Tag Archives: Social Emotional Learning

How PBL Gets All Kids in the Game

School is a game with official “rules” for how to play:

  • Show up every day.
  • Do all of your work (even if it is mindless, busy work).
  • Test well (this is the ultimate part of the game where we decide the “winners”).
  • Figure out what each teacher wants and do it (real talk).
  • Be respectful to adults (compliance over everything; this needs a long post to unpack how much is wrong with how most places define respect and how one-sided it is).

Everyone in education knows that different students approach the game of school in different ways with various levels of success. The majority of professional development is based on getting a certain segment of the school population to play the game better, aka get higher test scores.

I want to compare the way school has traditionally been “played” to varsity sports and the way that different kinds of students approach it. At the same time, I want to demonstrate how Project Based Learning (PBL), is all-inclusive, inviting every student to be actively engaged in their learning process. It’s why I believe that PBL is the best structure for education.

Varsity Athletes

Varsity Athletes are the traditional high achievers. They know the rules of school and win the game. Everyone knows who they are, not just from varsity letters and rosters (the honor roll) but by how they act in class. They pay attention, studiously take notes, and ask questions in discussions. They come to school to play and compete to be team captain or MVP. They keep track of their stats (grades) and work hard to improve their game.

Although they are over-achievers as students, varsity athletes are often ball hogs. They may struggle to work with other students and prefer to just do everything themselves. They have the highest GPA but usually lower SEL skills.

The truth is that varsity athletes will do fine in school no matter what. They have “made the team” their entire life and expect to be successful in school. If you change the rules of the school game to PBL, they will pushback the loudest at first, because they are worried about their stats (grades). PBL feels risky to have new and confusing “rules” to the game of school. But in the end, they will adjust and learn new structures and will perform just fine.

The bonus for varsity athletes (and the selling point to their concerned parents) is that through PBL they will develop the SEL skills of communication, collaboration, critical thinking, and creativity. They will learn leadership skills through the projects and do meaningful work that looks great on a college application. In short, they will be developing the soft skills that future employers are looking for.

Team Managers

Team managers love the game. They want to be a star on the team, but just aren’t athletic enough. They are often stat nerds who collect cards and memorabilia. They are hard working and like being a part of the team.

Team managers are the type of students who work hard in school, want to be successful, but lack specific skills. They may be unorganized and never turn in their work, even if they complete it. They may actually know lots of content, but perform poorly on tests. They may struggle with a specific skill such as reading, writing, or numeracy. Some of them have official labels like 504 or special education, but others do not.

Team managers may get cut from the team because of their lack of specific athletic skills. but they have other skills like being a stat nerd. In school, managers may have hands-on expertise like working on cars or art that are often unrecognized in core classes.  PBL gives choices for learning and assessment that honors these students’ strengths. Managers have the opportunity to demonstrate their learning in a multitude of different approaches. PBL uses scaffolding to teach these students SEL skills of organization and academic skills too.


Varsity athletes are a small percentage of the school population, as most kids don’t play on a team. Non athletes are the students who hate sportsball, as they sarcastically call it. They fall into all different “categories” from geeky D&D players to music loving Goths to artsy activists. They may actually be athletic, but focus on non-varsity sports like skateboarding or dance or performing theatre.

Non athletes may attend events like football games because they are in the band, or just for the social part of hanging out. They don’t understand how to play the game of sportsball, because they have no interest in it. They are passionate about other things.

Many students are “non athletes” in the classroom. They may be forced to be there or they may enjoy the social aspects of school, but they are disconnected from learning. They may perform to a minimal standard to pass and keep their parents off their back, but given the choice they would literally rather being doing anything else.

PBL makes learning relevant to these kids. Instead of siloed content with little application, standards are addressed by authentic problems pitched by local partners in the community. Students do work that matters. Voice and choice means that teachers design projects that are both culturally responsive and connected to student passions.

Many non athletes may be developmentally behind from not “playing.” They have been going through the motions for so long that they are missing basic skills. Others may be English Learners who lack language skills. Through personalized scaffolding in PBL, all students experience engaging content while developing skills. They don’t need boring, abstract remedial lessons, but instead meaningful projects completed in community. PBL draws in students who have never wanted to “play” the game of school before.

Playground Stars

Playground stars are athletes, and they know how to play the game. They just never try out for the team. For whatever reason, they play for fun (and dominate) but don’t want to play at school. It may be that they don’t like the coach or a certain teammate. They may have to work a job or have duties at home such as babysitting younger siblings.

In school, playground stars are potential dropouts. They aren’t necessarily behind academically; they just choose not to engage. Many times they should be in gifted and talented programs (a category that I find problematic) but they rarely show their talent at school.

A playground star won’t take notes, doesn’t appear to be paying attention, and doesn’t do homework. Yet they get a B on a test without much effort (but a D in class because the teacher weighs HW and participation). Unlike the non athlete who doesn’t really understand the skills and habits to be successful in school, the playground star knows exactly what to do, but doesn’t feel like doing it.

Playground stars are like non athletes, in that, the missing factor is motivation. They think that school is a waste of time and don’t want to play. But unlike the non athlete, they don’t fake going through the motions of minimal effort. They refuse to participate. Oftentimes they become behavior problems in class. Alternative education is full of playground stars who have rejected the traditional system.

PBL reaches these kids by giving them a voice in their education. Playground stars don’t hate learning, they hate school. So give them authentic projects with meaningful outcomes. Challenge them to solve real issues in the community. Listen to what they care about and design school around that.

Playground stars need to be seen. Teachers need to get to know them, developing deep trusting relationships, before they can “coach” them to success. PBL teachers are “player’s coaches.” Relationships come first, fundamentals and the game second.


One of the challenges for schools is that most teachers were varsity starters in high school. They didn’t just make the team, they were MVP’s. School worked for them. They loved it and were successful so they went into education. So many teachers assume that there is nothing wrong with the traditional structure of school, and when kids fail it is because of their own actions or character: lazy, distracted, and unmotivated.

In fact, none of these examples of students are lazy. Non athletes and playground stars work hard in things that they care about. School rarely falls into that category. PBL changes school from a competition of winners and losers to a cooperative game where all students can “win” None of this magically happens by “doing a project.” It requires a transformation of pedagogy including assessment, grades, classroom management, and culturally responsive teaching. It’s time to level the playing field with PBL and make our classrooms places where all kids succeed.

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

When Teachers Choose to Escalate

Let’s look at a scenario that I think we will all find familiar (I, for one, am guilty of this choice). A student, let’s call him Mike, comes to class agitated. Maybe he got into a fight with his girlfriend, something is blowing up in his home life, or maybe he is returning to class from the office after having been kicked out of a previous class. It could be a myriad of reasons, it really doesn’t matter why. What’s important is that it is obvious he is upset and the cause is not this class or this teacher because he enters the classroom in this state.

He goes to his desk and puts his head down and closes his eyes. Maybe this student has a history of being a disruption in class or maybe the teacher is agitated too from last hour’s class, personal stress, or is just tired of dealing with this particular student day after day. The teacher decides today to draw a line, “Mike, sit up and pay attention, please” in that firm teacher voice.

Mike doesn’t move.

The teacher walks over so that he is standing over Mike. “Please sit up, open your book, and follow along.”

Mike still doesn’t budge.

Getting more stern, “Mike, sit up or I am writing you up.”

Mike jerks up in his seat and angrily says, “Why don’t you just leave me alone!”

Teacher in a calm, but passive aggressive voice says, “Mike, I need you to drop the attitude and pay attention.”

Mike yells, “@%&^ you, why are you always on my case?”

Teacher in a calm, “winning” voice, “Go to the office right now.”

The teacher had a choice to be a caring adult and handle this differently. He could have used his own SEL skills to check in with Mike, offer him some space to decompress, or the opportunity to talk to a counselor. Instead the teacher power-tripped, and intentionally escalated Mike to a point where the student’s behavior could be blamed for the consequence that made the teacher’s day easier: removal from class. The teacher has all of the authority in this situation and unless there is a physical alteration, the teacher is always going to win and be backed by administration.

Hopefully, you can see an analogy to the police and African Americans in the United States. The police have all of the authority and can escalate or accuse at any time to make arrests. The video evidence and statistics prove that this country has a problem with how police treat African Americans, and the judicial system rarely holds the police accountable. This is unacceptable and needs to be changed. But I am not am expert on how that should happen. (See https://8cantwait.org for ideas on changes to be made).

Sometimes it is easier to get upset by the racism of someone else, like the police, than to examine ourselves. I want to challenge white teachers to look at their classroom management practices. We know that everyone in this country has implicit racial biases (including people of color) that have been conditioned into us from a young age.

Remember racism is an action that we need to fix, not a judgement of our personal morality.

Robin Diangelo in White Fragility explains the false good/bad binary about racism: Bad people are racist, and good people are not. By this logic to admit (or be informed of) racist actions is to be a bad person, usually resulting in defensiveness. Instead think of racism as a continuum that everyone is on because of historical institutional racism. Diangelo states, “I am not in a fixed position on the continuum; my position is dictated by what I am actually doing at a given time…Am I actively seeking to interrupt racism in this context?” So all of us need to constantly analyze our actions, admit mistakes, and readjust.

When you think about your teaching, are the “Mikes” in your classroom primarily students of color? The data shows that black students are suspended at much higher rates than white students. Many studies have shown that black and hispanic students receive harsher consequences for the same actions as white students.

I don’t believe that most teachers are explicitly targeting black students for referrals, detentions, or suspensions.

The problem is that this happens implicitly without teachers even thinking about it. My challenge for white teachers is to reflect on your interactions with students, especially those that are most challenging for you. Honestly try to analyze if you are being fair and impartial. Talk it over situations with a trusted colleague who will give you honest feedback. If you have failed, learn from it. If you have a current student who pushes your buttons, try opening a dialogue with them.

I recommend that white educators learn more about racism. Read some books, listen to podcasts, and do the work to see the perspective of people of color. There are lots of resources for your classroom, but the real work starts inside ourselves on how we can be a part of dismantling racism in schools.

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