Written by: Andrew Larson
Columbus Signature Academy New Tech High School
Project Based Learning can be pragmatic to a fault. Sometimes, students (especially those that have been in an immersed PBL environment for a number of years) begin to question any classroom process that they perceive as unrelated to project work. That mindset reflects critical thought and should be applauded. However, it is also true that students are not experts in pedagogy. The notion that instructors are “guides on the side” has its limits and it is important for us to find a balance between student voice and choice and rigorous expectations for student work.
One of the “Need to Knows” we get a lot in Magnify Learning PBL training sessions is, “how does one incorporate reading books into projects?” I went back and forth with this question in previous years of doing Project- Based Learning, but now I know exactly how I feel about it. Using books as content scaffolds in projects is essential. Whether literature or nonfiction, having students read a book alongside project work makes sense. Here are ten guidelines for using books in a PBL setting.
Provide options. Our favorite projects in Global Science Perspectives (integrated English 9 and Environmental Studies) at Columbus Signature Academy New Tech High School have two to four titles from which students may choose. These are often differentiated by reading level or topic. Students may choose to read more than one book, and there is typically a title that is required for students choosing the English Honors path. For example, when our students are writing Dystopian short plays (performed and hosted by our local theater,) they choose from a number of titles such as 1984, Anthem, The Circle, and The Uglies. Some students will read only one short book (such as Anthem) and that might be fine for them; others can, and should, read more than one book.
Choose books with thematic ties. It would indeed seem odd to everyone involved if we read books that were disconnected from the project themes we are studying. We put a lot of thought into the titles we order and offer to students. In our first project of the year, a sort of “get to know you” project, we have students write a personal nature narrative, where they tell the story of an experience in nature that left an impression on them. Accordingly, they choose from several titles that are also nature narratives, such as Into the Wild, A Walk in the Woods, and A Long Way Gone. These books give us talking points not just about the experiences, but also the style of writing used by the authors and how students may emulate those styles.
Use lit circles. Literature circles give students opportunities to lead, develop a strong classroom culture, make connections between the project and the content of the book, and to learn from each other. In a recent lit circle of Omnivore’s Dilemma, I sat in and we shared facts from the book that could serve as useful evidence for research papers. It gave them a chance to ask questions about complex topics (like organic food production) and share the connections they were making with their research topics like food security and healthy eating.
Use books as direct sources for research. Right now we are in the middle of a gardening and local foods project, and are thus reading books that inform about the food we eat, where it comes from, how it is produced, and what is in it (such as The Omnivore’s Dilemma.) Students do not always recognize that such a book, rich with research, is an entirely appropriate book to cite in research papers. Given that the Internet is the default source of information for kids, having them cite a physical book is an important skill for students to develop.
Rethink your classics. Some books are classics and should be read for that reason. But trying to create a project from a classic when there just is not one there can be frustrating and can cause students to question the value of the book, the project, or both. I have tried unsuccessfully to find a project that works with The Old Man and the Sea. That does not mean we will not read it; it may just mean that we will not read in in conjunction with a project.
Use books to bridge content areas. I have seen some good examples over the years of using a book to support content in other areas. My favorite such example is using the novel Life of Pi to teach about world religions in our World Civilizations course. In English class, we can support the reading strategies and comprehension, while in World Civ, they can specifically unpack the religion content.
Have students read with purpose. While it may not have to happen every day, giving students certain goals for reading that align with project work gives them a clearer sense of the authenticity of the use of books in a project. If they annotate as they read, they will then have specific evidence to refer back to in presentations, research papers, and other project products.
Use books to help students see the real- life connections. Whether the book is a social commentary (think: The Circle) or a memoir about human rights violations (Zeitoun,) these books give students a broader lens for a project and gets them out of their own heads. I find having a book as a supplementary source especially helpful for when students get “tunnel vision” because they are so focused on developing a prototype, presentation or paper that they lose sight of the bigger picture.
Use books in non- language arts courses. Our Environmental Science facilitator uses the novel Flight Behavior to help students see how climate change impacts not just animals and plants, but communities and local economies. In Biology, we use In Defense of Food to understand nutrition and navigated the overwhelming options we have when we choose foods to eat. Good novels, investigative works, and memoirs can transcend a textbook in value when they help students really see how an issue affects people on a personal level.
Celebrate and model sustained silent reading. It is such a nice break from the cacophony of PBL to just hunker down and read in class. This should be considered vital time where students should focus on themselves as individuals. It goes without saying that instructors should model sustained silent reading as well, and hopefully with the same book that students are using, and perhaps even annotating as they go. I have been known to have read a book for the first time during the course of a project with students, and I love the element of transparency that it places on the process as we discover things about the book together. Make students do SSR; their group work will be stronger because of it, and so, too, will be the harried PBL instructor’s mental health!
Our students have come to expect that every project will involve reading one or more books as a part of the journey. For many, they have encountered types of books that they would not have otherwise and have been surprised to find that not only can they read these books, but they actually get into them! The connections with projects are often rich and rewarding, but I guess more than anything, I love that even in the pragmatic world of PBL, there is still essential value in digging in deep with a good book.