Tag Archives: #PBL

What does PBL look like in U.S. History?

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.

Questions? PBL Consulting?  I can be found at my blog michaelkaechele.com or@mikekaechele onTwitter.

When Students Take Over

My students made a video to document how they took over the Water Project last year.

Why I am proud of “unpresentable” projects.

In PBL we often talk about the importance of an audience to drive students to produce high quality work. But I think that we need to consider the goals for each project. I believe there is a time and place for a polished, final product and a time for more of a “rough draft,” conceptual, final product. We need to consider the learning goals behind each final product rather than judge it by how shiny it is.

A case in point was our American foreign policy monument project that we just completed. We spent five weeks on this project building up background knowledge that we will refer back to for the rest of the year. Even though we spent weeks on the project we only gave students one week to design and build their monument. We did have an authentic audience of architects, engineers, and designers come and look at the pieces while students explained them.

But the thing is, most of them weren’t pretty. They looked more like craft projects than careful designs. To be clear, I am not criticizing the students here. They did exactly what we wanted them to do. We focused very intently on symbolism and looking at American foreign policy from multiple perspectives including a non-American point of view. We were ok with designs that didn’t look perfect as long as they had some depth in symbolism to them. The picture below is a great example.

Hands for Humanity

Hands for Humanity

It is not all that impressive visually, but if only you could listen to the students who made it. It was one of my favorite pieces and the students showed a depth of understanding of how America acts in the world. Check out their artist statement:

Our monument is inspired by Greek architecture, the WWII fountain, and the 9/11 memorial. Full scale, our monument would consist of marble pedestals, granite benches, bronze inscribed plaques and bronze hands. Our proposed location will be in the Ellipse Circle, in front of the White House, where it can be a reminder to future presidents of both the triumphs and mistakes of their predecessors.  The hands in the fountains represent the US foreign policy, a fist for brutality, an offering hand for kindness, a thief hand for greed, and a hand holding a flag representing the peoples’ nationalism and America’s want to spread a democratic government. The fountain is symbolism for the US having equal parts of both the good and bad things we’ve done. Inscribed on the fountain are various quotes: (Bold emphasis mine).

You’re not supposed to be so blind with patriotism that you can’t face reality. Wrong is wrong, no matter who does it or says it. -Malcolm X

Maybe we ought to consider a Golden Rule in foreign policy: Don’t do to other nations what we don’t want happening to us. We endlessly bomb these countries and then we wonder why they get upset with us? -Ron Paul

Foreign policy is like human relations, only people know less about each other.   -Joe Biden

Many American pundits and foreign policy experts love to depict themselves as crusaders for human rights, but it almost always takes the form of condemning other governments, never their own. -Glenn Greenwald

We did not talk about any of these quotes in class. The students went out and found them. These students understood the nuance that we were trying to communicate that America is neither a hero or villain in the world, but a country that sometimes does great things and sometimes makes horrible mistakes.

I would argue that this “rough draft” monument is amazing, not because it looks great but because it represents a deep understanding of America’s complex relationships in the world. So rather than focus on the shiny, focus on the purpose that you have for the project.

Recycling Old Projects

"Two sides of the same coin" One side shows 9/11 and the other side shows American acts of aggression.

“Two sides of the same coin” One side shows 9/11 and the other side shows American acts of aggression.

Sometimes old projects can be repeated and sometimes they need a makeover. In the past we did a 12 week study of American foreign policy starting with the Spanish American War (SAW) and ending with Middle Eastern conflict today.  It was too long and students could not see the relevance of the SAW part until the end. So this year we did one project combining SAW and 9/11.  We also read Ender’s Game to tie it all together.

We have always struggled to bring relevance to SAW as it is obscure and not given much space in most classes. We believe that it is vital in showing the beginning of American policy of intervention around the world, often by imperialistic means. We had students explore whether the United States was motivated more by Manifest Destiny or Imperialism through out the past 100 years in specific interventions.

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“Two hand, one gun” Perspective on our relationships with Iraq

The final product was a monument as “Speaker for the Dead” (from Ender’s Game) where they had to represent American foreign policy from multiple viewpoints including a non-American view. They also needed to have symbolism reflected in their piece. Students were challenged to look at America as not always “good” or a “hero” but consider the complexity of our actions and realize that we have made both good and poor decisions through out our history.

"America's shadow" The shadow of America is on Palestine but as time passes it shifts to Israel representing a hope for balance in our actions there.

“America’s shadow” The shadow of America is on Palestine but as time passes it shifts to Israel representing a hope for balance in our actions there.

Previously students made monuments only based on 9/11 and many of them looked similar. By giving them more options (yeah voice and choice!) we had better variety and deeper analysis from students. We are definitely happy with the results of these “recycled” projects. Sometimes we fail in our first attempt on PBL but often we just need to re-package it in a more student friendly way. Student voice and choice is always important to making this happen.

Do you re-use projects? How have you successfully (or unsuccessfully) recycled a project?

The Water Project


Last spring as it became apparent that Grand Rapids Whitewater’s plans to return the Grand River to a more natural state (removing and lowering dams to restore the rapids) for ecological and recreational reasons were going to come to fruition we decided that our students HAD to get involved. A colleague and myself went to some open meetings last summer to make connections and find a way for our students to participate but failed. We sought out contacts all year and were unsuccessful. So we decided to just do it anyway.

The Water Project was a sophomore project combining American Studies, Chemistry, and Geometry where students would work in one whole class group to redesign downtown Grand Rapids around the proposed changes in the Grand River. Yes, this project had ONE group of 80+ students working together. We made a big announcement to launch it and then students explored three options to pursue: design team, ecology team, or public relations team. Ecology looked at the effects of the changes on the river considering both endangered and invasive species. Design was in charge of redesigning the riverfront which was broken into sectors. Public relations had to research the issues and create a survey for public opinion. The final product was to be a 3D model of downtown GR.



The task required the three teams to be in constant communication with each other. The third day of the project we went downtown and walked the whole stretch of the river dividing the class onto both sides. Students took pictures and documented their assigned sections. It also helped them dream what could be there instead. The PR team surveyed people that they met.


When we got back to school the PR team reported that they had only surveyed 16 people because it was early morning and there were not that many people out. They asked if they could post it on Facebook and promote it there. We said sure.

This is when the project took off. Students took over. Kenzie put it on Facebook and contacted all of the local media. Some of the media posted it. By the next day we had over 300 responses on our survey. Later we had over 700! Next students created their own Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram accounts for the project. We now had a social media branch of the PR team. They targeted news and local people involved in the Whitewater project. There was a buzz among the students as they started making connections and getting attention toward their project. Student leaders emerged and met to discuss issues.


A favorite moment was during a meeting of self-selected leadership team when Ben said, “Wait, we really don’t need facilitators for this. We can handle this ourselves.” Students had truly taken over and “owned” the project. I think it is important to point out here that the reason that these things happened is that the teachers did not over plan the project. We had a big picture idea and some structures in place, but we also allowed flexibility and as the students came up with ideas that branched off from it we just told them to go for it.

Meanwhile the final product had grown to include the 3D model, a website, posters showing details of proposed changes, and an overlaid map of all of the changes in Google Earth. All of these additions came from students as they took over the project.

20140530_103553 (2)The icing on the cake was presentation day (which also was the students’ idea; we hadn’t planned one because we had no audience). Guests included one of the two founders of Grand Rapids Whitewater, people from the Grand Rapids museum, DEQ, and others actually involved in the River Project with the city. All of these contacts came from the social media campaign by the students. Where we had failed to make connections, students made it happen! I have never seen students more motivated! This is the power of a truly authentic audience. Students will respond to work that is real and for a real purpose.

Students learned and demonstrated so many of our SWLO’s (school wide learning outcomes)-collaboration, communication, public speaking, research and information, critical and creative thinking, and agency. Kenzie summed it up, “I feel like when I do projects like this grades don’t matter.”

Here is an album of pictures showing the progress of the project.