When I was in tenth grade, my famously brilliant and infamously brutal history teacher assigned us a rather unique final project in lieu of a paper at the end of each semester. In the fall, we each had to choose a side in the trial of Mansur Al-Hallaj, the tenth-century Sufi mystic and revolutionary writer executed for heresy; in the spring, we did the same for Martin Luther. We had to call expert witnesses from outside the class and everything. Normally, I dislike group projects, as it's easy for all the work to fall to one person; in this situation, every student was accountable, and because we'd each chosen our sides, we couldn't complain that we weren't interested or didn't agree with the assigned position. Each of us had a historical role (for example, for the trial of Martin Luther, I was Philip Melanchthon, his lead attorney) and had to do thorough research appropriate to that role, giving us a deeper, more meaningful and impassioned understanding of the material than if we'd just taken a test or written a paper. It made the text leap up through us, thereby making it matter. Our grade was based on our research, our drive, and our zeal, not just whether or not we'd memorized some facts.
In case you hadn't noticed yet, I'm all about zeal. My students will be passionate, by golly, or just think me mad. (Or, you know, both. Both's fine.) I look for projects that elegantly marry passion with effectiveness, and Mayor Bloomberg's recent banning of super-sized sodas and other sugary drinks has certainly gotten people up in arms. What could be a more appropriate task, then, than a trial?
I would split my students in half, letting them choose whether they wanted to argue for the soda ban or against it. Within each group, they would have to take on characters and get inside their heads by researching not just the case itself, but their own characters. That would build an appreciation for character development, as well as a broader, fuller understanding of the topic itself. By having each student focus and expand on something particular to him or her, the class will be able to cover more information and includes scaffolding (webbing, if you will): they do preliminary discussion to form a base for their defense or critique, gather their information, then bring it in to the group, then discuss what else they need, then gather more, then come back, and so on. No one would be left out, no one would be able to slack, and each student would be constructing their self-efficacy by being aware of their indispensability to the group.