My Project-Based Learning Experience

I credit my middle school Social Studies teacher for my love of History. I often cite one of her projects for how I built deep understanding of the pre-Civil War era and connected the political stratification in the mid-1800s to the challenges of gridlock in government today.

My classmates and I were given the charge to become Senators and analyze issues from the 1800s and search for a means to resolve the big event of that time: Avoid the American Civil War. Students were assigned one of four roles: Southern moderate or extremist and Northern moderates or abolitionists.

During the course of the unit we studied issues of that time, debated and sought votes on legislation. Before and after class, students gathered in corners or next to lockers, either to strategize or cut deals. At first, the moderates from both sides came up with solutions through compromises, which might have led to peaceful resolutions. Yet these bills were voted down because the Southern and Northern groups at the opposite ends of the spectrum lobbied hard to change language in bills or to keep party moderates tied to their regional allies. As a Northern abolitionist I worked successfully to block legislation that went against the interests of my voting block. Most votes went along regional lines, and so little was accomplished.

The meetings became so stagnant that frustration rose on all sides as to getting anything done. Finally, the Southern Senators  voted to succeed, and ending the social experiment. I remember that moment as the only time that everyone agreed with the result–the Southern Senators claimed victory in that moment of defiance and the Northern Senators believed that History was on their side.

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During this project the teacher provided instruction in a variety of ways. Readings, lectures, and research occurred weekly. I know of no one who was bored during this time. Everything we did we knew was preparing us for the back hallway strategy sessions, Senate debates, and voting. The outcome of war may for some be a failure because the students were unable to find middle ground and compromises that might have averted the Civil War, or delayed it as was the result of the Jacksonian Era. The experiment was a resounding success because students understood content and the challenges for building common ground when rigid ideology becomes an obstacle to progress.

If done today, I believe that teacher would have refined her PBL tools further. The final product would evolve into making connections with the Senate of the 1800s to the U.S. Congress of today. Students may have written letters and used social media to propose idea to convince their representatives and constituents that poor communication and minimal collaboration solves no problems, nor promotes any progress that moves the government and the nation forward.

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I wonder what project experiences stay in the minds of others. What are yours?

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