For Students It All Starts with the Entry Event

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By: Joe Steele, High School PBL Facilitator

Columbus Signature Academy New Tech High School

Columbus, IN


Students have a lot fighting for their attention; from hormones to cell phones, many distractions can overwhelm their plan to pay attention in your class. Not only is focus a constant struggle, students are often hesitant to trust adults as beacons of knowledge. Some students see teachers as individuals who could not make it in the real world and other students view the teacher’s knowledge, in a very specific field, as beyond their abilities or beyond their level of need. Add to this, the constant presence in their social media of effortlessly successful celebrities, which makes it difficult for many of them to see a visible connection between your coursework and success in the world after school. This backdrop makes it nearly impossible to convince them your lecture, worksheet or assessment has value in their life. If only there was some way to stop them in their tracks, pull at their heartstrings, access their expertise, and move them so deeply, they forget they are addressing standards and give you everything they have.

You can grab their attention like that! You can spark them to do their absolute best. The project-based learning (PBL) classroom decides to fight for that attention, and the PBL teacher knows it must earn the students’ respect before they challenge them. Engagement is born from an authentic problem and they are hooked with the Entry Event. The PBL teacher knows the present-day student must see the value of the lesson before they throw their energy toward the assigned work. So let’s look at how we grab their attention, how we launch them into a project, how we create the Entry Event, which is the moment we present the project to the students and hook their attention on the given task.

Our course standards are designed to be the master list of skills an individual needs to be fully functioning and successful in the real world. As an English teacher, my course standards are based on a person’s ability to show evidence that supports their logical arguments based on fiction and non-fiction, while using proper punctuation. PBL says my coursework must show the clear, authentic, real-world usage for these skills and standards. The process of designing a project has me start with the main standards I plan to address in a unit, (the more standards, the merrier!); from there, I search for authentic jobs or real life situations that require a person to work through those standards to complete important tasks and problems within their profession. Once I locate the real-world application of the course standards, I reach out to friends and family for help to establish a lead on a community partner. I ask them if they know someone whose business, line of work, or hobby requires them to do work or use skills that cover my standards. Local businesses love free advertising, so why not have your local insurance salesman ask your students for a commercial? Have local politicians debate a topic affecting the students in front of the students. Then have your students respond to the issue after they’ve dug into it, and then report back.

If you visit the library, you’ll see the bulletin board has countless events and lectures with great guests. I know many would love to work with your students. A local author has a book coming out? I bet she would enjoy challenging your students to review it or edit it. If your students have to edit someone else’s work, then they have to know the rules of punctuation. To help that person, students will need you to help them learn or sharpen a few skills. I anticipate where they will HAVE to go to be successful and I make sure that the path they take goes directly through my standards. Then, as the idea solidifies, I begin work on the most crucial part: How do I present this to the students to get their full energy and support behind making sure the project is a success? How do I get them as excited as I am?

If the community partner is comfortable with the PBL classroom, I almost always try to have them present to serve as the centerpiece for the Entry Event. Whether the community partner is involved with the launch or not, the following is my list of essential elements of a successful Entry Event: Sincerity, Scope, Students, Showmanship and the Standard(s)!

  1. Sincerity: Authenticity and sincerity are the cornerstones of PBL. Students must feel they are truly needed to complete the project. Students must see the work they will be doing has a real use in their life, an effect on business, their community or it simply improves life. If you have a community partner present, you must impress upon them to be sincere with the students in their request for work. The students must feel respected in their being chosen for this task. If students can feel it is real, they will give you real effort.

  2. Scope: Once the Entry Event has ended, students MUST have enough information to envision the parameters or scope of the project and create a Know/Need to Know list and then a Solution Criteria. You facilitate and keep them on the road, but the road must be clear. I create an Anticipated Know/Need to Know List based only on what can be garnered from the Entry Event. I get feedback from my peer facilitators in a Critical Friends Protocol, where I give them the Entry Event and see if they can clearly see the scope of my expectations.

  3. Showmanship: When it comes to an Entry Event, you are no longer a teacher! You are an entertainer, a P.T. Barnum, a movie studio, a professional salesperson! Go big, be goofy, grab their full attention. An Entry Event must be powerful enough to blow their inhibitions away, knock their attitudes from boredom to buy-in! Dress up, have special guests, pass out artifacts, show video clips, get them out of their usual environment. If done right, the Entry Event can generate enough excitement to propel students through the entire project!

  4. Students: You may be preparing them for their future, but you have to grab them where they are now. The Entry Event must be exciting to the kids in your room. Use contemporary music, memes, and celebrity references. Incorporate the need for students to use apps, post, search and or play games they already love. Did you know you can design event and location filters on Snapchat? Your students do! What if you made one for your project launch and all the kids took selfies with it and their friends saw it? It just may make them get a hair more excited about their work. Pile in enough excitement into your Entry Event and you may grab all of the students.

  5. Standards: The standards are arguably the absolute main focus of our coursework and thus, every project, but for me, I am fine listing it last when creating the Entry Event. When I planned the project, I started with the standards, making sure to use the language and vocabulary within my standards as I create the Entry Event. If students are going to address Persuasive Writing Standards in their project, I make sure to use phrases like: “convince us which is the best option” “defend your ideas”, “choose the best,” or “Our community partner needs advice on which…”  In the Entry Event, students should be able to logically identify all standards they will be addressing in the project. Again, using a Critical Friends Protocol, have your peers see if they can identify the standards from your course that will be covered in the project; if your peers can identify the standards addressed in the project based on the Entry Event, chances are you on your way to creating a successful one!

When I taught middle school, each of those years, a fundraiser salesman would gather all of the students in the gymnasium and shared all of the wonderful prizes the kids could earn if they accepted his challenge of selling nick-nacks to their families and neighbors. He flew drones over their heads, played their favorite video games on a wall projector and shot t-shirts at them from a cannon. It was always an epic event, like nothing they had ever seen; students forgot they were at school.  Once they were frothing at the mouth, ready to do whatever it took to earn these levels and get these cheap prizes, he’d hit them with detailed instructions on how to sell and document their sell of nick-nacks to their family, neighbors and strangers. The students overcome with motivation, would listen on pins and needles to every instruction. This PBL teacher took note.

Project-based learning is a Trojan Horse of sorts, in that we sneak in all of the traditional teacher’s great lessons, workshops, and lectures behind the walls of our students’ focus and effort. Like the fundraiser salesmen, I create a moment where someone or something other than me, grabs my students’ attention, gets them amped up and eager to dive in to a challenge. I do not technically force my students to address the standards of my course. In my course, students are challenged to complete a real life task, a task that just so happens to require the skills of my course standards. On their way to create an end product on their own for someone else, I am there to facilitate and equip them with the tools and knowledge required for successful completion of the task, which intentionally happens to be the standards covered in my course.

The students are challenged to go on a road trip to a wonderful destination and my lectures, worksheets and assessments are gas stations, police officers and mechanic shops along the interstate. Students do not focus on the lectures, workshops or assessments. They are NOT at the forefront of the course. Knowing the map of my expectations, I create benchmark toll booths, where the payment is proving proficiency on my standards. If they pass, they travel on to their real-world destination, if they cannot pay, or pass the assessment, they pull into my workshops and I help them get road worthy again. The entry event establishes the destination and the parameters which students must maintain and follow on their trip. If by some chance your entry event fails to lead students to what you had hoped, you can clean it up in the Knows/Need to Know Protocol that immediately follows or patch it up when students make the solution criteria.

Like a great essay, a project launch must grab the audience’s attention and get them emotionally invested before you introduce the required coursework. Once you have them connected to the idea of the final product and its need in this world, they will pay attention as they read the details of it in the Entry Document. And once they see the scope of their work, they will recognize the need for your course standards in its completion.  I have attached a few examples of Entry Documents I have used in conjunction with the Entry Event. The documents do not represent the “event,” but they are built to hold all of the main elements the students will need to begin their work. I try to incorporate a document, be it a letter, challenge, or brochure that students can “mine” for details and content after the introduction to the project has ended.

For one project, I had the head of our community’s recycling center challenge my students to raise awareness and use of the free recycling toters. The community partner was ecstatic to have the students’ help, but required a little guidance on how to frame their presentation. This first example is a note to this Community Partner helping them guide their conversation with the students.  The second Entry Document is an email to the English department outlining our budget. The librarian personally challenged students to read a new book, and then advise the English Department which book(s) should we order for our school. The email was used subsequently to give the students their budget and make them aware that any book recommendation must have a justification.  This  Entry Letter was a challenge to students to help the PTO decide which playground addition they would like to see. The PTO took them to the playground to play, then told them they were in charge of choosing the next piece of equipment. Though the 7th graders were very excited and ready to dive in, they needed a really clear path that year and students were unable to fully create a functioning Need to Know list and Solution Criteria by only following the Entry Event. This follow up letter helped them fill in the blanks.

Like the fundraiser salesmen, I know my students do NOT naturally want to make sales, collect money, and document their work, but if you give them enough incentive before the work is introduced, they will happily do it all for small rewards. If I can wow and awe the students with work that helps someone in their community and is real work that adults do in this world, they will not only see the need of my coursework, they will happily do it and see the reward.

For more resources on how to make effective Entry Events check out Magnify Learning’s website.

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Joe Steele works at CSA New Tech High School as Language Arts Facilitator and also serves as a Magnify Learning PBL Certified Instructor. He lives deep in the hills of Brown County with his brilliant wife, Bridget, a middle school science PBL teacher, and their two youngest children, Savannah, 13, and Weston, 11. Their oldest, Kaleb, 22 is a senior at Indiana University.