Is studying grammar, spelling and literature still relevant? Why do we need to know how to parse a sentence when we have apps like Grammarly? And do we have to read the book, if there’s a movie?

Students are rarely satisfied with traditional answers like “it’s what educated people know.” They are personally acquainted with many successful, educated people who haven’t read Shakespeare in the original language, and who manage modal verbs without knowing how to identify one.

Victoria has the fortitude to deal with change.

What’s an English teacher to do?

Find a need. At the heart of Project-Based Learning (PBL) lies student “voice and choice.” Students must have a strong interest – a need to know – to justify the effort required for practice and mastery.

At the start of this semester, Seniors studied a list of 21st Century Skills. Which skills did they consider as strengths? And which ones needed more practice?

After one class, we landed on a shared need. Each teen wanted to converse with strangers without feeling intimidated. They wanted to be able to influence others positively, to open doors to future studies or careers.

Gabriel defines himself as a risk taker.

How to influence others

If you think about it, influencing others is where all aspects of the traditional English curriculum merge, because persuasion requires the right words, in the right order. Since PBL must be standards-based, I studied the Cambridge syllabi for IGCSE and A-level English and came up with the following central goal:

In both writing and speaking, we would master the art of “SQuEE,” which means every Statement would be backed up with a Quote (reference to authority or experience); enough Examples to illustrate; and the Effect produced.

For Mia, loyalty is the most important value, and one she applies in her friendships with others.

For our reading selection, we used Dale Carnegie’s “How to Win Friends and Influence People,” to establish some basic rules for our communication:

1) Think of what the audience wants.

2) Create interest by showing, not telling.

Students began to research universities and companies to discover what “they” wanted, in recognition of another key rule:

3) Listen first, then speak.

Aaron is confident he will reach his goals.

It’s not what you are saying, it’s who you are being

In practice pitches, we branched off into mental health and mood, because taking control of our own communication is not just about words and how we order them. More than 80% of what we communicate to others is delivered and received non-verbally. In other words, we can’t just ‘school’ our brain, we have to figure out who we are. That’s something the Greeks taught in their schools of rhetoric more than 2,000 years ago.

Ancient societies sent the young on spirit quests, while Europeans packed their youth off on grand tours.  We had less time (2 hours a week) and a limited budget, not to mention Covid restrictions, so we relied on imagination and reflection.

We started class with ice-breakers.

“Pick a word to describe yourself at this moment.”

“If you were a color today, what would it be?”

“On a scale of 1-10, where are you in terms of happiness? 10 is joy, 1 is despair.”

This sensitivity to personal states was leading to something important: can you “auto-correct” emotional state?

Zane gets relaxed before the camera and shows her attitude for the future.

“Can you really change your mood?”

There was some serious debate in class. Some felt mood was genetically-wired, controlled by personality. Others felt it was due to external circumstances:

“…I had a terrible sleep…”

“…bad grades…”

“…something someone said…”

To test the plasticity of something so central as mood, we played some games. Once we wrote a list of things we were grateful for. Another time we genuinely thanked someone in the room for their help, being as specific as we could. No generic thank you’s!

Diego holds his board with the same spirit of determination that drives his studies and violin practice.

One memorable day we gave heart-felt compliments. I remember this day particularly, because I told a girl who almost never talks in my class that I loved her hair.  It was true – I had always admired how put-together she was, but I had never thought to comment on it. It seemed too personal. I was astonished to see her face blush with pleasure, her eyes glistening above her wide, wide smile. Why hadn’t I told her before?

The skeptics had been vocal before the exercises – emotional states were forces of nature and nurture, not something we could really tinker with in just 55 minutes at school. But the mood lift that followed these games was palpable. Some were looking up and around, shoulders a little less rounded. Others were smiling. Some laughed. When we did another self-assessment on the happiness scale, everyone was 2-3 points higher.

Mei Mei strives for intellectual, emotional and physical balance in her life.

Just how malleable are emotional states? One day, we rated our own happiness level on the scale of 1-10. (When students hesitated – “I’m not sure” – the rule was “pick a number anyway.” Who could say you picked the wrong number?)

Next we stated why the number was so low, focusing on the reasons we weren’t feeling our best. When we reassessed which number best applied on the hypothetical scale of happiness, most had dropped by one digit. Only one person stayed the same. (“I realized the reason I was feeling bad was not my fault so now I feel better,”  she explained.)

We circled back another class to the same exercise, except this time we flipped it. After attaching our ‘happiness level’ to a number between 1 and 10, we wrote down all the reasons we were feeling happy. We read out the reasons, then checked if our previous number still applied.

Surprise! Everyone’s number had gone up at least 1-2 points.

“I guess it really makes a difference what you focus on,” was how one of my skeptics summed it up.

Thijs looks straight at the camera, as if it was the wave that he is about to surf.

It’s all about commitment

Sometimes you have to commit to a word. Just one. What is your core value?

We started this discussion as we worked on our LinkedIn profiles. Students had to come up with a phrase that summed them up, and some found this easy. Others struggled.

“What if I don’t know what I want to be?”

It led to the important discovery: what you want to be in the future isn’t as important as who you want to be now.

Salome aspires to be adaptable. Life changes, and one has to change with it.

We returned to our core learning objective: “Show, don’t tell.” If you claim “Honesty” as a value, what habitual actions back you up? Students searched for examples to back up their value assertions.

“Values are in the little things you do without thinking, aren’t they?” one student mused.

I was happy to see students’ lists of values getting longer and more substantiated with their day-to-day experiences. But then we raised the stakes: pick one word, write it down on a whiteboard and pose with it for a portrait.

Who am I? And who do I want to be?

Leandro’s photos had been bringing life to this blog for a few months, so we turned to him to help us with this stage of our project. We wanted students to learn how to present themselves to the world in light of one of their personal values. After turning a classroom into a photo studio, Leandro suggested students dress in their favorite clothes and try to communicate this value by matching their chosen word with a facial expression.

Landing on this one word generated a lot of soul-searching. For one student, this became a collective task. A list of words was scribbled on the white board, each debated hotly. Organized. Friendly. Accountable. Loyal. Responsible. Honest.

If I ever wanted a meditation on core values, this was it. In the end, she chose “reliable.”

“Because with this one word I can be all of the others.”

In a word.

The results of this part of the project speak for themselves.

Diego is ready for action, confident he has the skills to be effective.

Me, facing the world

We are now reaching the end of this project. We’ve learned so much about ourselves and each other, but each project requires engagement with the outside community. With Leandro’s photos, students had another view of themselves. Now it was time to meet someone new: human resources specialist and coach, Ana Maria Grau.

Ana joined us last week, working in a breakout room on Zoom with each student in a private, simulated job interview. After reading students’ CVs and recommendation letters, she has given them a taste of what a future employer or admissions officer might ask them about their work experience and values.

“It’s exciting talking to someone who doesn’t know me,” shared one student, who at the start of the course had admitted to getting tongue-tied when talking to strangers.

“I have some practice to do,”said another. “It’s harder than I thought.”

Victoria knows the world can be a tough place but she is resilient

Even as we mark our different learning objectives as complete, there are new questions, like what’s the best way to pitch business ideas? How should I cultivate contacts on LinkedIn? Should I have different versions of my recommendation letters or personal essays for scholarship apps? Each question reveals a newfound sensitivity to register, audience and style, all important A-level topics. It means I have an engaged group of learners for second semester. Thankfully students have met experts like Leandro and Ana Maria Grau and know that insightful people in the community can also help in their quest to communicate better. As the Personal Presentation Project wraps up, it seems we have more trails to follow. And that’s what happens with project-based learning. The learning never stops.

Text by Angela Jarman

Photographs by Leandro Natale