Make it Mean Something!

I have just finished Alan Patton’s teacher’s guide to project-based learning titled “Work that Matters,” If you are just now getting your tootsies wet with this kind of exploratory education, it is a good starting place. A lot of it was redundant for me, but there was one thing that really stuck with me: If you want your students to learn it is imparative that you give your project meaning. 

But how on earth does one do that when guiding adult learners who are usually over-worked, often under-paid and always ridiculously exhausted from the toils of juggling both personal and professional life? The last thing they need is their over-caffeinated English teacher pushing them to investigate and prepare draft after draft of something that, for them, has no purpose.

Let me back up a bit. For years, I thought that giving language learning meaning meant making it applicable to their daily lives, and there is a place for that. But when I refer to giving a lesson meaning, I am talking about something that is bigger than the classroom, something larger than their workplace, something that takes them out of themselves and places them in the world.

Now get ready because doing this is easier than you think.

  1. Find a real life problem, worry, need, or desire.
  2. Brainstorm creatively on ways to solve, calm, meet, or satisfy step 1.
  3. Make sure that step 2 is applicable to a real life project that could be presented at a public level.

Bam! You just created real life meaning for your adult learners.

I am so worked up about this that I just have to share with you our most recent project.

Real life problem: Trash – What is it? Who creates it? Where does it go?

Project: How to raise awareness for reducing and reusing rather than recycling. (At a local level).

During the first week, we talked exclusively about garbage, what breaks down and what doesn’t, what is toxic, what isn’t, where does the trash go, and how is it being managed. Could we deal with it better? How?

Of course everyone was a huge proponent of recycling (even though most are not actively participating in it. Surprisingly enough, Argentina has a pretty big culture for reusing).

We then discussed the myth hidden within the big business of recycling and discovered that most awareness campaigns point towards recycling rather than reducing or reusing in order to continue driving consumerism.

As homework they had to investigate who was actually campaigning for the reduction of waste or the reuse of products rather than recycling.

When we recommenced, none of them had done their research – this is far to typical for adult students – luckily, I had put together a couple of different campaigns, one from a Costa Rican community school working to reduce and repurpose waste by creating bottle bricks, one from an Australia family who produces absolutely zero waste, and one local drive to collect bottle caps that will later be recycled into local playground toys and public bus seats.  We talked about whether or not those were viably applicable actions to the local citizens of Rosario, whether they were fundamented in recycling, reusing, reducing, rethinking, or repurposing and how those people or projects are creating awareness in the society that surrounds them. How were they inspiring others to do the same?

How could we do the same?

Then the magic happened.

One person said, “Well, I think the project that the school is doing is pretty easy. Anyone can do it, it doesn’t take much time and it has a double purpose to reduce the same that garbage occupies and repurpose that garbarge to solve the problem of local housing. Plus, I will have to take the garbage out less often.”

Another one chimed in, “Yeah, maybe a nonprofit like Techo could start building their houses out of bottle bricks.”

“But how might we involve the community on all of this?” I asked.

“What if we get the Ministry of Education to begin a program in each classroom where children put nonrecyclable trash in a plastic bottle?”


“So we need to convince Techo and the Ministry of Education, am I correct?” I continued guiding their brilliance. “But what about people who aren’t in school?”

“We should make it an annual homework project so that children involve their parents!” belted someone.

YES! You have done it! I screamed!

You have just built a plan to:

  • Reduce and repurpose plastic waste
  • Raise awareness in the community on 3 different levels (children, adults and politicians)
  • And save a nonprofit organization loads of money while simultaneously putting them at the forfront of quite possibly the biggest marketing endeavor they have ever been a part of.

Now all we have to do is get Techo as well as the provincial governement on board.

For homework they had to write a pitch to sell Techo on our idea and I had to contact my friends from the Santa Fe Province to see what they thought. THEY LOVED IT and have asked us to participate in the next provincial educational laboratory!

While we will participate in the lab in Spanish, the students will have to give their feedback and complete their homework in English. So, at the end of the day not only are they learning English, they are learning to making offers and write sales pitches. They are polishing their grammar and practicing the delicate art of giving opinions. They are learning to solve problems, not individually but collectively, as an English class, as a community as citizens of this city and of the world.



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