Project Runway – Project Based Learning in Fashion DesignBy Sarah Powley, Education Coach
Anna Sui …. Just a few of the names that top the list of celebrity fashion designers.
Fashion is a consuming interest for many high school students, and these are names that brand-conscious teenagers recognize.They’re eager to know more about the industry itself, and for most, the first step is learning to sew.
But here’s a deplorable fact: In many parts of the country, sewing is no longer taught in school.
The rationale? People don’t sew any more. The implication being, who would want to?
Yet, every year at Harrison High School in Lafayette, Indiana, teacher Michelle Coors’ students pull off a runway show that has become an event in the community. This year, the 28 students in her Fashion and Textile Careers classes took this complex project–the runway show–from an idea in their minds to a full-scale fashion production. On a mid-December evening, 137 different models paraded 159 designs on a 52-foot runway in front of parents, peers, and well-wishers. Stage lights illuminated the runway, and during the show, music and explanatory slides played in the background. This year, every seat in the house was taken and scores of attendees crowded into the little standing room that remained.
I was one of those people standing in the back. I had come to support my colleague, whose classroom I had visited many times and whose students I had photographed as they used a computer program to design wardrobes for “paper dolls”; as they cut cloth for the first time for pants, capes, and tote bags; and as they worked on their fashion merchandising research projects.
Fortunately for our school district, most of our middle school teachers still have sewing machines and incorporate the fundamentals of construction into their curriculum (License to Sew). In addition, some students learn to sew through 4-H or learn at home from their parents. But about one-third of the students who enroll in Mrs. Coors’ classes do not have prior sewing experience, so she accommodates her instruction to reach students with a range of skills. Students who have never sewn before make tote bags and basic “fancy pants” in the Textiles and Fashion Foundation course first, and then they’re ready for the Fashion and Textile Careers class, the one that puts on the runway show.
Mrs. Coors offers her advanced class students the opportunity to create a magazine, a video, a movie—but they always choose the runway show. That means designing and constructing the fashions; finding the models; planning the lights, the music, and PowerPoint backdrop; constructing the runway; creating the programs; handling the publicity; arranging for a photographer; setting up for the program and taking everything down at the end.
Effective educators are skilled at organization, multi-tasking, differentiating, and sequencing instruction so that every student learns the skill he or she needs just as having that skill becomes a necessity. In Mrs. Coors’ classes, where the comfort level with needles and thread, bobbins and the presser foot varies from student to student, one-size-fits-all lessons will not work. Mrs. Coors plans her instruction so that students are always busy and on task, not all doing the same thing, but all engaged in a construction project appropriate to his or her skill level. Some of the students’ designs are simple; others are more complex. But the students are relaxed, self-confident, and engaged—after all, they are working on a project they have designed themselves, and they meet with success regularly.
And if they aren’t in the midst of a hands-on sewing project, the students are working on their Career Snapshot binder, a research project that more than meets the standards for Literacy in Technical Subjects, another layer of learning required in every subject area across the curriculum.
Students identify a specific fashion industry career that interests them and then explore that job and the allied careers—the professionals whose job description and skills they’d need to know and rely upon to be successful at their own. I looked at some of these binders: pages of writing, including a reflective piece at the end.
Each binder includes photographs and freehand drawings that illustrate the development of the students’ final design from inspiration to croquis drawing (those sketches of models with elongated—10 heads high—legs, the industry standard) to the sewn item on an actual model.
After the runway show ended, after the stage was disassembled, after the designers had collected their clothes from the models (Some let the models keep them!), the accolades poured in. And for 10 of the young designers, a contract: A local philanthropic organization commissioned them to recreate their “line” to be featured at another runway show, this one to benefit the Make-A-Wish Foundation.
So, don’t tell Michelle Coors or her students that “no one sews anymore.” Indeed they do, and this Project-Based Learning class more than illustrates the career opportunities that are open to people with skills in garment design and construction. In fact, it’s only February, but already many of these students have been accepted into prestigious art and design schools across the country.
Not to mention this: When the audience applauds and the photographer’s flash captures the models showing off the work of these young and aspiring designers, it’s a source of genuine pride for everyone involved. For that night, Harrison High School students are the celebrity designers–and who knows what will happen in the afterglow?
About the author
An English teacher for 37 years, Sarah has taught in secondary schools in Wisconsin, Connecticut, and Indiana.
For many years, she served as the English Department Chair at McCutcheon High School in Lafayette, Indiana, and is now a full-time Instructional Coach for her district. Honors include the Milken National Educator Award, the Eli Lilly Teacher Creativity Fellowship, the Irena Sendler Award for Holocaust Education, and Purdue University’s Crystal Apple Award.
Additional articles by Sarah Powley