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.

Devolved Writing

In October, during Staff Development, the ISA faculty learned about a process called Devolved Writing. I applied this process in my Digital and Interactive Media classroom. I looked at an assignment from the previous year and considered how the writing could be improved. At first, I was at a loss, as seen in my reflection document. I finally decided that the weak point of my assignment was student reflection about the Performance Outcomes (P.O.’s), so I decided to devolve that writing piece.

I created a document, with a very good paragraph, and 3 other paragraphs that were not as good. I printed these out and asked students to put them in order from best to worst. Then, with a partner, they wrote down how the best paragraph was different from the next best, and so on.  This process was kind of rushed, so I created my own list from their suggestions as a reference for their homework. Prior to this lesson, students had written their own paragraphs on the exact same prompt. In class, I asked them how they thought their own work compared to the examples, and for homework, they were challenged to improve them.

For the following 3 days of class, students worked independently on the remaining requirements of the blog post, incorporating new technical skills to document their month-long project.  Since they were self-directed, I used the opportunity to have one-on-one conferences with each student about their paragraphs. I realized that some students had really taken the devolved writing lesson to heart, and created very good pieces. Nearly every student benefited from the conferences, even though many of them were highly intimidated to come to my desk and talk about their work. I learned as much from the conferences as the students did. Overall, I realized that the stumbling block to good writing in this circumstance was a disconnect between their experiences and the concept behind the P.O.

The writing was focused on one section of the Habits of Mind Performance Outcomes. However, the project addressed all sections of the outcomes.  Having spent several days on this already, we were running out of time, so I created sentence stems for students to reflect on the remaining outcomes.  Students are familiar with Data-Based Questions, from their other classes, so I called this assignment “Experience-Based Questions“. The results were FANTASTIC. Students did a great job explaining how their experiences connected to the Performance Outcomes when provided with a bridge between the two. Despite having the same sentence stems, everyone’s answers were specific, diverse, and rich.

Applied Lesson: Surveillance Technology vs. Privacy

The ISA staff had a transformative experience this week when we traveled to the Rio Grande Valley to study the topic of immigration. We met with local law enforcement, border patrol, community activists, elected officials, crisis response volunteers, and federal officials. We encountered many different perspectives regarding border issues. We also spent time with immigrants themselves, who had just crossed the border and received permission for temporary residence while they appeal for asylum.

Now that we have returned, our task is to create a lesson, based on these experiences, for the class we teach. As the technology teacher, I was intrigued by tracking devices issued to the immigrants.

One of the state standards for Digital and Interactive Media reads, “1(H) demonstrate an understanding of legal and ethical responsibilities in relation to the field of information technology”.  The goal of my lesson is for students to take a position on the use of technology by governments to monitor the people within its borders.

In McAllen, Texas, last Monday, I met a young woman named Gina. She was from Honduras, traveling to New Orleans to see her husband, whom she had last seen when their daughter was 2 months old. Her daughter is now 4. A Disney fan who knows how to sing songs from Frozen, the little girl is named after her mother’s favorite character on an MTV reality show.  Mother and daughter moved through the Respite Center together: eating a meal, taking a shower, and receiving donated clothing. Like all the men and women there, Gina wore a security bracelet on her ankle, issued by the US government, which contained a GPS tracking device.

I would like to share this story with my students, and then ask the questions:

  • Does the US have the legal and ethical right to track immigrants with ankle bracelets?
  • In what other ways does government track people, using technology?
  • How does an individual’s right to privacy intersect with the government’s responsibility to keep us safe?
  • Do some people have more right to privacy than others?

Here is the lesson I plan to use in my Digital and Interactive Media Class.

The outcome of this unit will be two-fold: first, each student will create a researched, cited opinion piece about one specific example of the intersection of technology and privacy, and second, each student will write an email to an elected representative about whether the investigated technology should be used by government.

The email exercise allows students to demonstrate a Global Leadership Performance Outcome:

a. Take Action: Act, individually or collaboratively, in creative and responsible ways to contribute to improvement locally, regionally, and/or globally, and assess the impact of the action.

I plan to spend one week on this lesson, as detailed on the final slide of the embedded presentation. I hope this lesson will be an authentic investigation of real-world technology applications, and I look forward to seeing what the students produce.