Entrepreneurial spirit in school: fostering a new mindset through meaningful project-based learning

I have to admit: so much of what I consider my best maneuvers in education have been largely due to simple serendipity.  Stumbling over opportunities by being in the right place at the right time led me to one of the most meaningful experiences of my year–a jump into entrepreneurship with a small and unsuspecting group of high school students.  

I am no business teacher, and I don’t know the first thing about running a business.  But I can recognize a great opportunity when I see one, and that’s what I saw last year when I listened to a panel of teachers speak about their experiences with Real World Scholars (RWS) at SXSWEdu.  Stories of first graders stocking their local food shelf for three months with funds they had earned selling sugar scrubs, stories of students who helped their peers manage stress by creating fidgets with 3D printers, and stories of the Chemistry class transformed into a soap company that started it all….these left me jumping out of my skin to bring home and offer our students the same opportunity.

Doing so was a classic cannonball experience.  I somehow convinced the business teacher (Bob) that this was an amazing idea and that he should let me co-teach with him.  We pitched it to the kids: this business class you signed up for? You’ll be running a real business. No lemonade stand simulations for you.  Honestly, they didn’t know what to make of it. We’re doing what? Starting a business? Like for real?

It felt a bit like skipping rocks as opposed to cannonballing at first–gentle splashes followed by leaps of faith.  Once we had successfully applied for and received approval from RWS, we held an initial meeting to brainstorm business ideas.  It felt disjointed. Students didn’t understand why we would be meeting when the class wasn’t running until the following spring.  Although we as teachers knew how much work was to be done, it was difficult to impress upon students that idea. It was our first lesson about the amount of time it takes to launch and realize meaningful project-based learning.  We had one semester in the spring and as I write this in June, it feels as though we are just getting started.



Sophie & Anika happy about a successful bath bomb recipe



By the time our class convened for the first time in late January, we had some initial ideas about potential businesses, but that is where the real work came in for me.  Bob had clear ideas about what needed to be taught in a business class (drawing on years of experience in the field and in the classroom). Shifting to a model of discovery as opposed to frontloading information was a struggle to balance.  We spent a lot of time creating a foundation of knowledge about good business practices–perhaps more than I would have liked and likely less than he would have liked–before we jumped into ordering supplies and actually starting businesses.  We had many conversations–often where I asked questions about what it might look like to give students the responsibilities we were planning ourselves–and gradually we shifted. With a healthy dose of humor and humility, we were able to navigate teaching together and shifting practices that were once teacher-centered to truly student-centered.



Bob guides Ben through the process of in-person marketing with a potential customer

Of the many highlights this class provided my days, one of the best happened in a simple yet momentous conversation.  Three companies–one making candles, one making bath products, and one making tee shirts–all at different stations worked busily through their tasks for the day.  

Bob looked at me and said, “I’m not sure what to do.”  

“Exactly!  It’s happening, right?!  They know what to do! And you get to circle around and check-in, see how you might support them (with that incredible business mind), ask questions, and encourage.”  

That cannonball was feeling like a true splash–exhilarating.


Caption: Mariah & Cora exhibit their candles to a potential customer

Even in a student-centered model, we seek balance.  Our students and class would not have been nearly as successful as they were without Bob’s incredible knowledge of the business world and his desire to share that with our students.  Although we are asking teachers to step back so that students may step up, they can’t step too far. Students still need us–just in a different capacity. Whereas our students may have learned the basics of business models by participating in a lemonade stand simulation, building their own businesses from the ground up offers the best teacher–real experience–and they had the best of both worlds in a knowledgeable mentor to guide them along in the process.  

Co-teaching has provided me with multiple opportunities to expand my thinking and improve my teaching practice, and I believe it’s an incredible tool we should use more often as we make the shift to student-centered models of learning.  Matching up cannonballers with teachers who are ready and willing to take the plunge might be a good first step. While the water may feel cold at first, it’s nothing if not invigorating!



Lori Lisai spent her 2015 Rowland year looking to recapture the adventure in learning through games and technology integration.  (If you haven’t already considered student-created games as authentic assessments, give it some thought!) Lisai is the Innovation Coordinator for the Lamoille Union campus where she tries to lead with an equal balance of empathy and enthusiasm.


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