“Our current system does not reward creativity or cater to the diversity of skills and abilities. What it does reward are formulaic learners.” (Year 12 student, SMH, October 2009)
Five years ago our annual Year 10 Film Festival was born. Adopting the principles of project-based learning, in small groups, over the course of a school week, students produce a short digital story. The content focus for the project is creativity, communication, collaboration, and independence. The aim is to provide a significant interdisciplinary culminating task to Year 10 and to develop students’ independence. The trust the school places in students for this week is significant and is an essential element of the week. The film festival has become a rite of passage between Year 10 and the senior years of school.
Early in Term Four, students are asked to mind-map some ideas in response to the topic. Past topics have included: ‘a future-focused challenge’, ‘building good men’, but we have found most success with a broad, generic topic that appeals to Year 10 students and allows them considerable scope to exercise creativity. In recent years we have used ‘What Matters?’ and ‘Who Cares?’ Some students get frustrated with the open nature of the question, but most appreciate the scope to choose to respond in any way they want. We also always have a small object which we ask students to somehow include in their films as well, just for fun, similar to Tropfest, such as: a dot, a rock, a feather, a key, a paperclip.
The festival is officially opened by an inspirational guest, such as Bruce Davey (the Oscar winning producer of Braveheart, Apocalyto, and The Passion of the Christ), or a parent, such as documentary producer Stephen Van Mil, or Paul Friedman producer of Caught Inside. Following the official opening, students are briefed on how to design a good digital story, and individual and team responsibilities are outlined for the week. Jason Ohler’s Digital Storytelling in the Classroom (2007) is a particularly useful resource. Teachers run workshops on script-writing, digital storytelling, and camera work for students to attend. These workshops are reconsidered annually and adjusted based on feedback from the students.
Students are shown a wide range of short films to get them thinking about the importance of a good story. Popular exemplar films include: “Where the hell is Matt?”, “Mankind is no island”, and “Mr W.” Students also view the winning films from previous years. Equipment, such as cameras, is available from the school for students to borrow, however most end up using their own equipment from home.
Attendance at school is then voluntary for Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, although the school library and computer labs are reserved and supervised for any groups to use as they like. Students often find school an easy location to meet, and they take advantage of the equipment available and the expertise of various library and ICT staff. All of the decisions about how they work and what they create are up to them. Some groups choose to work intensely on Monday and Tuesday so they can have free time on Wednesday and Thursday. Other groups have to work around sporting, service and co-curricular commitments. Some groups find all of the time in the week is needed to prepare their film. It is essential to the success of the week that students are able to make their own choices about how they utilise their time and the sort of film that they want to produce.
For the past two years I have required all groups to have a check-in on Wednesday. This year we used the Tuning protocol to give them some feedback on their film idea. While getting the groups together at school on Wednesday does tend to improve the overall quality of the end products, the students resent this check-in, arguing that it interrupts their filming time, and the feedback comes too late to make a difference. Next year I might try a gallery walk of their initial ideas on Monday afternoon and just set them free from Tuesday to Thursday.
The hardest aspect is ensuring that each group works together. I allocate groups of five students, based on common themes that appear in their mind-maps. The students are not aware of this so the allocation appears quite random to them. I also place the students who seem anti the entire film festival concept in the same group, and interestingly, they typically produce one of the best films. Student feedback always suggests that group composition is an issue for them and they would much rather choose who to work with. I have been hesitant as I worry that groups of friends will find more excuses to goof off, but given the strong and regular feedback about this from students, next year I will allow students to have some say in who they work with.
Some form of team-building exercise seems essential on the first day, but I have not found the best way to do this yet. Last year I had every group attempt the marshmallow challenge on the first day on the school oval as a team-building exercise. While I thought it worked effectively, the students did not like doing it and reported that it was a waste of time. Feedback from students also indicates that they feel that teams of four would be more effective. They argue that in teams of five, one person seems to end up not doing much. I will try teams of four next year, although my concern is that if one person is away, a team of three is insufficient, and this means 50 films to view rather than 40!
On Friday, all students, many teachers, and some parents come together in an auditorium to watch the 40 or so films and the awarding of the prizes. A panel of three judges assesses each film using a rubric based on creativity and communication. There are always a couple of Year 10 students on the panel, often with considerable digital skills. A teacher is on the panel, and parents with film industry experience have sometimes been available as well. The Headmaster awards prizes (iTunes vouchers) for the top three films. There is also a people’s choice award and a creativity award.
The atmosphere in the auditorium at the close of school on the Friday, on the last day of term before work experience and camp week, is always uplifting. The students take great pleasure in viewing each other’s work and the top films are replayed at the conclusion. The top three films are placed on the school Clickview video system and replayed regularly in Tutor groups and Housemeetings. Endless discussions ensue about which films were the best. Top films have included stories about: homelessness, courage, the environment, the impact on a soldier returning from war, and a humorous send-up of ‘Bondi Rescue’. In the past we have allowed students to use popular music as a soundtrack and even cut and paste short clips from YouTube as long as they acknowledge the sources. However, this use of others’ work does make it difficult for us to promote the best films to a wider audience and it might be time for us to consider asking students to produce entirely original films.
The week finishes with students writing brief reflections. Typically the students love the freedom to work outside normal school hours, the fun, creative vibe to the whole week, the trust and responsibility they are granted, and the opportunity to build teamwork and develop their leadership skills with their peers.
“I learned that the school trusts us to make our own choices.” (Christian)
“I liked the atmosphere. It was always positive and it made it enjoyable.” (Will)
“I liked the freedom that we were granted during the week: it meant we could be more creative without restrictions.” (Lucas)
“I liked how we actually did something for the whole week rather than sit in class doing nothing.” (Lincoln)
“I wish we could do this every year.” (Ollie)
“We had a lot of freedom. Nothing felt like we had to do it, more like we wanted to.” (Harry)
The reaction from parents is always interesting. In the first year one parent insisted that we should make attendance compulsory and that we should give the films a mark out of ten to make the students take it seriously. More recently one or two parents have expressed concern early in the week that their son doesn’t seem to be doing much. By and large, however, by the end of the week, most parents appreciate the value when they observe how much their son has enjoyed the process.
The driving educational goal for the week is the attempt to make learning compulsory and attendance optional, and the principles of PBL are woven throughout the week with the inquiry process, the driving question, voice and choice, revision and reflection, and the public audience. Other thoughts for next year include getting some students to help plan the week and using the school portal or social media to enhance communication.
While I have always used elements of project-based learning in my teaching, the two elements that really stand out to me as being crucial are: opportunities for revision and reflection, and a public audience. Ron Berger’s work on developing a culture of critique is powerful and ‘Austin’s butterfly’ demonstrates this superbly. As a teacher I often forget the power of an authentic audience for my students, something I have been endeavouring to rectify lately. Last year my Year 9 history students wrote a historical novel, illustrated by Year 6 students, and I have developed global projects with classes in Turkey and the USA which provide my students with a global audience.
I have now found several colleagues who share an interest in PBL. Working collaboratively with a colleague in the History department has improved my own ideas, spread PBL to a wider audience, and developed interest amongst other teachers as well. The PBL Australia conference at Parramatta Marist was a catalyst for some of our staff, including my Headmaster. Next year our staff biennial conference will focus on PBL. I intend to formalise my adoption of PBL in my own teaching in my Year 9 History class, with a World War One unit titled ‘Best We Forget’, a World War Two unit which examines whether the Aussies were in fact any good at Kokoda, and a popular culture unit which examines protest and the counter-culture movement. I am also beginning to scheme how to use the new cross-curriculum priorities to develop school-wide week-long PBL units to wrap-up Years 7-9. All of Year 7 could spend a week on Asia, all of Year 8 could spend a week on sustainability, and all of Year 9 could spend a week on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander histories and cultures.
None of these ideas would have come to fruitition if it was not for my Twitter connection with Bianca Hewes. She has done more to promote PBL amongst educators than anyone and I conclude by expressing my appreciation for her intellectual commitment to PBL and her willing open and sharing approach with educators from around the globe. Thank you.
Ohler, J. (2007). Digital storytelling in the classroom: New media pathways to literacy, learning, and creativity. Hawker Brownlow.