Establishing Adult Connections through Authentic Projects

This year I have been making a concerted effort to create and alter projects to make them more authentic by focusing on establishing adult connections between students in the classroom and the world beyond those four walls. One of the proudest moments in my teaching career so far resulted from this effort in Term Two.

Along with my amazing team teachers, we redesigned a Year 9 integrated English/HSIE project that explored John Boyne’s historical novel The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas and the history of WWII and the Holocaust. We named this project In the Shadows of the Shoah (Shoah is the Hebrew term for ‘destruction’ or ‘calamity’) and it ran over the 10 week term.

The driving question:

What can we learn from the Shoah so we can ensure that it is never repeated?

The problem statement:

How can we, as museum curators, design and construct an interactive exhibition that presents a narrative of the experiences of those who endured the Shoah, so that visitors understand its impact?

From the outset, we established adult connections between our classes and ‘real world’ experts. The Entry Event for the project was organised by Kurt Challinor and immediately got students engaged in the history and experiences of WWII. Dr. Jan Lanicek, a scholar in Jewish history from UNSW, gave an introductory lecture to all of Year 9 via FaceTime.

Credit: Dr Jan Lanicek, UNSW; Kurt Challinor, Parramatta Marist High School

Students were given handouts of the presentation and were required to take notes so that more detailed discussions could be had back in class. This was highly effective in grabbing the attention of the boys and emphasising the seriousness of the project.

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Slides courtesy of Dr. Jan Lanicek

From an English perspective the objective of this project was to develop students’ ability to apply skills and understanding of literary terms and techniques to their own writing as a result of reading the novel.  As students analysed the text, they were required to engage in a historical study of the Holocaust and World War II in order to understand the context and setting more deeply.

Students compared and contrasted how different texts create meaning through different textual features with a particular focus on historical narrative. They conducted a comparative study of the novel and film version as well as investigating related texts such as Anne Frank’s Diary and Rose Blanche by Roberto Innocenti. It was aimed at developing students’ understanding of how the ideas, forms and language may affect a reader’s response so that they could apply these ideas when writing their own narratives. As students undertook their novel study, they engaged in exercises based on analysing narrative structure, language techniques, setting, characters, themes and the plot development.

For their formative task we decided to continue with this creative writing direction and asked students to write individual historical narratives about a real person from WWII. We split each class into groups of 12 who all focused on the same person and then these groups were further divided into groups who wrote about that persons’ experience before, during or after the war. They had to use their knowledge from reading The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas and understanding of literary techniques to construct an engaging and well written narrative that demonstrated an understanding of context through the inclusion of primary and secondary historical sources.

The most incredible and impactful connection I’ve ever made for my students was related to this formative task. I wanted to give students an opportunity to better understand the realities of the WWII context so they could convey this through more vivid imagery and descriptive language in their writing. Twitter offered me a platform to connect with Auschwitz Concentration Camp Memorial in Poland. I arranged a Skype session with a museum curator, Pawel Sawicki, directly from Poland. This was the first connection of its kind in the world. Pawel took our Year 9 students on a live tour of the camp, showed them various artefacts and answered their questions for over an hour. It was a deeply sad experience but also one that fascinated and engaged the students (and me!) particularly because I studied this terrible time in history extensively at school with some of my own incredible teachers. It is one thing to research the Holocaust on the internet and to see these historical sites in photographs and books, but to give my students the opportunity to essentially be there was remarkable and something I hope stays with them for years to come.
You can view the full video below:
Credit: Pawel Sawicki, Auschwitz Concentration Camp Memorial; Maddison Cleveringa, Parramatta Marist High School

‘PBL experiences can connect them with experts and learning experiences they might otherwise miss… Connecting with experts to reinforce the real-world applications of the content that students are learning.’

– Larmer et al. 2015

Following the Auschwitz Skype students used the unique experience to write their formative task historical narratives. The students were given the opportunity to choose the person that their base group would research and write about but we tried to steer them away from the obvious choices. We wanted students to make a genuine empathic connection with their chosen personality and tell the stories of Jewish victims, POWs and German soldiers that had rarely been told before. Many of the personalities selected had also migrated to Australia after the war, giving students the possibility of contacting survivors or learning more about them through the Sydney Jewish Museum. The boys’ choices included: Jack Fogel, Eddie Jaku, Maria Scheffer, St. Maximilian Kolbe, Rudolf Höss, Lotte Weiss, Erwin Rommel, Herman Goring, Eugene Black, Leo Rosner, Rudolf Brazda, Howard Taylor, Richard Baer and Irma Hanner.


Formative Task Extracts

Lotte Weiss:

“Squinting, I squeezed my eyelids together to get a glimpse of the other side of the fence. Albeit, the fog overpowered my eyesight, leaving me in a state of total perplexion. “Schau, schau,” whispered the crowd as the words spread like a disease among the people. The shoulder language, turning everyone’s head towards another cluster of people. But these people were different… very different. Skinnier than the snapped twigs that lay in the mud, they limped forward. What seemed like a step drained all of their energy, as their heads dropped with the step of each foot. They all wore identical striped clothing. Their skin was torn, bones were visible, eyes were drooping, knees were… “Beeile dich!” a soldier screamed striking one of the men in the back of the head. Screams echoed throughout the vast, flat landscape as the man slumped to the ground. Mothers and Fathers covered the eyes of their children hoping that they would not witness such grotesque scenes in their lives. The man moaned as he reached out his hand to the crowd. Gasping for air, he mouthed words… words that moulded themselves into my mind… “Rettet euch!””

Year 9 student 2016

Rudolf Brazda:

“Rudolf stood away from the crowd, staring into the distance. Bright rays of warmth assaulted his vision before the crowd milling around the train platform shifted toward his isolation in response to the oncoming train and the glare of the Czechoslovakian sun was lost to him. Surrounded by those thousands of people Rudolf felt the nervous energy buzzing in the crowd. The weight of confusion hung in the air and Rudolf felt misplaced, like a black spot in a white room he was aware of the darkness that waited on the other side of the tracks, even though those around him did not. He’d lived it before, caged in his prison cell for the last twenty months until he was to be moved to this place at the end of the tracks, “Buchenwald” as they told him. It wouldn’t take entering the train doors to remind Rudolf that the Czechoslovakian sun he adored so much would soon only exist in his memory, it was already lost to him, he was already lost to it, to an imagination that people like him could ever exist in Hitler’s Germany. Rudolf followed the crowd, drowned among the masses until he reached the doors of the long, brown train seemingly used to carry cattle. The atrocious smell resembling manure wafted off the train and into the air as Rudolf moved to step onto it, sweeping his eyes over the side of the carriage where the words ‘Heil Hitler’ were sprawled along the fading brown backdrop, dripping in red and eating up his sight. He paused, staring at it until he took one last breath of Czechoslovakian air and resigned himself to fate, stepping on to the train”

-Year 9 Student 2016

Jack Fogel:

“I could feel the buzz of the electric fence, buzzing like an irritating bee ready to sting. When I walked along the edge of the fence my hair stood up on my arms and the back of my head. I could feel a chill run down my spine as I remembered the faces of the burned Jews as black as charcoal and frozen like a statue.

The people nearby at the camp looked like ghosts. Their eyes bulged from the small black craters in their head that were once known as their eye sockets. The stench of the dead bodies burning lingered like a freshly baked marble cake on a cold winter’s morning within my memory. I was horrified once again.”

*italics=direct testimony from the victim

-Year 9 Student 2016

Rudolf Höss:

“Months passed and the “Final Solution” was picking up speed and Jews were being killed left, right and centre. They were being starved, worked to death through hard labour, died of diseases and a lot more horrendous ways. Yet Rudolf Höss still couldn’t kill them fast enough and he had special orders from Adolf Hitler about the plan of the “Final Solution”. Sometimes when he looked at the Jewish children he would see his children’s faces but with pale skin and huge white eyes staring back at him but he just shook these things off as he didn’t want anything to come between Hitler’s plan for Germany. Rudolf’s day consisted of him waking up kissing his wife and children goodbye, going to Auschwitz to command more Jews to be killed, go home and tuck his children in bed.

It was not until September 1941 that Rudolf found an answer to his problem to eradicate the Jews. His idea came from his daughter Inge-giritt when he was tucking her into bed.”

-Year 9 Student 2016

In Project Based Learning it is important for the assessment tasks to be linked to each other, provide opportunities for informal formative assessment as, for and of learning and have a high level of authenticity for the students. We endeavoured to fully integrate the formative and summative tasks with elements and outcomes from both KLAs whilst keeping the tasks interesting, engaging and fun. Their summative task challenged students to combine their individual formative task narratives into one continuous narrative that thoroughly explored the life of their chosen personality. As a group students had to plan, research, design and create a realistic museum exhibition/narrative trail that would be open to staff, parents and students from Year 7-10 on parent/teacher evening.

‘Gold Standard PBL suggests that the more voice and choice students can be given, the better. Our goal is to encourage self-motivated students who can make logical, intelligent choices in their lives.’

– Larmer et al. 2015

In the lead up to curating their own exhibits, students were asked to revise their Know/Need to Know lists and decide on what the ‘next steps’ of the project were. Many groups were curious about how real museums curate their exhibitions and how they make the important choices about what to include, how to present artefacts and the whole curation process. Kurt Challinor arranged for students to connect via FaceTime with several  of the curators of the Love&Sorrow exhibition from Melbourne Museum. As a grade, Year 9 tried to emulate similar interactive and technological elements of this exhibit in their own work.

Credit: Liz Suda and the curation team from the Love & Sorrow Exhibition at Melbourne Museum

Students employed various computer/iPad applications such as Adobe Photoshop and Aurasma (augmented reality app) as well as our school 3D printer and laser cutter to curate some outstanding museum exhibits. They had to do some serious planning in the lead up to the exhibition evening including designing icons/logos for their personality and creating historical artefacts.

Screen Shot 2016-08-21 at 4.13.13 pm

The final products were amazing and I was so proud of the effort students put in to planning, designing and creating artefacts for their exhibits- particularly because this Summative Task was informal and didn’t go toward their reports. Students were clearly very intrinsically motivated and loved the opportunity to show their efforts to an authentic audience of their teachers, parents and peers.

‘In terms of motivation, giving students an opportunity to express their own ideas and opinions and make choices during project work validates the basic drives of autonomy and competence, and contributes to intrinsic motivation’

-Brophy, 2013

Summative Task Museum Exhibits

Class Teachers:

  • Kurt Challinor
  • Maddison Cleveringa
  • Shamaine Jacobs
  • Clinton Rodoreda
  • Toni Sheehan


  • Setting the Standard for Project Based Learning by John Larmer, John Mergendoller and Suzie Boss

8 thoughts on “Establishing Adult Connections through Authentic Projects

  1. Jo Quinlan says:

    What a fabulous collaboration between the History and English staff at your school. How fantastic was the Skype walk and talk through Auschwitz??!! How did you come across that connection on Twitter? You have created a powerful, authentic learning environment for your boys – an experience that I am sure will become one of their memories of high school. Keep making great memories for your students, and sharing your great work with us!

    Liked by 1 person

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