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Guide to Contextual Learning Projects

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Is the theme one that will appeal to students?

Is the theme one that will appeal to students? What was the inspiration for the project? Is the project age-appropriate, respectful of diverse views and backgrounds, and open-minded in the approach to social, political or economic issues?

The current emphasis on studying contemporary themes stems from both the desire to share new and emerging knowledge and ideas with students and from the idea that students are inspired by engaging in current issues. However, people who work with students and youth programs know that sometimes a thoughtfully and enthusiastically prepared class lesson, workshop or project on an interesting contemporary theme will somehow fall flat when presented to students. Success depends on not only the theme, but also the project design.

There are several reasons that students are may or may not be excited by activities based on real-life themes. Is the theme new and fresh to them? Or have they already participated in many similar activities about the same theme? Are students developmentally ready for the topic or is the topic one that they are not ready for? This could be an issue, for example, if younger students are presented with activities about gender equity or other issues that they have not yet encountered; while older students may be very interested in these topics. Is the project bias-free or might students perceive the activity as making unwelcome judgments or assumptions about their lives? This could be an issue if students are presented with anti-violence or anti-gang curriculum that somehow implies that their lives are shadowed with violence and gang activity; or curriculum about the “obesity crisis” and “food deserts” that suggest negative assumptions about the quality of their communities and lifestyles. Does the project feel age-appropriate? Is the presentation of the topic respectful of students’ ages, abilities and interests, allowing them to engage in exploration and gain skills and knowledge?

In some cases, students may be involved in identifying projects and topics. In schools where community service learning, senior “capstone projects” or other contextual learning projects are part of the school curriculum, teachers may involve students in identifying issues and thinking about possible projects. Schools may present a set of choices for students to select from, such as one school highlighted in the Contextual Learning Portal that presented several possible areas of focus for their senior capstone project initiative.

In other cases, community-based or school-based partners will determine the project selection process. Contextual learning projects may develop through the invitation of a community partner to work together on a particular project. Or projects may develop because the school has a commitment to work on nutrition and health topics, anti-bullying programs or other school-community-related topics. Or projects may develop through an opportunity or idea developed by a classroom teacher, guidance counselor or after-school program leader.

Projects may focus on contemporary themes or may focus on themes that are not necessarily current or contemporary. Themes may be inspired by local history, by the work of local organizations, or simply by shared interests of teachers, program leaders, students and others.

Whatever the origin of the project idea, one of the best ways to encourage student engagement is to make sure that students are given the tools to learn and latitude to explore, discuss, write and reflect about the topic, rather than just a set of "answers" about a topic. These tools can include everything from tips and coaching about research, note-taking skills and writing skills for the project to background knowledge of relevant history, political principles and constitutional law, to information about where and how to find and analyze statistics and information about the topic. Given these tools, along with a structure that allows varying opinions and approaches to the topic, students will feel a sense of mastery to be able to take a topic in whatever direction and to whatever level they want to explore.

It is important to provide discussion questions, writing prompts and an open-minded approach that allows students to look at a topic from different angles. Most topics, even those that appear not to have “room for debate” can provide opportunities for research, exploration and discussion of multiple points of view. For example, there is little room for debate that a diet rich in fruits, vegetables and whole grains is healthier than a diet heavy in sugars and fats. However, students can research and debate methods for influencing people to adopt healthier eating (School lunch reforms? Changes in local fast food options? Public education campaigns?); and can debate about the most effective approaches to public service messaging.