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What Project-Based Learning Looks Like in Middle School

Our 8th-grade Sharknado classroom recently completed a class project creating a podcast documentary on how marginalized groups in Chicago worked for social justice at key junctures in the city's history. It's a great snapshot of how project-based learning works in a middle-school classroom.

Advantages of Project-Based Learning

Progressive education emphasizes project-based learning as the key to making learning interesting and relevant to children. The benefits of project-based learning are that a project topic can weave in a multitude of academic skills, hands-on learning, collaboration experience, teamwork, and social skills.

Each class at The Children's School (TCS) chooses one or more major group projects to work on during the year. The class chooses the project topic through a democratic process, and often the project is divided into sub-topics that small groups or individual students can investigate separately.

Throughout the project, the teacher enfolds a variety of academic studies into the students' project experience, weaving in math, science, history, or social justice classwork related to the topic.

Each piece of the completed project is finally pulled together into a group presentation. This way, students can also learn presentation skills and how to receive feedback. There's also time for students to self-reflect on what went wrong or right in their work process and what they might do differently in future projects.

Sharknados Get Curious About Oral History:

Experiencing the Minority vs. Majority Pressures in Democracy First-Hand

In the case of the TCS 8th-grade "Sharknado" classroom, students expressed an interest in oral history and its traditions. They wanted to choose a topic based in preserving an oral history —specifically involving a topic about a group that had been historically discriminated against in Chicago.

"We used a consensus-building process to narrow down to two viable topics," explains 8th-grade teacher, Ms. Gloria Mitchell. "However, in arguing which topic to choose, there was a definite split in student preference along gender lines."

"We talked about this as a problem of democracy. If there are different identity groups within a larger group, and one is in the minority, a simple majority-rules vote could mean that the minority group never gets its interests represented in the plans and actions of the larger group. What other ways could we envision or invent to come to a decision?


"We started to consider similarities between the two competing project ideas. The question then became: What if, instead of choosing just one project topic, we created a podcast that would have different episodes, with a different focal event and marginalized group represented in each?"

Ultimately, the class decided to split up into smaller workgroups: That way they could create a multi-episode podcast. Their final product offered five episodes, each focusing on a different marginalized group in Chicago and that group's history of discrimination and activism for change.

Gathering Authentic Stories From Those With First-Hand Information

"All of the podcasts are interview-based. We were especially interested in collecting oral histories of people who were involved as witnesses to or participants in action for social justice. Some of the podcasts also include local historians and journalists who have expertise in a particular topic," says Gloria Mitchell.

In preparing their podcasts, Sharknados researched and then reached out to individuals who played a part in struggles that advanced the rights of marginalized groups in Chicago, and/or who had specific expertise.

Students Nikita and Maddie explored how the gay community in Chicago’s Northalsted / Boystown neighborhood evolved into an important political voting bloc in the city. As part of their project, they interviewed two owners of one of the first gay bars in the community: Art Johnston and José "Pepe" Peña. From their interview, they learned how the gay community galvanized together to face the AIDS epidemic in the early 80s, and how the community became an important part of the national gay rights movement.

It was fascinating to learn about the history of the gay community in Chicago from the mouths of the people who experienced it themselves, says Nikita. I still can’t believe we were able to talk to Art and Pepe and hear their stories firsthand.”

Her project partner Maddie says, “I'm so grateful for this opportunity to share overlooked/unshared information. I hope that tons of people hear this podcast, and share it with others.”

Expert Mentors Share Professional-Level Production Skills

Part of the project-based curriculum at TCS includes bringing in topic experts to meet with students at key junctures in their project work. Learning to interview these experts as primary resources, digging deep with questions and answers, rewards student curiosity and develops important lifelong skills.

Dan Andries is a Senior Producer at WTTW, Chicago's PBS station, who has made documentaries about the city's artists, architects, and activists for more than two decades. Dan is also an alumni parent whose children Isabella and Ellie both graduated from The Children's School. He met with the Sharknados to coach them on their podcast work and answer questions about producing engaging documentaries.

""The students in Ms. Mitchell's class did amazing work. From the beginning, their curiosity led them to excellent subjects, and when I first met with them, they had already seen the documentaries and news pieces that I would've suggested they look to for inspiration and information," says Andries.

"They were open to my sharing contacts I thought would be helpful, some thoughts on process, and finally to notes I had on the work once it was in draft form.

"While I supported their work, the strength, originality and brilliance of it is of course all their doing. I loved being part of the process. Their final pieces included some stories I'd never heard before. They expanded my knowledge of our region."

The students also worked with TCS parent Jeff Quest, who has his own podcast and coached the students on how to capture clear audio. He loaned the class a good-quality microphone and introduced them to Squadcast, which is like Zoom for podcasters.

8th-grader Paul reflects on what he learned after finishing his podcast episode: “I think lessons I can take away from this are talking and editing skills. I also feel that I've improved in my technical skills like writing emails and scripts and editing the podcast itself. I also learned patience is key in a podcast, especially in editing and interviews.”

His project partner Aydin agrees: “The skill of being able to combine interviews with my own writing and narration to make a compelling and informative narrative will be a useful skill as I move forward.”

Final Presentation and Link to "Spilling the Bean(s)"

For a final presentation, and to celebrate the completion of their podcast, the Sharknados held a Zoom "Listening Party" for the TCS community and their families the evening of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day.

You, too, can listen to "Spilling the Bean(s)" with links to each episode on SoundCloud below:


Northalsted: Pride of Chicago: The history of how Northalsted and Boystown's gay community have helped shape the city. Interviews highlight the fight for zoning fairness and the right to run a business, earning respect as a voting block from politicians, the impact of AIDS on the community in the 80s, and how gentrification affects housing costs today and threatens the gay district.

Activists Speak Out Against Arab-American Discrimination: Looking back at the impact of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on inflaming hate and discrimination against Arab Americans. How Arab Americans view the ensuing war with Iraq, and the fallout of Islamophobia and hate crimes here in the U.S.

How a Small Chicago Suburb Fought Racism and Won: The evolution of Oak Park from the 1920s to now and how a fair housing ordinance in 1968 helped dissolve racist practices of neighborhood segregation. Interviews highlight how the banning of “for sale” signs and Oak Park Regional Housing Center helped to stem white flight and promote desegregation.


School Walkouts 1960s: A Story of Racism and Segregation: Tracking the fight for desegregation of Chicago Public Schools, and the relationship of segregation to residential redlining. Interviews highlight how racial segregation in the Chicago public school system impacted students of color in the 1960s.

No Place to Call Home: The Struggle of the Chicago Indian Village for Housing Rights: How Native Americans, who moved off of reservations and to the big city with promises of jobs and better living, ended up homeless and impoverished. The story of Chicago’s Indian Village and the protest movement that fought to rebuild the Native American community and identity.


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