Tag Archives: service learning

PBL Service Learning = Authentic SEL Experience

Art created by Heartside patrons


Darius was a struggling student. In fact, he had not completed a project all year. To top it off, he had been arguing with his mom a ton at home and the extended December break meant a further strain on their relationship. When school started back up in the new year, he learned that the class would be taking a trip to Heartside Ministries, a local homeless organization. He was not thrilled. As an introvert, he was nervous about meeting new people and having to talk. Afterwards he admitted that he enjoyed the experience and wanted to make something to help the patrons.

Darius and his group decided to make “Greaterade,” a new sports drink. They squeezed out juice from real lemons and oranges. They read that a little heat would help an upset stomach so they put some red pepper flakes in it. They added a salt, calcium magnesium, to help with recovery. The first batch was a disaster. It had pulp and seeds in it and tasted horrible from the pepper and calcium magnesium. They shifted to using lemon and lime juice, decreased the salt, and skipped the peppers. The second batch still tasted nasty from the calcium magnesium. Other students wouldn’t even try these first attempts in a taste test. On the third try, they decreased the calcium magnesium, and their drink tasted delicious. Now everyone wanted to try some. Darius was proud to bring his drink to share with Heartside visitors. As a bonus, his science teacher, Nate Langel, called his mother to share his success and discovered that Darius was talking with his mother again and mending that relationship. 

Failing Forward

Luciana was stressed. She was struggling to create bath bombs. In her latest trial, she had forgotten to add cornstarch to her recipe and instead of hardening, the mixture stayed slimy again. She knew better. From previous trials, she knew that she needed cornstarch for thickening, but it looked so much like baking soda that she accidentally neglected it. Now she had wasted a trial and ran out of citric acid, one of the active ingredients that creates the fizz in water. Maybe she should give up and just buy some at the store. But Luciana persevered, bought more citric acid, and successfully made her bath bombs. They were diamond shaped from forms that she had designed and 3D printed. 

Luciana was not alone in struggling with her experiments. Every student at the Grand Rapids Museum School that I talked to had generated multiple attempts in the Poverty Project. Students were creating products in response to the Driving Question, “How can we use material science to develop food, care, and art products to share with our Heartside neighbors?” while studying the polar and nonpolar properties of molecules. Tad and Gamon ran fourteen trials attempting to make a healthier toothpaste without the many chemicals in commercially sold ones. Their sticking point was the nasty flavor of their main, active ingredient, baking soda. In the end, they were unsuccessful, but appreciated the freedom to try and fail. 

Community Partner

Motivation during the Poverty Project came from the school partnership with Heartside Ministries, a local homeless organization. Heartside describes itself as a “living room” for underprivileged people. They don’t offer regular meals or overnight lodging, but a warm, safe space in the daytime to rest and get a cup of coffee. Heartside offers GED classes, church and counseling services, and a service dog. They have a spacious art studio where people produce beautiful pieces, expressing their creativity. 

This service project had an authentic audience of homeless people and the Heartside staff. The project launched with a visit to Heartside to meet people and investigate needs. It culminated with a return visit for students to demonstrate their products and explain the science behind them. Students were surprised when the patrons asked lots of science questions. One patron, who called herself Precise, asked very specific questions and shared life lessons with them. It was eye opening for the students to meet James, who although homeless himself, was trying to help other homeless people. Students became passionate about finding a solution to homelessness.

The Poverty Project integrated social studies, ELA, and science curriculum. In social studies, students researched the twenties and thirties looking at the government’s role in affecting poverty and homelessness during the Great Depression. For the humanities part of the project, students read Of Mice and Men then visited other homeless organizations in town to interview people. Students considered the DQs, “When does helping help? When does helping hurt?” The final product was a blog based on the interviews.


Luciana had another problem to solve. Homeless people did not have access to bathtubs so although her product met science standards, it was not practical. She decided to wrap the bath bombs in decorative bags and sell them. When her supply exceeded the demand from friends and family, she sold them at her public library. Luciana used the money to purchase art from Heartside patrons, supporting the people in a dignified way.

Science teacher, Nate Langel, who designed the project shared the following SEL goals: empathy, gratefulness, service, compassion, and social justice. During reflection at the end of the project, students articulated the analogy of the science concepts of polar and nonpolar properties to our society. 

“People are sometimes like oil and water, but they don’t have to be. People that have homes are the oil and people who don’t are like water. Our school is the soap, an emulsifier that breaks down the separation between them.”

In the Poverty Project, students practiced Responsible Decision Making through the tests and trials of their experiments. While students created products to help homeless people, they were learning core content in ways that not only benefited the community, but create a generation of students who have strong Social Awareness to take on the local and global issues with empathy and compassion.

Questions? Interested in SEL and PBL Consulting?  Connect with me at michaelkaechele.com or @mikekaechele onTwitter.

The Marriage of SEL and PBL

Social Emotional Learning and Project Based Learning are two of the hottest trends in education right now. Their popularity is due to the pendulum swinging back from the previous obsession with standardization and assessment dictated by NCLB and RTTT to more holistic education. Yet neither SEL nor PBL should be seen as fads, but as necessary and permanent shifts in pedagogy.

SEL is constantly happening in every classroom but is often part of the hidden curriculum. Teachers need to make SEL visible and intentional. Many schools are implementing specific plans for SEL as a stand alone curriculum. But as Frey, Fisher, and Smith advocate in All learning is Social and Emotional,

“What’s needed, and what’s far less common, is for schools to amplify the principles SEL programs introduce to make them the fabric of the school itself. In order for SEL to have a lasting and sustained effect, it needs to be integrated into the academic mainstream rather than remain on the periphery.”

SEL should not be another thing added onto teachers’ plates, but rather is most effective when integrated into classroom culture and routines.

PBL experts have long advocated that students should be learning skills in the classroom simultaneously with content knowledge. There are many labels for these skills:

SEL is the best terminology and framework for the set of skills that PBL experts agree should be integrated into projects. The following table shows how CASEL’s SEL Competencies can be naturally embedded into High Quality PBL.

Free PDF Download of Chart


Self-Awareness is accurately perceiving who you are as a person and developing confidence based on your individual strengths. Many students lack a belief in their abilities or have skills that are not emphasized in traditional classrooms. Project Based Learning gives all students the opportunity to gain confidence by creating meaningful work.

PBL honors each student’s unique characteristics. Through voice and choice, students recognize and use their strengths in what products they create and how they demonstrate their learning. Students build confidence by choosing group roles based on their strengths. PBL is built upon a growth mindset. Students use design thinking protocols to plan solutions, creating a culture of failing forward through iterative stages. They learn that mistakes are not permanent, but part of the routines of working toward success.

Reflection throughout the project process helps students see their progress and personal growth. Public presentation of their work encourages students and creates a positive self-perception. Students learn to advocate for themselves in PBL by requesting workshops from the teacher when needed. Most importantly the PBL framework teaches students how to learn, so they develop the skills to pursue any topic that they are passionate about on their own.

Social Awareness

Social Awareness is considering others’ perspectives and having empathy for people from diverse backgrounds and viewpoints. Today’s world has become polarized with people talking over each other, rather than listening and working towards compromise. High quality PBL forces students to consider multiple perspectives before working toward solutions.

Every teacher begins the year by establishing classroom norms. In PBL these norms are focused on respecting each other, even when we disagree and on how to function well in a group. Since students spend the majority of their day working together, they will consistently have different opinions. These are opportunities for them to learn how to navigate conflict peacefully. Each student’s voice should be heard and respected throughout the project.

Projects start with a Driving Question (DQ) to engage students and frame the anticipated learning. Students should be investigating multiple viewpoints before coming to any conclusions. Community members from a wide variety of backgrounds and experiences should be embedded into the process. Students should see that complex problems in society do not have simplistic, one-sided answers.

A project on stewardship of the environment, for example, would consider not only the negative effects of industrial pollution and land development, but the positive effects of jobs and economic benefits created by businesses. Students would be challenged to hear all sides and balance the needs of everyone in their final solutions.

Responsible Decision Making

Responsible Decision Making is making positive choices based on ethics, safety, and norms. The SEL framework emphasizes student behavior in the classroom, whereas PBL applies it more globally to issues outside of themselves. But the skills are the same in each case, with PBL using Social Awareness to drive this decision making.

The Driving Question launches a project with a focus on an authentic problem. Students then generate a list of “Need to Know’s” (N2K’s) of information and skills necessary to generate a solution. From the N2K’s, students with the guidance of the teacher plan “Next Steps” of how they will conduct research into the problem. This whole process requires identifying and analyzing problems at a deep level.

Since PBL is student-driven, continuous inquiry is embedded as students evaluate both resources and the Driving Question at every stage. Students engage in feedback and revision protocols such as gallery walks and the tuning protocol as they evaluate each other’s work. This peer feedback leads to exemplary products in their final solutions to the Driving Question.

In PBL, students reflect on both the skills that they are learning and their behaviors in their groups. There are “teachable moments” to talk about ethical responsibility on a daily basis. Taking ethics to the next level, service projects give students the chance to make a positive impact in the community. PBL creates a strong connection for students between personal and civic responsibility in their neighborhoods and beyond.

Self Management

Self Management is regulating oneself to manage and achieve goals. Project management is a key skillset in PBL within which self management is practiced and attained. The teacher creates a climate for students to manage themselves with the norms and routines mentioned under Social Awareness. Students become self-motivated when they exercise their voice to direct their learning as they explore their passions in the N2K’s and Next Steps protocols.

The classroom should be a safe space for students to develop project management skills. In PBL, students organize their groups through contracts that define appropriate behavior and define work roles. They can use tools such as scrum boards and team calendars. Students should set goals as a team and learn to hold each other accountable for completion. Older students can use online tools such as Trello to organize and younger students can use posters or bulletin boards for the same purpose.

Students also learn self-management by choosing the appropriate scaffolding and tools that they need to complete their work. Teachers can give menus of options and students can choose what works for them. Finally, a key element of PBL is self assessment through reflection. Students can compare their work to rubric descriptions and exemplars. They should be reflecting on their content learning and the SEL skills that they are developing throughout the PBL process.

Relationship Skills

Relationship Skills are the ability to maintain healthy relationships with diverse people through communication and cooperation. Since PBL involves significant time spent working in groups, it is the perfect structure to develop Relationship Skills

Communication is one of the most fundamental skills developed in PBL. In traditional classrooms, students often sit passively listening most of the time. In PBL, not only are students constantly communicating in their groups, but they give professional presentations to their class and the community. Community experts are brought in and students collaborate with them to develop solutions to the DQ.

As mentioned previously, group contracts and student roles help students learn how to interact with each other in productive ways and invoke teamwork for successful completion of their goals. Feedback and revision protocols teach students to both give and accept peer feedback on their products. Reflection throughout the project on their group dynamics gives students opportunities to identify and solve relationship challenges.


SEL should not be another add-on program in schools. PBL is the perfect framework to teach SEL competencies seamlessly. This student-centered approach allows students to develop their skills in a safe environment under the reflective guidance of their teacher. SEL and PBL -the perfect marriage ’til death do they part.

Questions? Interested in SEL and PBL Consulting?  Connect with me at michaelkaechele.com or @mikekaechele onTwitter.