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Empower global citizens with PBL

Nearly 5,000 miles separate Paris, France, from Lopez Island in the state of Washington. Middle-school students from these far-flung locations have been working together during the past school year to research, curate and share the otherwise forgotten stories of World War I American soldiers buried abroad.

Students are bringing history to life for cemetery visitors with the use of an app and are inviting others to join their efforts through a crowdsourced website. The Monuments Project doesn’t just teach students about history. It challenges them to do the work of historians. In the process, students are also learning what it means to be engaged global citizens who can leverage technology to collaborate, research, educate and motivate others.

The backstory of the project provides valuable insights into how to design and grow global education projects. It’s one of the compelling examples that colleague Mike Gwaltney and I will share at ISTE 2017 during our interactive lecture, Empowering Global Citizens with Project-Based Learning.

Here are a few insights from the Monuments Project team that will help teachers who want to engage their students in technology-rich global education projects.

Tom Neville is a history teacher at the American School of Paris, a PBL veteran and director of a nonprofit called THATClass.

He was inspired to design this project when he learned that a student’s father worked for the American Battle Monuments Commission, which maintains cemeteries abroad. In a follow-up conversation, the parent explained, “We have all these soldiers [buried] at Suresnes [a cemetery in France] whose stories aren’t told.”

Neville’s response: “That’s a perfect problem statement.” The project idea grew from there.  

Initially, the Monuments Project involved only Neville’s middle school students. They were quickly engaged by the real-world task, which challenged them to develop and apply historical thinking.  

“We start without tech,” the teacher explains, “namely with Eleanor Duckworth’s critical exploration approach. It forces students to patiently observe, to ground observations in specific evidence others can see, to listen to others’ observations, to identify patterns between observations, to be comfortable sharing uncertainty and simply being in a state of uncertainty, and to embrace the idea that there always might be more you didn’t notice or know.”

Technology quickly came into play, however, as students began reaching out via email and videoconferencing to archivists and curators of special collections. Being immersed in the process of history took learning to new heights. Excited students would often corner Neville in a hallway before class even began “and tell me how ‘their archivist’ got back to them.” 

Neville collaborated with colleagues from his own school, including learning coach Claude Lord who supported technology integration. Her goal as a coach is to help teachers “embed technology in a seamless way so that pedagogy takes over to engage students with authentic projects that would not have been possible before.”

Once the project was underway, Neville read about a school in remote Lopez Island that is using technology to connect with the world.  He reached out to social studies teacher Anthony Rovente, who was quick to see the value of a transatlantic collaboration.

The Monuments Project has continued to expand, with more schools joining from New York and West Virginia. As Neville explains, “The individuals buried in Suresnes come from almost every state. Imagine having a few [schools] from each state join. Then imagine attempting the same at other American cemeteries with international schools in other countries serving as the local liaison.”

This project meshes nicely with the Global Collaborator standard within the new ISTE Standards for Students. That standard instructs students "to use digital tools to broaden their perspectives and enrich their learning by collaborating with others and working effectively in teams locally and globally." 

With the centennial of the armistice coming up, Neville adds, there’s no better time “to get students from all over engaged in telling untold stories and developing real skills in the process.”

Suzie Boss is an author and educational consultant from Portland, Oregon. She has written several books for educators, including the ISTE bestseller, Reinventing Project-Based Learning, 2nd Ed. She is a regular contributor to Edutopia and a member of the Buck Institute for Education National Faculty. A frequent presenter at education conferences, she has helped project-based learning take hold at schools in India, Europe, Mexico, and South America, as well as all over the United States.Follow her on Twitter @SuzieBoss.              

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