Tag Archives: remote teaching

Remote Community Partnerships in PBL

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This is the sixth of a series of posts about what Project Based Learning infused with Social and Emotional Learning looks like when teaching remotely. Is it the ideal situation? Probably not, but it is the reality that many of us are dealing with. I will share my ideas and what others are doing to hopefully inspire you to action.

Artificial vs. Authentic

Everything is schools tends to be artificial or done for “practice.” Students rarely address original issues, but instead learn about what others have achieved in science, literature, history, and math. The system is designed to teach students a subset of information about what we already “know” to be true. Ignore for a moment, the ridiculous standardization that adults can choose the correct subset of the vast knowledge of the entirety of human existence that is necessary for all children. This pedagogical approach of only learning proven facts is boring and patronizing. Then we wonder why by the time students reach secondary school they aren’t curious? The truth is, they are still curious, just not at school.

Educators are preparing kids for their future, instead of helping them navigate the present. The world has so many problems that the next generation will have to deal with: poverty, hunger, equity, pollution, climate change, wars, and ethic strife to name a few. What if instead of telling students you will have to fix these problems some day, students worked on solutions right now? Why do we so often sell our kids short on what they can do?

What if school was a set of problems to be solved instead of standards to be covered?

So if we have the mindset that students should be addressing meaningful problems instead of mindless worksheets learning what someone else has already figured out, then we must engage in our communities. We do this so that kids can grapple with global issues, but apply solutions locally.

Not all of our students will be Greta Thunburg with a worldwide voice to address their concerns. It is critically important that all of our students do understand that change happens from the collective actions of individuals, not just famous voices. The Civil Rights Movement is as much about the hundreds of thousands who stood up against segregation on buses and at lunch counters as it is about Dr. King and Rosa Parks. The nameless sea of faces who heard the I Have a Dream speech and acted on it are as important as the man who gave it. Your students can make an enormous impact locally in their community that leads to systemic change.

Role of the Community in PBL

So how should you involve the community in Project Based Learning? There are several key roles that the community can play throughout the process. You could invite a guest speaker to launch your entry event by introducing a problem for students to explore. Or invite them during the middle of the project to provide expertise on one of the student Need to Know questions.

Consider finding a group of experts who can coach students throughout the project, giving feedback and expertise. They might be a combination of older students, university students, and professionals. Maybe your hands-on project is better served by partnering with a construction company and having a group of blue collar workers share their craftsmanship. Whatever the fit for your project, when you bring in outside experts you are modeling collaborative learning and that you, the teacher, don’t know everything.

The community might be the audience for the final presentations that students will share their findings with. Traditionally this tends to be a big, public showcase. But it can be just as powerful to present to a smaller panel of experts who can give students meaningful feedback. This could be done live in a video conference call or on demand via videos with feedback. (Flipgrid is a great tool for this). Ideally, involve the community throughout the project from start to finish for greatest impact.

The community can serve as the source of the project. Matt McCullough visits local businesses and asks them to give him problems that students can help solve. He is not asking for their support or resources so much as offering to provide a service to them. One of my favorite examples is when his elementary school collaboratively investigated which potato a local business should plant next. Students from kindergarten through fourth grade worked on different aspects of the problem. They were not just researching for a local farm, but a business cultivating thousands of acres throughout the midwest and the east coast. Upon conclusion, the fourth graders presented their findings to over 100 shareholders who flew into their corporate summit. Check out the video to see the culmination and imagine how these students felt.

So who should your students engage with? The short answer is everyone. Practicing the SEL skill of Social Awareness, students should be getting multiple perspectives on any problem that they are considering and practicing empathy. They can engage with other students at different grade levels or other schools (think penpals using video conferencing), parents, local businesses, the chamber of commerce, and non-profit organizations. They can network with colleges and local professionals who are experts in a topic they are investigating. Student could connect with public service workers such as police, fire, and local government officials to understand current policies and advocate for changes they find necessary. Surveys could go out to the entire community literally making everyone the target audience.


One takeaway from Covid is that everyone in the world knows how to video conference. Furthermore, a larger number of people are working from home than ever before and are willing to “visit” your classroom. It is actually easier now than before when they would have to take time off work, travel, and rearrange their whole day. Now partners can simply join classrooms at any time.

The community doesn’t need to be live either. Students and adults can communicate asynchronously to ask questions or give feedback. That is the way that adults work most of the time. We all know how to use email, text, and social media to connect with people. There are thousands of apps and websites that students also could use. None of them are gamechangers, but many of them are helpful. I personally prefer the Google suite of Docs, Forms for surveys, and Slides, but it literally does not matter! Pick one or two tools that your students have access to and you are comfortable with and run with them.

It’s really not about the tools at all, but about a mindset that sees community partnerships as a vital piece of the curriculum, as important as assessment, differentiation, and standards.

We have the technology. We know how to use it. Step out of your comfort zone and network with your community to find experts and resources for your students to address issues that matter. Let’s move school from artificial to authentic.

Questions? Interested in a PBL workshop or consulting?  Connect with me at michaelkaechele.com or @mikekaechele on Twitter.

Remote Autonomy in PBL

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This is the fifth of a series of posts about what Project Based Learning infused with Social and Emotional Learning looks like when teaching remotely. Is it the ideal situation? Probably not, but it is the reality that many of us are dealing with. I will share my ideas and what others are doing to hopefully inspire you to action.


Traditional education is centered on compliance and control, but teacher dominance is difficult during remote learning. Some teachers are still fighting to control students virtually. We see this play out in ridiculous requirements of teachers demanding that students follow dress codes, leave their cameras on at all times, and prohibit students from eating or drinking in their own homes! The thing is, teachers cannot control kids’ home environment and can’t punish kids in the typical ways of loss of recess, timeouts, or detentions. When the family pet interrupts the web meeting, and every student literally goes “squirrel” it can be hard to keep lessons on track.

One of the hallmarks of PBL and the thing that originally attracted me to the model is student voice and choice. It’s powerful when students take over the classroom, forging the learning path, instead of the teacher. Kids are plenty curious if we only give them some space to explore topics that they care about. This isn’t limited to some narrow passion of theirs either. When given some choice in relevant content, students discover many aspects of the subject matter are engaging to them.

Student voice and choice gives students multiple paths to engage themselves into content.

Voice and Choice

In his popular book, Drive, Daniel Pink shares that the three primary motivators are autonomy, mastery, and purpose. Schools emphasize mastery with hours of rote memorization of facts and practicing mathematical algorithms, but tend to neglect purpose and autonomy. Many teachers are afraid to give any freedom to students thinking that their classroom will turn into the chaos on the left side of the image at the top of this post. I would argue that the first thing to focus on is purpose.

The reason that students are always asking “Why do we have to do this?” is because they perceive that school has no relevance to their lives: no purpose. That is why PBL starts with an entry event that connects content to student lives in authentic ways. This initial hook, coupled with an audience for their final product, gives meaning to both the project and the content to be explored. Now students are ready to step into some autonomy.

After the entry event, if the rest of the project is actually just a traditional unit designed, organized, and managed entirely by the teacher, students will resist fully committing to it. But given autonomy by questioning what they will study, who they will work with, and how they will demonstrate their learning, students will engage more deeply.

Many teachers use choice boards to give students some freedom to plan their learning. It’s a nice first step, but until you empower student voice, you won’t see the true power of PBL. To be clear, students already have a voice, but schools often try to quell it instead of encouraging and amplifying it. There are plenty of topics that both connect to curriculum and are compelling to students: climate change, Covid-19, Black Lives Matter, Fake News, immigration, minimum wage, LBGTQ+ rights, to name a few. When students engross themselves in relevant topics that they can then take a stand on, they develop the Transformative SEL skill of leadership in both the school and their communities.


Staring at a screen all day is not engaging. Not even a little bit. Even playing video games or watching Netflix gets old after awhile. So in remote learning, we need to find ways to get students immersed in offline pursuits. Students can look at the history and context of any current event and consider multiple viewpoints of it. Another option is an independent project with students pursuing a personal passion. Entrepreneurship is another great project theme to help student grow SEL skills of problem-solving and collaboration.

Once you have a topic or theme (ideally with student input), plan structures to scaffold students inquiry both online and off. For live sessions, use protocols and routines, to make students’ time in breakout rooms productive. Thinking Routines don’t limit autonomy, but rather provide an organizing framework to help students be successful.

PBL provides the balance between student autonomy and scaffolding to structure inquiry.

Don’t limit the project to live, online time together. Students can engage safely in their communities through experiments, observations of natural phenomena, data collections, and surveys. Their final products can involve physical objects such as prototypes, artwork, video productions, or photo journals. Encourage students to get outside to explore nature and their neighborhoods, discovering everyday things that they may have taken for granted.

Let’s look at one specific example that could be scaled up or down from elementary to high school. Right now I have a student making maple syrup with her family. They spend hours tapping trees, collecting the sap, and then boiling it for days to make the delicious final product. Think of all of the educational connections in this activity. There is science behind the seasons and why the sap runs right now. Engineering is required to design and build the proper equipment to process the sap. Students could explore concepts such as boiling points, states of matter, and chemical changes taking place. Students could calculate how long to boil it and the proportions of how much sap is required to make a pint of syrup. There is the history behind this process and human/environmental impact of humans collecting and producing a specific food. Students might wonder why maple trees only grow in certain parts of the world. Students could study the economics of running a business and how to write a business plan to sell maple syrup. Profits from sales could be donated to a social cause that students care about.

This one simple activity is a pathway down numerous learning paths that cross content levels and age levels. What topics would be relevant to your students and community that empower student autonomy?

Questions? Interested in a PBL workshop or consulting?  Connect with me at michaelkaechele.com or @mikekaechele on Twitter.