Reading is Fundamental in PBL By: Andrew Larson

Written by: Andrew Larson
Columbus Signature Academy New Tech High School
Science Facilitator

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.

“It’s Just One Dam Project After Another” By: Andrew Larson

Written by: Andrew Larson
Columbus Signature Academy New Tech High School
Science Facilitator

Here sits perhaps the best gift I ever received from a student.

Let me explain. A couple of years ago, our 9th grade Global Science Perspectives (integrated English 9 & Environmental Studies) class at Columbus Signature Academy New Tech High School was approached to examine the possibilities and potential to develop our downtown riverfront into a destination for citizens and tourists. Through the course of this project, students were involved with and communicating with a veritable “all star” panel of city officials including Columbus Mayor Jim Leinhoop, members of Columbus City Council, the Columbus City Engineer, members of the Redevelopment Council, Columbus Parks Foundation, experts in design, and more. It was easily the most daunting and intimidating panel of professionals I have ever put students in front of, and believe me when I say that my co- facilitator were more than just a little nervous about the reception the students’ work would receive.

Early on in the project we invited all of these people to provide a sort of broad- lens view of the whole scenario and give our students some ideas to be thinking about and to give them some “success criteria.” Our students peppered them with questions (which we painstakingly prepared) and in the end, they had some direction(s) to pursue on their own.

Groups of students each chose their focus among a myriad of options including public art, pedestrian trails and other alternative transportation systems, economic development and, yes, the redesign of the crumbling Third Street Dam. Through it all, students did lots of research, informative and persuasive writing, prototype creating, and learning about our city and its remarkable features & history.

It was indeed, however, turning into a messy project and after a few weeks, my co- facilitator, Rachelle Antcliff, and I were understandably a little “punchy” for all this talk about sculptures, rivers, and dams. Because we could (and get away with it) we started throwing out phrases like, “We’re going to be offering a dam workshop in about ten minutes,” or, “Let’s end this dam discussion before it gets carried away.” We all had a good laugh about this “loophole” that we had found in our requirement to be mature in front of students.

As the project neared its concluding prototype presentations, we had real concerns about whether the final prototypes were polished enough to present to our powerhouse community partners. Rachelle drew upon her husband’s professional network to bring in some professionals (not a part of our actual audience) to preview the prototypes in advance of the actual final presentations. This proved to be a great call, as they provided vital feedback from persons other than us.

Still, we were all racked with nerves when the final gallery- style presentations of ideas for the downtown riverfront were presented to the dozen- plus Columbus, Indiana “All- Stars.” Our students looked great, having dressed in their best professional clothing, and made a terrific impression on our community partners as they pitched their prototypes for redesigned dams, interpretive trails, sculpture installations, and more. Mayor Leinhoop was engrossed in conversation with several student groups, and it was clear that he was taking their ideas to heart.

Students were excited by the feedback that they got. They asked, though, “Will they actually use our ideas or was this all just fake?” Our response was that of course it was not fake. Prototype presentations are as real as it gets in the professional world. Some ideas take. Others do not. No one can ever predict how the work of anyone, including students, may play out in future decisions. There was no questioning the authenticity of the project and culminating event (and they seemed reasonably satisfied with this response.)

Months later, I was asked to bring some samples of work, along with student ambassadors, to the Columbus Parks Foundation Annual Meeting. The purpose was to show local students and their engagement with city parks. To be honest, I obliged the invitation but did so a bit reluctantly; not being the hobnobbing type, and also exhausted from a busy week at school, I accepted the invitation as a returned favor to the Parks Foundation contacts who served as our community partners.

Little did I know that towards the end of the event there would be awards given out, and that we would be awarded with a “Shining Star” award from the Columbus Parks Foundation. As I came up to receive the award on behalf of our students, Mayor Leinhoop remarked at the fluency and ease with which our students were able to speak about their concepts. He was grateful for their effort and impressed by the quality of their work.

Among the projects we have run with students over the years, it was indeed one of the more exhausting ones. The following school year, the awesome Hannah Baker, now a junior, presented the hat shown above to Rachelle and I. I wear it as a badge of honor, tongue- firmly- in- cheek as we marvel in the exhausting, quirky, and rewarding work: leading students on Project- Based Learning journeys that change them forever.

The Race to Real-World Readiness: A Culture-Building Project By: Trisha Burns

In July, I wrote a blog and shared ideas on culture-building projects you could do at the beginning of the school year. Since my last blog, our school launched and just finished our own culture-building project. It started with the Entry Event. The flyer we gave to students was meant to imitate a race flyer. It discussed the training sessions (workshops) that they would be attending during the project as well as introduced the three questions we wanted them to address in the final products. 

  • How will you run? (End Product: Quick Ignite Talk style presentation)
  • How will we run? (End Product: Create Classroom Expectations)
  • How will we tell others about our race? (End Product: Small-group share outs on plans for the year)

After we launched the project, we did the know/need to know chart and wrote a problem statement with the students. Then we spent time decoding texts by reading articles on why people choose to be in a PBL school. Our next step was to have students create a product to represent their “why” for choosing a PBL team as their mode of learning. The students could choose whatever format they wanted such as a picture, a poem, a letter, etc. Once we had defined the problem, we gave the students the rubric for the project so they would know what the expectations were for the different parts of the project. From that point the training began. The four core teachers split these 6 training sessions up in our content area time to teach our expectations and introduce our 8th graders to how PBL works on our team.

Training Session 1: Race Map
The Race Map session was an introduction to the 6 Steps of Problem Solving we use in all of our projects. In this training session (a workshop), the students watched an episode of House Hunters as a quick 22 minute example of the problem solving process. Every episode follows the same pattern as our problem solving process. First, they define the problem. Then they get the solution criteria (what the husband wants, what the wife wants). Then they explore three possible solutions before choosing their solution. Then they run their solution (by moving in), and then they reflect and celebrate how they made the right choice. After they watched the episode they did a short activity where they sorted the pieces of a PBL into what phase they belong in. It was important for the students to understand and know that every project will follow the same “race map” of the 6 phases.

Training Session 2: Race Mindset
In the Race Mindset training session we discussed the difference between having a fixed mindset and a growth mindset. We also taught the students how we use the word “agency” to learn how to exercise the brain muscle. We watched clips from a Rocky movie that demonstrates both a fixed and a growth mindset. Then we discussed the different domains of agency (meeting benchmarks, growing from setbacks, seeking challenge, seeking feedback, finding personal relevance, impacting self and community, using effort and practice to grow, actively participating, building confidence, building relationships, and tackling and monitoring learning). You can find out more about these on New Tech Network’s Agency Rubric. We related these domains to both running a real race and running the “marathon” of making it through the school year successfully. Then the students graded themselves on the rubric and set an agency goal for the year.

Training Session 3: Training Partners
The training partner session was geared towards helping the students get to know themselves and others they will be working with this year. This training session was broken into two days. The first day, we did the Compass Points protocol from NSRF’s website. This helped the students get to know more about themselves, how they work in a group, and how others can help them be more successful. On the second day, the students had to use a bag of legos and help each other build a structure. After the activity, each student used the New Tech Network Collaboration Rubric to reflect on how he/she used collaboration skills during the activity. Through this activity students learned who they will be training with and “running” with as they complete projects during the school year.

Training Session 4: Race Etiquette
The race etiquette session was designed to teach students about the norms and appropriate behaviors in the classroom. During this two-day training session students completed a chalk talk discussing what New Tech Network’s three pillars of trust, respect, responsibility mean to them. They also discussed CSA Central’s expectations of being academically, personally, and socially responsible. Then they combined their thoughts on the two onto a matrix. From there, they were able to generate our team expectations for this year. As we progress through the school year, the only task left for them to do is to fine tune the “unacceptables” or the little details that we are noticing may not fit in to the expectations that the students generated and voted on. This training session taught the students how we expect them to behave during our “marathon” as well as gave them voice and ownership in the norms and agreements of our classroom.

Training Session 5: Race Rules
In the Race Rules training session, the students learned how they will be graded by our team. At CSAM we have weighted our grades so that out of the 100% a student can earn, content is 60% of their grade, and oral communication, written communication, agency, and collaboration each account for 10% of their grade. We completed a math worksheet where they had to find the weighted grade of a hypothetical student based on each of the categories we grade. Then the students had to find their own weighted grade by making goals for each of the categories in their math class. We wanted students to make the connection and see that just as knowing race rules is important to complete a marathon, understanding expectations for grading is crucial for completing the school year.

Training Session 6: Race Sponsors
Race sponsors make the race possible, and we wanted to make sure the students know about the organization responsible for our PBL school. We are attached to the New Tech Network here at CSA. So this training session was for the students to realize New Tech is so much more than the high school they will go to next year. They did activities which included having some time to actively explore New Tech’s website, analyze an infographic on what sets New Tech graduates apart from traditional school’s graduates, and find project ideas on New Tech’s website that seemed interesting to them.

For the final product of this project the students had to answer four questions. Each of these questions and the tasks associated with them served as a piece of the final product. The questions were as follows:

  • How will I run?
  • How will we run?
  • How will we tell others about the race?
  • What does it mean to “race to real-world readiness?”

How will I run?
Since the students used the Ignite talk format as seventh graders at the end of last year, we thought it would be a great way to get the students to present their goals without a lot of scaffolding on how to design their presentations. In their Ignite talks, students give a short talk (5 minutes) using a maximum of 20 slides that automatically transition every 15 seconds. We decided to have students answer the question “How will I run?” by presenting a shortened version of this. They had 5 slides that transitioned every 15 seconds in which they presented their three goals for the year. Each student presented an agency goal, a collaboration goal, and either an academic or personal goal. They first had to create an outline and get feedback on it from both their peers and teachers. We used this time to talk about/review with them the writing/speaking expectations here at CSAM. This was a great glimpse into what students know they need to work on as they begin the new year.

How will we run?
We left this part of the rubric empty and brainstormed with the students what it should look like. However, we realized this section would be answered by the Race Etiquette training session and by the expectation posters that will be posted in all of our classrooms. You will notice this part of the rubric looks incomplete, but we realized it was something that all students would have and would need to agree on. Therefore we decided to not grade it individually.

How will we tell others about the race?
I remember as we started this part of the project thinking, “Wow, we just unleashed their creativity!” Students had the ability to choose how we would tell others about CSA. For example, some groups chose to design a t-shirt. Then we had all 7th and 8th graders vote on their final design for our team shirts this year. Other groups decided to work on creating PSA’s for CSA. We will have these videos, brochures, and posters for different audiences when they come visit or ask questions about CSA. One of these groups chose to create a bulletin board for our hallway. Their idea is linked here: bulletin board.Each student at CSAM will have a little running man to move as they meet their goals this year. This is completely student designed, and they are putting it up in the school for us.

Another big group of students planned tours for different audiences and incorporated what they would want to see if they came to visit CSA Central. They ended with a script, identifying places in Central they would want to stop at on a tour, and a schedule for how they would run the day during a group’s visit. Some groups chose incoming 7th graders to give this tour to. Others chose teachers from other schools, new students, universities, and people from other countries. They had the counselors and the assistant principal come in to give them feedback on their plans. There were two groups who didn’t really fit in to any of those categories. One group wanted to have a 5K run/walk to tell others in the community about our program. They wanted to highlight different projects along the course of the run/walk. Another group wanted to have a game night to invite all the 6th graders in the district and at the end make sure they all get information on joining CSA.

In conclusion, we as teachers learned a lot about our students during this project, and they learned a lot about us and our expectations for the year. Although the actual content wasn’t the focus of this project, we set the students up for success for when the projects do begin. Our goal is for all students to be successful in our project-based learning environment and in this marathon called the 2017-2018 school year. The race has begun. Ready, set, go!

Starting the Year off with Success By: Trisha Burns

If you have taken a glance at a calendar lately, you will notice that the summer is passing quickly. Have you thought about how you are going to start your school year? We know that it is best practice to train the students on your expectations for a successful classroom as you begin the year. One of the practices I have found successful during my 8 years of facilitating a PBL classroom is to begin the year with a culture-building project. Basically you use a PBL project to teach the expectations and basics of your classroom process.

When I taught in a traditional school and students came to me without any PBL experience, I started with a project called “What is PBL?” I launched this project with a letter to the students from me. Normally, I would want the letter to come from a community partner, but in this case I was their community partner because the final product was for my classroom. In this one week project, the final product was a poster of the expectations for each of the 4 group roles that we use in our projects throughout the year (Facilitator, Liaison, Team Tutor, and Recorder). As with all of my projects, I had a rubric that I created for the benchmarks and the poster, which was the final product. While we went through the 6 Phase Problem Solving Process, I made sure the students knew which phase we were in. They also began to notice how their “need to knows” planned the next steps of the project for us. It was a safe project to start with as I was beginning my PBL journey and as they were beginning theirs. Since there was no content in this project, the students and myself were able to learn together and see how the PBL process works. 

Another culture project idea is to have students design a team t-shirt as a final product. The potential project scenario is for the students to design a team t-shirt that represents who you are as a school or as a class. In order for them to be able to choose and design a t-shirt, they need to learn what sets apart your style of teaching and culture from what they are used to in a traditional classroom. An additional idea for a short culture project would be for each student to create an “I Can” block to put up in the hallway. With all the “I Can” blocks designed and created, you can easily organize them to become a “We Can” wall.

Last year my school, Columbus Signature Academy Central Campus, did a project called “Go for the Gold.” We launched it by introducing all of the teachers for both our 7th and 8th grade team as students’ “trainers.” The problem the students explored was how they were going to “go for the gold” throughout the year and master our different learning outcomes (Agency, Collaboration, Written Communication, Oral Communication). As part of their workshops they learned about our expectations for the building, for the classroom, for our technology, and for working in a PBL environment. All of those aspects became answers to how they would “Go for the Gold” during the school year. Students were put into teams where they designed a flag that had symbols and specific colors on them. They had to write a paragraph about how the colors and symbols represented their team. Then at the opening ceremonies, we had a “Parade of Teams” that was to simulate the Parade of Nations for the actual Olympics. We also did a torch ceremony where the 8th graders started outside and ran through the hallways, up the stairs, to the auditorium where they “lit” up a fake torch we had created. 

We showed the whole relay live so everyone could see it from the auditorium except for those involved. We finished the day with team-building games that the 8th graders put together for mixed-grade teams to participate in. This project really built our school culture and got us started on the right foot. Although we don’t want to use the Olympics this year, we are thinking maybe we could tweak the project to mimic training for a marathon.

Another idea that I haven’t used to begin a school year, but I can see has some serious potential is to connect with Pinwheels for Peace. In this culture project there would be a part of the final product where each student creates a pinwheel with their words of peace. The other idea I have thought about is to train all students on being tour guides or to know how to talk to visitors that we have come through our school. In order for them to be able to intelligently talk about the program, we would need to teach them about its various aspects, and they would need time to explore the school and what it offers. Again, neither of these ideas have been developed, but maybe they can help trigger the creative juices you have!

Regardless of how you decide to build the culture in your classroom or in your school, make sure to start the year off with a solid project! This will help the students learn your expectations without the risk learning content can sometimes create.

How do you build culture at the beginning of the year? We would love to hear your ideas! If you would like more information on any of the project ideas that my school has tried or to see PBL in action, you can follow us on Twitter @csantcentral.

Trisha Burns is an 8th grade math facilitator at CSA Central Campus in Columbus, Indiana. She is a certified teacher and trainer through the New Tech Network and certified through ICPBL for project-based learning in Indiana. She has taught in a PBL classroom since 2009 and facilitates for Magnify Learning in the summer. When she is not developing and implementing projects in her class room she loves to hang out with her family and scrapbook their memories! 

The Power of Feedback By: Trisha Burns

How do you get to the end of a project and know confidently that your students will do a great job presenting their final products to your community partners? How can you hold students accountable to meet benchmarks throughout the course of a project? How can you create a culture in your classroom or school that says it’s okay to make mistakes, take risks, and support each other? There is more than one answer to any of those questions, but the one answer they have in common is providing students opportunities for feedback throughout the process. Here are four ways that my 8th grade project based learning team provides opportunities for feedback.

Teacher Check-off

Even towards the beginning of the project, before it gets “messy,” “expensive,” or takes a lot of valuable class time, you should have some sort of benchmark, or checkpoint in the project, that gives the group (and the teacher) the confidence that students are on the right track.  The group should describe the “possible solution” they have chosen to the problem presented to them in the project. This description can be in an outline or a proposal of some sort.  At this point in the project, I find it helpful for teachers to give the feedback and give a green light of approval to continue.  If it is an individual classroom project it is easier to manage, but when you try to integrate projects with one, two, or even three different classes, it is nice to be able to have all teachers give their feedback and “sign off” that they give the “green light.”

On our team, we also promote reflection throughout the year and especially at the end of the year.  Our students wrote “PED” Talks  (Presentation of Educational Development) to show how they used a growth mindset to improve academically, personally, and socially throughout the year.  They had to create a very general outline that included how they would use evidence to prove this growth.  As a team of four teachers, we wanted to make sure we were all on the same page with these outlines. As we were working on another project, they had to get all four of us to approve their PED talk outline.  

What did this do for their final products? One, it helped the students make them more specific.  Without this feedback we would have heard the same presentation 100 times. “I studied harder so my grades went up. I practiced presentations so now I can speak in front of people. I was a better group member than last year so I grew socially.” However since they needed four teachers approval and we were all checking in on them, we were able to encourage them to be more specific and make it their own. So instead I heard things about building churches, volunteering in the community, overcoming tragic family situations, and yes, we still heard about how grades improved, but we saw the evidence.  We saw students include their reading levels from the beginning of the year, or a screenshot of grades from seventh to eighth grade.  By taking the time to talk to the students, we were able to help them truly reflect on how they were gold medalists this year instead of being generic in their reflections.  

Feedback Carousel

Do you have a brochure, flyer, PSA, or some sort of “stand alone” piece to your project? If so you could try a feedback carousel or a gallery walk.  These two ways to provide opportunities for feedback can get you the same outcome, but the way they are facilitated may change how the students engage in the activity.  

We used the feedback carousel recently in our Carnival for a Cause project where the students had to raise money for ASAP (Alliance of Substance Abuse Progress).  
One of the pieces of the final product was to create a PSA (Public Service Announcement) about drug abuse awareness. They posted these at their carnival booth . Most students chose a flyer, but we had one group make a video and two of the PSAs were shared by being wrapped around prizes or even being the stick they put cotton candy on.  About a week before the project was due, we could tell the students needed some focus time on their PSAs.  They looked more like research papers, but there are only so many times teachers can tell them that.  So we conducted a feedback carousel. All the groups hung their PSA on the wall (and the video was on a laptop on the counter). We sent 4-5 people to each PSA with several post-it notes and a tiny sheet that had the PSA solution criteria on it.  The students then had 2 minutes to look at the PSA (because let’s get serious, no one is going to spend more than 1 minute looking at a flyer at a  carnival!) and write feedback in the form of “Plus”, “Delta” or to give them next steps.  Students drew a “+” sign on top to give positive feedback, “delta,” a triangle, to list things they would change, or wrote “next steps” that the group could use. After the two minutes, we rotated clockwise and those 4 students gave another group feedback.  After about 10 rotations, we gave them 5 minutes to roam to other PSAs that caught their eye and give them feedback.  

This provided three huge advantages for our groups.  

  1. They were able to “compare” their quality of their PSA to the others that would be represented at the carnival.
  2. They became more familiar with the actual solution criteria that they would be graded on.
  3. They were able to get some “fresh eyes” to give them some feedback.

As much as I would love to have a school culture where students naturally ask other groups for feedback, we are not there yet so giving them time to do this is powerful! Here is another idea to help facilitate a feedback carousel in your classroom…

Gallery Walk

A very similar way to give feedback is through a gallery walk.  A gallery walk can be used as a final product display, but you can also use it for feedback time before community partners come to see final products.  We did this also in our carnival project with the actual booths.  This time we invited high school students (who had done this project with us when they were here) to come and play the games and give feedback.  By having this set time to be ready for “external enemies” to come and give them feedback, the students had almost the same pressure to have it completed before this deadline (instead of staying up all night the night before it’s due). It was impossible for students to wait until the last minute to create their game because we did the gallery walk a week before the carnival was open. This gave them time to, not finish their work, but to make it better.  It was nice for the students to hear “next steps” from the high schoolers as opposed to their teachers. This also worked really well as a practice set up time to make sure our carnival was going to fit where we had planned for it to be.

Shark Tank
One of the most fun ways to give feedback is a Shark Tank style presentation.  We also did this in our carnival project.  At the beginning of the project we watched an episode of Shark Tank. The students developed the solution criteria for the presentation they were going to have to give to the “sharks” (teachers) to see if we would approve their booth to be in “OUR” carnival.  After watching the show the students saw that they needed to have an emotional tie-in in addition to data and statistics, which didn’t break my heart as a math teacher! They also realized they needed their game and prizes ready for us to demo as well as be able to discuss the process in which they created their booth.  We did the Shark Tank presentations on a Friday before our Tuesday carnival.  This gave the students time on Monday to make the changes we needed to see in order to approve them.  This was a really fun way to give feedback.  It became almost a celebration day because all the groups got to watch us (the sharks) play the different games.  Since we had so much other feedback built into this project, we were able to “fine tune” their booths without any major surprises.  As we were giving them feedback, one of us was creating a “Next Steps” list for them to have to work on Monday.  It was very helpful for us to see and experience what the carnival would really be like.  How did they do their data and statistics? They had to find the expected value of their game to predict the amount of prizes they would need and analyze how many people would need to play their game to meet their goal amount they wanted to raise.  But again, if teams took advantage of checking in with me beforehand for feedback, there were no surprises here on Shark Tank day either.

Seeking feedback is one way for students to be agents for their own learning. However, we as teachers are responsible for providing them these opportunities during class and helping them develop a mindset that we hope they take with them through all aspects of their lives.

There are a few things to remember about running feedback protocols in your projects.

  • Make sure students understand the solution criteria. This helps them give higher quality feedback and gives them a chance to refresh their minds on what is expected in the project.
  • Fishbowl the protocols for the first time or two. Students (even adults) do not naturally have a good critical friends group to give them feedback on their work.  It feels awkward at times, but facilitating the protocol in a small group as the larger class observes helps the students see the benefit of the protocols.
  • Debrief how feedback was given. Yes, I’m asking you to have your students give feedback on getting feedback.  It is important for students to hear how their feedback was received.  Even as a class, it is okay to talk about poor feedback given and find ways to improve it for the next time around.
  • Make phrases like “I Likes” , “I Wonders”, “Next Steps”, “Clarifying Questions”, “Plus”, “Delta” part of your and your students’ vocabulary.  This really helps create the culture of feedback that you are trying to cultivate.
  • Build feedback time into your projects by making it official benchmarks.  It is easy to push feedback to the wayside when your community partners come in three days and your students still need work time. However, if from the beginning of the project you and your students know that it is an official project benchmark and it has a set date, you are more likely to make time for it.  It will also push the students to have their rough drafts done sooner so they can get feedback on them.  

So as your summer is starting, and you begin to think about your projects for next year, how will you implement feedback sessions in your projects? What are some ways you have found feedback successful in your PBL classroom? Let us know!

Project Ideas are Here, There, and Everywhere! By: Trisha Burns

Before we leave for the summer, our team gets together to review our curriculum map for the following year’s integrated projects.  We make sure we know what standards are going to be matched with our team teacher during our 9 weeks of working together.  Then the fun begins!

The social studies teacher and I knew we would be matched third quarter, and he wanted to cover Westward Expansion.  I needed to cover word problems, Pythagorean Theorem, and review scatter plots and graphing lines.  We looked at each other confidently, smiled, and said we would figure it out. However neither of us were fully convinced we would have an authentic project that would include both sets of standards.

Fast forward to October when our school had a lock-in with break-out rooms.  In a break-out room, groups, in this case students, work together as a team to solve puzzles in order to escape the room within a set time limit.  I sent my soon to be co-teacher a text and said, “Break-out rooms could make a great project.”

In late November my co-teacher and some of his friends went to Escape 812, a new local business that provides escape room experiences. They had one hour to solve the puzzles that would allow them to accomplish their task and escape the room. He came back from that experience and said it was a lot of fun, and maybe this is where we could find an authentic project.  We continued to research and began conversations with Escape 812’s owner about the possibility of creating a project around the design of break-out rooms for his business.

Now it’s March 9. My co-teacher and I listen to Escape 812’s owner announce to all of our students that he was so impressed with their ideas. He tells them he is pleased to announce the launch of his third room will be compiled of their puzzle ideas for Westward Expansion! When he sorted through their packages he discovered:

  • An original room scenario using their literary devices from English class in addition to cited, historical research of their Westward expansion themed room
  • Three puzzles and solutions
  • A bill of materials
  • A return on investment graph
  • An argument using a cost versus complexity graph on why their room was his best choice

During the project students did an active exploration with the computer game, Lemonade Stand, to experience being a small business owner. They used scatter plots to predict their sales if the business were to continue. They also used the Pythagorean Theorem to prove why companies made more money by building the railroad using zigzags instead of building in a straight line. When it was all said and done, we not only covered our planned standards, but many more including English standards.

So how do you come up with a great project idea? Your first step is to know and be confident in your content.  You cannot convince your students that your content has real world applications until you are convinced.  Go through your standards. Think about who needs your content today, and why it is important for them.  Then look around your community. Listen to community radio, or read the newspaper.  Project ideas are everywhere. Are you willing to take risks? Where can you find connections? How will you make those connections?

Trisha Burns is an 8th grade math facilitator at CSA Central Campus in Columbus, Indiana. She is a certified teacher and trainer through the New Tech Network and certified through ICPBL for project-based learning in Indiana. She has taught in the classroom since 2009 and facilitates for Magnify Learning in the summer. When she is not developing and implementing projects in her class room she loves to hang out with her family and scrapbook their memories!

Authentic Projects

In my experience with Project-Based Learning, I’ve encountered many teachers who seek out examples of project ideas or projects. When you’re starting out in the process, it’s natural to want examples. In many cases though, they want to use units they haven’t designed or decide to create a project around a made up scenario/problem. While finding project examples and ideas is a good start for the brainstorming process, I am a strong advocate for designing your own projects.  There are several good reasons for this, and I would say these reasons are solid criteria for identifying whether or not a project is authentic. They are personal investment, reinforcement of the PBL process, and real-world problems.

Personal Investment

First, when you don’t design a project yourself you don’t feel as invested or committed to it.  A carefully planned project based upon a problem/topic that you significantly care about or you know students care about makes a difference.  When you take someone else’s project idea or download a pre-made project, there’s often not as significant a connection to the work being done. Identifying a project idea either personally or one from your students is an important aspect of PBL. I liken it to buying a bag of Chips Ahoy versus making homemade chocolate chip cookies. Chips Ahoy makes a tasty cookie, but it pales in comparison to the time and quality of homemade.  Everyone knows what a homemade chocolate chip cookie tastes like, and it doesn’t come prepackaged. When we take the time to map out, plan, and implement a project built from the ground up it matters more to us. You can be sure students notice the contrast between a project you found online and one you have designed yourself.

“It’s difficult to really understand the complexity and process of a project without building it.”

Reinforcement of the PBL Process

Second, taking a project scenario or pre-made project from online causes you to miss out on learning and reinforcing the elements of project-based learning yourself. The beauty of PBL is that it is all about the process of putting learning into action. It’s difficult to really understand the complexity and process of a project without building it. If you’re asking students to work through a project, then you first need to know what the elements of a project actually are and how they work together. It’s really not fair to ask students to go through a project if you haven’t gone through one yourself.  Your students will sometimes encounter discomfort and tension in the project process. If you’ve gone through the process yourself, then you can help them work through those issues. Plus it brings credibility to your own practice when you have gone through that same process. Furthermore, you know best what your students need when it comes to content and skills. Building a rich, complex project yourself helps to ensure those pieces of content knowledge and skills are embedded in the project. It’s much more difficult to help students navigate the project if you don’t fully know the ins and outs of it yourself.  You can’t foresee all of the issues students will encounter in the project, but a well-designed project helps you to anticipate many of those struggles. When students were having trouble with any of my projects, I could easily monitor and adjust or revamp different sections of the project because I had created all of the pieces myself.

“One of the goals of PBL is to show students that they live in a world that has needs and requires their active participation to address them.”

Real-World Problems

Finally, there are too many actual problems in the world to make up projects that solve make believe ones.  These are few statistics that I came across covering current local and global issues:

  •   In 2015, 43.1 million (13.5%) of Americans were living in poverty. (Feeding America)
  • “Nearly a billion people entered the 21st century unable to read a book or sign their names.” (Global Issues)
  • 50% of adults, in the United States, cannot read a book written at the 8th grade level. (Literacy Project Foundation)
  • “Water problems affect half of humanity: Some 1.1 billion people in developing countries have inadequate access to water, and 2.6 billion lack basic sanitation.” (Global Issues)
  • “There are an estimated 20.9 million people trapped in some form of slavery today.” (Global Issues)
  • “An estimated 60,000 victims of slavery are enslaved in the United States.” (The Borgen Project)

When it comes to designing a project, there is no shortage of real-world problems to cover. This is why it is so important to design projects that are authentic. If you’re not addressing actual problems in the world, then you are missing the heart of Project-Based Learning. One of the goals of PBL is to show students that they live in a world that has needs and requires their active participation to address them. They need to see that they have a responsibility to make the world a better place to live in. Their education, gifts, talents, and stories can be utilized not for selfish gain, but to advocate for quality of life for all people. Scenarios or fabricated problems make the work students are doing in the classroom less meaningful. When the problems they are tackling directly impact real people then their work takes on purpose.  We need to put names and faces on the problems that our students are addressing.  There need to be stories and connection to the problem.  Here are a few scenarios (made up project ideas) I came across when searching for project-based learning units. These scenarios struck me because while they were “realistic” they missed the essence of PBL, which is working to solve “real” problems.

“It can and should make a difference when students learn that people are being mistreated to make some of the items they use every day. Part of our job is to teach students to care and be empathetic.”


Scenario #1:

It has come to the attention of several community leaders that the working conditions of immigrants in many communities are substandard.  You are a member of a community group that has been asked to investigate these working conditions.  You are in collaboration with several labor unions that wish to organize the workers.  You will present a report containing recommendations to the State Labor Commission.  In that report you will push for enforcement of current laws—and enactment of new laws—to protect the worker

Real-World Problem:

You don’t need a scenario to find stories of workers being mistreated or living in substandard conditions. Many American companies have been reprimanded for the poor treatment of their employees in other countries. I found several articles about a major Apple (Phone) supplier in China that overworks and underpays its employees. Furthermore, the workers are in awful living conditions.  Students may not be as familiar with the issue of substandard working conditions, but they know about iPhones. It can and should make a difference when students learn that people are being mistreated to make some of the items they use every day. Part of our job is to teach students to care and be empathetic.

Here are a few resources to investigate this topic:

Scenario #2

Your task is to create a Human Bill of Rights that other people can follow as a Human Code of Conduct. The Bill of Rights that you create will serve as a guide for other students to learn from and add to the content that you started.  One of your goals should be to obtain thoughts on this matter from other nations so you will have a more universal understanding as to how people would like to be treated around the world.

Real-World Problem: Once again, there is no shortage of incidents in our world where human rights are being violated. As noted earlier there is an estimated 20.9 million people in some form of slavery today.  This is a broad issue that includes child labor, forced labor, and sex trafficking to name a few. There are hundreds of resources and organizations currently addressing this topic. This is unfortunately not an overseas issue either. Here are a few facts from The Polaris Project:  Since 2007, the National Human Trafficking Hotline, operated by Polaris, has received reports of 22,191 sex trafficking cases inside the United States. In a 2014 report, the Urban Institute estimated that the underground sex economy ranged from $39.9 million in Denver, Colorado, to $290 million in Atlanta, Georgia.

Here are few resources to explore this problem further:

Scenario #3

The WV Division of Natural Resources has compiled a list of threatened, rare and endangered species. This organization would like creative help from your class. They are looking for a fourth grade class that is interested in researching a plant or animal that is on the endangered list, and then developing a plan of action that will help the recovery efforts for that particular species.

Real-World Problem:

While this scenario gets us a little closer to a real world problem it still lacks the specificity of an actual issue being tackled by students.  In more recent news, one very specific animal/plant population currently being threatened is the honeybee population. According to Greenpeace, every 1 in 3 bites of food we eat is due to the bee population.  This means that losing honeybees will have a major dramatic on all of our lives.  Their website states:

“Honey bees — wild and domestic — perform about 80 percent of all pollination worldwide. A single bee colony can pollinate 300 million flowers each day. Grains are primarily pollinated by the wind, but bees pollinate fruits, nuts and vegetables. Seventy out of the top 100 human food crops — which supply about 90 percent of the world’s nutrition — are pollinated by bees.”

Here’s a list of more information about this issue:

Next Steps

Let’s say you come across a project that has already been created, but tackles a real-world problem. In this case you have an authentic problem, but you are still missing out on personal investment and the reiteration of the PBL process through designing it yourself.  If you are going to take the idea, then at least put a personal spin on it and build pieces of it yourself. Find a way to tie it to your local community or to make it applicable to the interests of your students. If you are having trouble coming up with ideas for a project or if you are uncomfortable with the design process, here are a few steps you can take to tackle the problem.

  •            Get PBL training! There are a variety of opportunities to get quality training in project-based learning. Trainings such as those offered by, New Tech Network, Magnify Learning, and Buck Institute take you through the project design process from start to finish. If you don’t have the time or resources to get training consider some at home learning. You can go through a PBL webinar series or access various resources online that explain the PBL process.
  •       Get inspired! Think through your content and what you love to teach the most. What topics are interesting to you? What topics are interesting to your students? Listen to their conversations. Ask them what they are spending their time doing or exploring. How can you hook their attention? This is a great time to look at project ideas or other examples of projects, but only to jump-start your own ideas. Follow some facilitators/schools doing PBL or organizations that advocate PBL on Twitter such as @BIEpbl, @magnifylearning, @newtechnetwork, @edutopia, @TeachThought PD.  Kid President does a great job at reminding people to contribute to the world @iamkidpresident.
  •       Research real-world problems
  1. Your Community-Seek out community centers, non-profits, shelters to find out local needs. Investigate what kinds of campaigns already exist in your area and see how you can design a project to partner with their efforts.
  2. Our Nation- Watch the news, scan the Internet, listen to NPR, or even ask current events buffs what is going on the world.
  3. The World- Explore the website Global Issues for major issues happening around the world. They never have a shortage of problems to cover when it comes to global news.

As I noted earlier, fully investing in the design process of a project is the best (and I would argue the only) way to go when it comes to PBL. Authentic projects are rooted in authentic problems. If we don’t buy into our own projects, why should we expect students to do so?  It’s important to continue our own PBL practice in order to fine tune and improve it. Furthermore, the world is filled with problems. We should make education about creating a generation of active, problem-solvers rather than passive, apathetic learners.

Let’s Take a PBL Pause by: Andrew Larson

Being immersed in a Project- Based Learning environment can be, um, taxing, sometimes. Asking kids to manage projects in every class is a lot to ask. Sometimes, we all just need… a little break.

The brilliant Veronica Buckler and I co- facilitate a Global Science Perspectives class, which is an integration of English 9 and Environmental Studies. We recently had such a break (well, sort of.)

Nearly every ninth grader at Columbus Signature Academy New Tech High School is also enrolled in World Civilizations, and we saw an opportunity to make a cross- curricular connection, while also taking a “PBL Pause.” The book Life of Pi struck us as a very appropriate book for our freshmen to read, both for the religious exploration on which Pi embarks and also for the immersive nature experience and adventure that he has. Given that it’s also a fairly challenging book, it seemed to us that we should focus on the literary elements, vocabulary, and reading comprehension of our students, while using the book as a learning tool for a project that was happening in their class next door.

In World Civilizations, students went on a “deep dive” into world religions where they explored and refuted misconceptions about a religion of their choice. All of the work culminated in a gallery of work that was an engaging collection of “museum pieces.” Additionally, students hosted an interfaith panel discussion, where persons of many faiths addressed student questions about how their religious beliefs impact their daily lives and how they impact society. It was a brilliant demonstration of civil discourse among persons whose beliefs about religion may differ, but not their belief that we all need to accept and respect one another.

Back to the point, though: even in an immersive, wall- to- wall PBL environment like ours, it is important to occasionally pause from project work and just get up to our elbows in traditional literacy work. Much has been discussed over the years about how best to incorporate literature into PBL. For many years, I was of the steadfast belief that any book selected needs to have a clear thematic tie to the project and should serve the role of helping students conceptualize the big “so what?” of the project. I do still believe this to be an important and valuable approach. Sometimes, though, the selection of books is contrived or forced into a project where it may not belong. It is a mistake to use a book in a place where it does not belong, don’t you think?

Other times, we just need to read a really good book, because it will open students’ eyes to The Classics, exemplary modern literature, or just a title that they might not normally choose for themselves. Especially if those titles are of a higher reading level or use complex literary devices, it may be of value to have, as a goal, to first and foremost, read the book to bolster literary skills.

In our recent project, we had the chance to use Life of Pi for both purposes. In GSP (the English 9/ Environmental Studies course) we read to comprehend and gain insight (how can Pi possibly be a Hindu, Christian, and Muslim???) as well as to explore the rich symbolism present throughout the book. In World Civilizations, students dug into religious tenets, history and societal impact, with that work culminating as described above.

New Tech Network Literacy coach Alix Horton, whom I’ve revered during my own PBL journey, has been studying how best to use literature in PBL for years. She offers a potentially broader definition of what PBL really is and asks the vital question, “What do people in the real world do when they read this type of literature?” In some cases, the answer is that they apply the lessons learned in the text to solve a problem, gain empathy, or apply the author’s techniques or insights to the creation of their own literary (or other) work. Other times, the answer is that they are strictly reading for pleasure or to become an informed participant in a larger dialogue. No matter the instructor’s goals for what students take away from a particular book, reading always has an authentic purpose. There are a lot of reasons to read.  All of them can be tied to the successful completion of a PBL project, albeit some more directly than others.

The directness of that connection may influence whether or not we choose to make it an integral part of a project. Sometimes, it is an excessive stretch to fit a particular title into a curriculum if the goal is to do it in a project- based mode. I think there are three potential takeaways from this fact. The first is to rethink the titles teachers use with students. It could be time to find alternatives that fit well into the context of a project. The second (and the one to use if you are inextricably “married” to a title) is to use the book in a more traditional approach, especially if students will need more support to understand the book. Finally, students can self- select books to read on their own. These might have a project connection. They might not. In the end, the teacher must decide if that matters or not.

I have to say that our recent Life of Pi experience was a good for me as it was for the students (most of whom really liked the book, by the way.) Students interacted with the book in many ways. We did a RAFT assignment (Role/ Audience/ Format/ Topic,) give students many options to demonstrate their understanding of Pi’s religious coming of age; later we did a “Bingo” assignment where students again had many options to demonstrate their interpretations of the symbolism in the book. Both had a certain “project feel” while still being somewhat more traditional in nature. This step- back into a more supporting role for the World Civilizations project was not only a welcome change of pace, it was also a pragmatic solution that met a need we had, and was a great opportunity for cross- curricular collaboration.

In previous blog posts I have emphasized the need for balance. Teachers who are new to PBL are apt to become overwhelmed with the amount of planning that a good project requires. Even seasoned PBL facilitators can run themselves into the ground if they try to make everything their students do tied to a project. Even worse, the mindset that all things must be PBL, all the time, can cause us to force material (like certain works of literature) into a space where it might not belong. Don’t feel like you are cheating if you give yourself and your students a “PBL Pause;” you might, in fact, be doing everyone a favor.

Andrew Larson is a science facilitator at the Columbus Signature Academy New Tech High School and an experienced Magnify Learning workshop facilitator. He manages our regularly updated blog about project based learning with contributions from other PBL facilitators and students. When he’s not doing awesome PBL work, you can find him mountain biking, spending time with his family, or digging around in the garden.