passions, but I'm not sure what the Inquiry Based Group is doing. My understanding is that we are following our class's idea of making a difference and that my students would be broken down into smaller groups working on different parts of the same project. I'm not sure if that is the case or not, but luckily it is still early.

  5. I recently completed brainstorming and journaling with my students (6th and 7th grade). They were SO excited about working on a project that had a beneficial outcome for others. Even being a little older than most of the rest of your students, they still had a hard time conceptualizing what "Making a Difference" means and how it can be done. We talked about how it might be hard to end all the wars in the world or feed all the children in Africa. Generally, they'd love to focus on something they can do locally and will impact the Baltimore/Maryland area and then possibly something that could branch out further. When we were discussing topics it was all over the place but I put results of polls, discussions, and written thoughts the girls have. They are all in order with the top 3 by far leading the group.

    1. Poverty/Feeding Children/Homelessness
    2. Cleaning up the Chesapeake Bay/Being Green/Sustainability
    3. Stop Animal Cruelty/SPCA/Rescue Animals

    4. Supplying Educational materials to under privileged schools/toys to children's hospitals
    5. Donating money for illness cures (Cancer)
    6. Bullying/Cyberbulling

    1. Lindsay,
      What great fun and I love the excitement and their focus.

      Were you thinking that your and Kristen's students might be working together?

      What kinds of thoughts had you given, if any, to student collaboration?

  6. Ok, we are still grouping and I haven't introduced the "How can I make a difference yet" part of the project, although they keep asking what our project is. We have categorized all of the problems into the following: Disrespect for the law, crimes to animals, money problems, tragedies, health issues, bodily abuse, pollution, and a legally questionable little category they like to call "Not Nice" that includes things like bullying, cyberbullying, foul language, and racism. It is very difficult not to take control in some of these areas. Of course I will force the guidance a bit more later. Right now we are adding and deleting items from these lists. Next we will eliminate the ones we think are out of our reach. Then we will identify a passion.

  7. I have to admit that I am not starting from scratch with this project. However, I have adapted a project to include even more 21st century skills, especially including more feedback and insight from outside of our community.

    I teach a Peace Studies class which includes students in grades 10-12. Their major project is to identify a problem, to research it, develop and implement an action plan (to make a difference), and to create a multi-media presentation of all of their work and their evaluation of it.

    My students have projects ranging from a comparison of homophobia in China and the U.S. (a Chinese student is doing this one), puppy mills, food waste in local restaurants, human trafficking, teen dating abuse, and much more. Each student must create and enact an action plan to try to make a difference. These plans will be in effect for a minimum of six weeks. Part of their work will involve communicating with someone in the field who is already trying to make a difference. They must communicate via email, twitter, facebook, or some other social media, or skype. Note: We have discussed how to find people through these media and then how to communicate with them. In addition, we have discussed what type of information they should not be giving out.

    Students have just finished the first two steps of this project- identifying their focus and developing a preliminary list of sources. Their action plans are due Feb. 24.

    For their plans they are required to identify what they will do, when, and what resources they need to accomplish their goals. I am eager to see what they plan to do and how.

    1. Beth,
      This sounds so exciting--
      So am I correct in thinking then that your team is participating under one big umbrella question, with other essential questions for each class under that umbrella?
      Will your students be sharing transparently? I'd love to hear/see their essential questions--

  8. Finally a minute to reflect on my project beginnings... I posed the question to my third graders using a chant that our school counselor teaches them in her Green Circle lessons. We did the chant (with the awesome hand motions!), "Self, Family, School and Community, Nation, Wooooooorld!" Then we had a great conversation about what they see as good and/or bad in all those places. Next, we asked the question, "What can we do about the bad "stuff" that happens in each situation self, family, etc. For example, under school we had bullying as a problem. One of the things we discussed that we could do to solve bullying issues was use our school counselor's strategies such as walking away or intervening.
    My next step is for the students to pick a few of the problems on the board and brainstorm some ways that kids could solve them or make them better. I found a really cool sight about random acts of kindness--I think I may lead them in that directions, but let them come up with the random act ideas that address our issues and how they would deliver them...
    ...to be continued!

  9. Jami,
    I love your process-- moving from what they know and like--

    Having your students determine the direction-- how are you feeling about that? With them in the drivers seat, have you given thought to how you will be addressing your curriculum?

    I can't wait for the "to be continued" to hear of your terrific next steps!