I am in my first year of implementing project based learning. For those of you that are unfamiliar don't worry, I was until last year. Basically you give students one, big, driving question that they work on for an extended period of time. Usually, this is a question that bridges modern day issues with historical research. It is also meant to be something the students will see as real-life and will be motivated to answer it in their own unique way. It is a way of pushing students into their own learning.
Currently, my seventh grade Social Studies class is pretending to be newly elected congressman and congresswomen. They have been asked to chair a committee on church and state. They need to answer this question, "What is the proper role of religion in government?". Since we were studying medieval Europe, they are using historical examples like the Crusades, conflicts between papacy and monarch, and philosophy. Many groups (committees) have also explored the Reconquista, the Reformation, and indulgences. In addition, they have been tying in modern day examples to help decide their point. One thing I pushed them to do was conduct interviews as a way of gathering data from their constituents. Most people chose to interview teachers and friends. Some grabbed a flip cam and hit the streets, Jay Leno-style asking for people's opinion. I thought that was great. Once group of girls wanted to send Obama an email. Even though I told them that he probably wouldn't answer, I didn't stop them because it was a valuable learning experience. Looking up Obama's information and formulating a professional email are great things to learn. They then turned their attention to the pope. I said the same things as with Obama. But once again valuable knowledge was gained. They asked what the Vatican was and it led to good conversation. Next, they set their sights on the mayor. For the third time, I had a conversation explaining how he was probably really busy and he may not answer. It didn't deter them!
Today, they opened their email in Social Studies class and the mayor of Redwood City, CA sent them a personal email answering all five of their interview questions. I was stunned and the girls were absolutely ecstatic. They were so happy (I don't think they realized how excited their teacher was). I am sure it is something they will never forget. This is real learning. This natural sense of curiosity and determination are things we should value in students not prohibit. And think, I was trying to tell them not to try. Yikes! So in the end I was proven wrong. I underestimated the kindness of strangers (it was a politician for goodness sake) and my students showed me that nothing can come unless you ask.