“At our Project Based Learning (PBL) high school we are constantly developing the Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) skills of our students through collaboration in authentic work. We decided to end the school year with a service learning project to focus on the competency of social awareness. We combined American Studies, an integrated American history and ELA class, with chemistry in the Poverty Project. In American Studies, students explored the questions: “Why are people poor? Whose fault is it? and How can we fix poverty?” while learning about the Great Depression and reading The Great Gatsby. In chemistry class, students learned about how soap works on a molecular level and the intermolecular forces involved.
To launch the project, we had representatives from Heartside, a local mission that works with their “neighbors” (homeless people), come in and talk to students about how Heartside shows their neighbors respect and gives them dignity through education and art programs. Our students were challenged to brainstorm what they could do to support Heartside…..”
Ever have a project that students don’t get very excited about? Chances are that it was lacking a quality audience and purpose.
Deciding on the right public product that is authentic to students can be one of the most challenging and rewarding parts of designing a gold standard project-based learning (PBL) project. Sometimes teachers try to force a project on a set of standards in an artificial way. A way to avoid this is to start with an excellent, local partner.
How We “Went Public”
In our community, Grand Rapids, a couple of local citizens started an organization called Grand Rapids Whitewater, dedicated to removing dams from the Grand River in order to restore the original rapids for economic and ecological reasons. They raised money and political capital until it became obvious that their dream was going to become a reality. My colleagues and I immediately recognized that this was going to be the biggest change to our city in decades. We had to get our students involved!
My pastor was talking about exploring your passion today and played this viral video-a tribute by passionate fans asking Foo Fighters to come to their little town in Italy. I have been wondering how I want to start off this year and this made it all click for me.
The first day in class I am going to share some videos of young people doing amazing things that they are passionate about. I haven’t figured out which ones yet, but definitely want young people doing things for the good of others. If you have a great suggestion I would love to hear it in the comments.
Then I will share with the students about the best project that we are going to do this year:
I want to tell you guys about the best project that you are going to do this year. It is going to be so incredible and life changing for the audience. It will change your lives too as you make sacrifices and make a differences for others. I can’t tell you very many details about it today though. It is kinda a secret. Not so much a secret from you, but from me.
You see, the thing is, I can’t tell you more about it because I don’t know anything else about it yet. Last year you did some incredible projects like design tools to help refugees and made documentaries to honor WWII veterans. You were in your first year of PBL and those projects were designed by your teachers. You are no longer freshmen.
This year the best project will be when you take over this class and decide to do something amazing. The teachers are not going to come up with the purpose, product, and audience. You are. This is your year to take charge of your learning and to do something to change the world. The “real world” is not some future place but is our classroom and you will change it starting now.
We will spend a lot of time the rest of the first week building culture in our class and establishing the need to be a critical analyzer of bias. I know the culture that I want to build with students, but this first day is all about setting up proper expectations.
My expectation of my students is that they will be passionate and want to be active citizens who make a difference in the world.
Once students understand this then I can’t wait to be amazed by what they decide to do!
Everyone knows that ELA and math are the focus of standardized testing so hence the focus of the majority of schools in this country. Reading, writing, expressing oneself well, computing, and using logic are all extremely important skills that every student needs to acquire to be successful in life. We definitely need to make sure students are mastering these skills.
But that last word is very important. ELA and math classes and standards are built around skills. The content of these classes are almost exclusively skills that can be applied in many different contexts. Curriculum should not be built on skills but on content that is relevant to students because it is authentic, motivating, or personal.
That is why I thing schools should focus their curriculum on science and social studies. These classes hold the interesting ideas, problems, and concepts where the ELA and math skills can be developed. Any good science will lead to experiments that require logical thinking and mathematical computation. Social studies requires extensive reading, writing, and analyzing skills. To be honest ELA skills should be integrated into every class. That is why we see movements like reading and writing across the curriculum.
To be clear I am not saying that there is nothing of value or interest in math or ELA as they stand alone. But I fear in isolation these classes only appeal to students who love literature, writing, or algorithms. I think there is a danger to our silos of curriculum that focus on ELA and math test prep that is boring and irrelevant.
If we want all students to be motivated to develop ELA and math skills we would do well to design curriculum around science and social studies issues into interesting PBL projects. Then we will give students authentic reasons to use the ELA and math skills. We might be amazed at how students would grow when given the chance to do “real” work right now, instead of some day when they are old enough.
I team teach American Studies, an integrated class of U.S. History and 10th grade ELA in a full time PBL environment. We have a daily, two hour block and students get two credits for it. This past year was our third year of this class. I often get asked about scope and sequence of the class. So I made a table overview of our class projects to give other teachers ideas of how to teach a thematic, PBL social studies class.
This is not meant to give out every detail of the projects, but rather to give ideas of themes, DQ’s, products, and audiences that others can adapt to their own local situation. I have also included some links to blogposts and other resources about certain projects. This is also my projects from last year only. My projects for next year will have some repetition and some new ones. I like to keep projects that go well and especially ones with good community partnerships. But I don’t like to keep everything the same as that gets boring for both me and students. Also the students change every year and there needs to be voice and choice each year.
Creating a great culture in a school is no accident. The key is to build a community of trust, respect, and responsibility among teachers and students. Relationships matter. Without strong relationships, there can be no community.
There are also intentional activities that can be planned to help build school community at the beginning of the year. This is especially important if this will be your students first experience with PBL. I recommend not starting the year off with a PBL project or class content, but instead with activities to build community and expose students to the PBL process. Simple, mini projects that teach the structure of PBL help expose students to how PBL works. Then when you start your first project students won’t be confused by the process and the lingo and can focus on the content.
I created this document to share activities that have worked for my school at the beginning of the school year to create culture and introduce the PBL process.
This post is totally selfish and self promoting. Skip it if that offends you 🙂
I am excited to officially be a National Faculty member of BIE. BIE is a leader in professional development of Project Based Learning and I will be doing PBL 101 workshops for them in the summer. I am excited by this opportunity especially since it is part time and I will remain doing my true love-teaching in the classroom.
I also am available as a consultant for workshops on various topics ranging from PBL, Standards Based Grading, inquiry and student centered curriculum, and more. You can leave a comment or reach me on my contact page.
Schools are overwhelmed with structures. Almost all of them are limiting. Don’t go off script. You have to implement this curriculum or policy. All students must… Bell schedule, hallway passes, class periods, subjects, graduation requirements, AYP, school improvement plans, …
Most schools have layer upon layer of structures related to classroom management, behavior, standards, curriculum, assessment, and more. Almost everything structurally about school is designed to control either teacher, student or both.
My friend Kiffany Lychock uses the term “visionary vagueness.” This is the idea that there needs to be space in institutions for great change to happen. Leadership at all levels needs to give people the freedom to experiment with ideas, new and old. So how to “structure” visionary vagueness?
PBL is one of the few structures that allows for creativity, teacher judgment, and freedom for both teacher and student. It respects teachers as professional designers of student centered learning and students as agents of their own learning. Some people think student centered learning is a “free for all” but that is not the case. At the other extreme some people may think that all structure is limiting. PBL destroys both of these misnomers. It provides structure and freedom at the same time.
PBL is a structure that gives freedom for people to be innovative and student centered. PBL lets people think structurally about innovation and changing schools.
If you are interested in learning more about the PBL process, please drop me a note on my contact page about my PBL workshops.