Picking a Topic: A Pivotal Process

A new teacher (who used to be my student) recently asked me how I helped my students pick topics for a project we were both doing in our different classes. He had struggled with that piece of the experience. Picking a topic for a project can be daunting. If teachers want the best work from their students, investing effort in the process will pay off. During the past decade, I have developed a few lesson plans and procedures that have been successful for me.


In situations where the teachers know more about the topic than the students, it’s easy to provide a list. For example, my colleagues do a project on endangered cultures; since students are unlikely to be familiar with the numerous groups worldwide that fit the theme, it makes sense for the teachers to give students a list of options. But sometimes teachers can’t possibly know all the options.

Group Decisions

My class does a project every fall in which they create and perform a play.The criteria for deciding upon a story has guidelines, but the possibilities are limitless. I devote an entire class period for groups to select a story. In the classroom, there are books of children’s stories from other cultures, and the internet is also accessible. Students have already spent time bonding as a group, discussing the value of conflict, and engaging in models for making decisions.

On slide 6 of the presentation above, guidelines are given. Without specific guidelines, projects can get off track and the goal of the project may not be reached. On slide 7, groups are required to call me to their table upon making a decision. If I approve their topic, I make a big deal of it:  I ring a bell and announce to the whole class, “Group B has chosen a story!” and then I write their story’s origin culture on the board. This encourages groups to make a decision, and it also narrows down their choices because no two groups may pick stories from the same region. By the end of class, nearly every group will have picked a story.

Topics Determine Groups

Sometimes what students care about determines how best to create groups. Every year my students made humorous videos about Technology Do’s and Don’ts. We begin that unit by reading an opinion piece from 1995 about the internet. Then each class brainstorms 50 examples of how people misuse technology and I write them on the board. They vote by placing 5 dots on their favorite topics. By the end of one class period, we have identified topics and groups have been arranged. Because we do this openly, students have some control over both their topic as well as their group members; I have control over the size of the groups and the 50 topic options.

For a longer-term project, letting students pick their groups is not the best idea. Collaboration works best when groups are diverse. In general, if the project lasts longer than 2 weeks, I determine the make-up of the group. For our annual service learning project, which lasts most of the semester, I use a different process. They fill out a worksheet with their opinions about certain topics (taken from recent articles, political speeches, or, as in the example below, crowd-sourced from my social media friends.) The topic list starts with my examples, but we do open-ended brainstorming at the end, so each class period has a list that is 50% generated by themselves. The worksheet asks each student to rank their top 6 topics, and i use those to create balanced groups. For a few students, nothing matches their top 6, but I have data on the rest of the worksheet that shows me how they feel about all the topics. Finding common ground about the purpose of their efforts makes groups much more likely to succeed.


The Annette Strauss Institute for Civic Life sponsors an annual project called Speak Up Speak Out. The teacher resources are excellent, and the lessons below are based on the official curriculum guide.

The brainstorming lesson is designed to set the rationale for the project. The next lesson goes into further detail about the project itself, and leads them through the process of picking a topic and group mates.

photo of students

2019 SUSO Winners

For the past two years, San Antonio has had a local Speak Up Speak Out competition to determine who qualifies for the state-side competition. My students have won every place at the local competition two years in a row.

The most effective learning happens when students are highly engaged in relevant projects over which they have some control. Choosing a topic is a pivotal part of successful project-based learning. I hope other teachers find these ideas helpful.

Five Steps for Facilitating Collaboration

Recently, my high school freshmen completed a month-long collaborative project in groups of about 5 people. The goal of the project was to develop and perform a play for first graders, based on a traditional folktale from another culture. Having done this project for multiple years, I have developed a series of effective strategies for successful collaboration.

  1. Teach that conflict is a necessary part of collaboration. I begin with a simulation that intentionally creates controversy, and watch how they handle it. Then we watch a TED Talk, Dare to Disagree, which makes the point that people disagree when they care, and listening to different viewpoints leads to learning. Then I explain four decision-making models they can use to reach a decision after conflict.
  2. Invest in group design. For short-term projects, this is not necessary, but for long-term projects, it is. My process is to put the tables in groups and let students choose their seats one day, then I put all those people into different groups later. Because this is a creative project, and it falls at the beginning of the year when I do not yet know the students well, I give students a very brief creativity test. After sorting groups randomly (away from their chosen groups on the previous day), I make sure to evenly distribute students who had high creativity scores, have demonstrated leadership, and have earned low grades in my class. Making the groups intentionally diverse leads to a greater opportunity to learn from one another. I’m fortunate to teach in a school with teaming, so I always show my initial group designs to my team to get four more sets of eyes on the groupings. With their feedback, I often tweak my plans.
  3. Set groups up for success. On the day I announce the groups, I make a big production. First, I give the speech about how to react (never negatively, but also not too positively because that can make others feel left out). I hand every student a numbered envelope with a card inside. The cards contain pictures of farm animals.animals To find their group, they have to make the sound of the animal. This ridiculous exercise makes them relieved to find their fellow quackers, mooers, and cluckers, so they have instantly bonded. A classic ice-breaker, Two Truths and a Lie, helps them get acquainted. Then a group puzzle activity challenges them to work together, with deep metaphorical debrief conversations.
  4. Use contracts. On the second day of group work, students negotiate contracts. It takes a full class period the first time, but later in the year they can do this in 10 minutes. Inspired by the contract system at Manor New Tech High School, my contract system has been refined over a year and used successfully with dozens of groups. I define the student roles for the project, group-contractsand assign prestigious-sounding names, specific tasks, and exact due dates. Students do have the ability to give warnings to their members for violating agreements, and after three warnings, the offending student is removed from the group and must complete the project on their own. Never has a student been removed, but several times they have been warned. Giving the students this authority means they rarely run to the teacher to complain about each other’s behavior or efforts.
  5. Allow for a feedback system. At the conclusion of the project, each student fills out a survey about their group members (including themselves). I aggregate the data and show them the average scores on each question. Then they have time to analyze the results through graphing their own scores in each category and answering reflection questions. It’s important for students to know that being a good group member doesn’t just mean doing the work:  if they are rude to others, don’t express ideas, and don’t ask questions, they are not good collaborators. Last month, my students, as a whole, scored each other highly on listening, while the biggest area for growth was encouraging others. Another excellent tool for feedback is the Buck Institute’s Collaboration Rubric, which I have also used during group projects.

When teachers assign group projects, it’s tempting to assess the final product, rather than the process. But it is the process that is the most important part of the work. In order to produce global citizens with strong collaboration skills, we need to provide structures and systems to facilitate their growth.