It always sounds like a good idea to teach a project lesson, but many times they are shrugged off as being too difficult to plan or disruptive to the curriculum. I disagree. Everyone has different learning styles and, especially for kinesthetic learners, a project is a great way to solidify grammar, vocabulary and concepts taught in a unit.
Not only that, but project lessons are a great chance for students to increase their fluency. You are creating a context for them to discuss something that is tangible, and that they are excited about. That’s right, where your student Thao might usually roll her eyes when asked to talk about her summer holiday, she’ll probably enjoy showing off her pamphlet about Brazil.
Read on for tips on planning, giving instructions for, what to do during and how to use projects in a TEFL classroom.
Planning Your Project
First of all, you need to have a clear aim in mind for your project. Just because you saw a cool dragon lantern on Pinterest, doesn’t mean it will be beneficial for your students to do. I like to do project lessons at the end of every other unit, and use the topics and language as a guide for what we will do in class. For example, after teaching clothing and patterns to my nine year olds, I decided to have them create a fashion show with paper clothing as a review project. Unfortunately, the dragon lantern probably wouldn’t have helped solidify this language in the same way.
In a similar vein, make sure that your project choice is SMART (Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic and Timely). In the context of project lessons, “Measurable” means that there is some way for the teacher to judge whether or not the student is achieving the goal. As for “Timely”, I mean that you need to create a sense of urgency. In fact, I like to set up time limits for different parts of the project in order to keep the students on track. More on this later.
If you are a creative person, coming up with project ideas is not only easy, but a lot of fun. If you are lacking inspiration, but feel that you want to do a project lesson, look to your fellow teachers for influence. Failing that, despite my joke earlier about the dragon lantern, Pinterest and other similar sites are great for coming up with ideas. Just be discriminating with your search.
Lastly, and probably most importantly, have your materials ready! It’s stressful enough to try and do a massive project. Don’t add creating or searching for last-minute materials to the list. Make a good materials checklist for yourself so that you can be assured you have what you need before the lesson begins.
Instructions are always something to be careful with in TEFL. Obviously there is a language barrier between you and your students or you wouldn’t need to be there. There isn’t much difference between giving instructions for any classroom activity and a project lesson, except that in a project lesson the stakes are much higher. A project lesson might last an hour and a half or even longer. If your students don’t know what they’re meant to be doing, they might waste a lot of this time.
Make your instructions visual. The bare minimum of this is to actually have a completed version of the project for students to use as a reference. No matter how detailed and clear your instructions might be, it’s hard to get across the idea of a paper mache mask of a famous person. Seeing an example will work wonders.
Another option is to actually have a visual example of the project at different phases. A simple way to do this is to take photos of your example project as you go, then show them to the students. Miming the instructions will also help.
Next, the directions need to be somewhere where the students can continually reference them. Even if they understood what to do when you explained it to them, they might forget when they get caught up in the fun and excitement. Split the instructions into phases, and write them on the board along with something visual to help them remember each part.
Also, as I discussed earlier, when splitting it into parts, I find it useful to give a time limit for each section. I often ask the students how long they think it will take them for each section in order to make them involved in the goings-on of the lesson. This works, though I urge you to leave a buffer zone so you aren’t rushing through things. Likewise, you as the teacher should have a pretty good idea of how long each phase will take your students.
Your Role During the Project
While the students are actually engaged in doing the project, the teacher needs to be actively monitoring. This doesn’t mean that the teacher should sit behind a desk and check the news on their phone. It means that they need to be walking around the room checking on each student’s progress and making sure that everyone is keeping on task.
If you find that some students are confused about the directions, this might be a good time to stop everyone and clarify. More than likely, if there is one student who didn’t quite understand, there will be others.
Another thing to watch for, while actively monitoring, are potential teaching moments. While the students prepare their projects, the teacher can look for individual student errors and correct them. Other teaching moments may even just be praising a student and talking about their work. It’s also a good time for the teacher to clarify certain grammar or language that the teacher knows the student is struggling with, using the project as a tool.
To sum up, during the project the teacher should be playing the part of time keeper, grammar guru, authoritarian (if they aren’t doing their work) and friend. Depending on the group, they might also just require a lot of help to complete the project. For example, young children might not be experts when it comes to using glue, or teens might not be as skilled as you at optimizing their online searches when doing research.
Using the Completed Project
Hopefully, by doing the project, the students were using a lot of written and spoken language. Still, once it’s completed, make sure that you use the project to get as much language out of your students as possible. The most obvious way to do this is to have the students present the projects to each other.
While this seems like a good idea, some common problems that arise with this are students not listening to other groups or becoming bored. To counter this, I tend to give the audience a task during another group or individual’s presentation. Either they should be coming up with questions, listening for mistakes or judging based on an agreed-upon set of criteria.
Another way to use completed projects, either during that class or the next, is for another activity or game. For example, if my students have created a model town as a project, I can use those towns for a game the next class. I could turn it into a “run and write” activity where one student spies on another group’s town and reports it to his own team, which writes down the locations of things in the town.
Ok, so yes, project lessons do take a little more time to prepare than normal lessons. That said, they are valuable and lots of fun for everyone involved. Also, the change of pace is a good way to keep things fresh. Go on, tackle those project lessons!
Click the box below to get access to a sample project lesson about endangered animals.