I’m sharing out my process below for writing my new book, The PBL Playbook: A Guide to ACTUALLY Doing Project-Based Learning. I used design thinking as a framework to write the book (it’s not finished yet, more on that below) and specifically the LAUNCH Cycle.

Would love your feedback on the process in the comments!

Phase 1
L: Look, Listen and Learn

I never had the idea in mind for another education book. In fact, after Empower I personally wanted to take a break from writing books, and spend some more time in other forms of creating (podcasts, videos etc).

I love writing and making and trying to make sense of the situations I’m going through as a teacher, leader, father, coach etc. Part of it is the reflection, but another piece is in sharing what has worked and hasn’t (in my own life and in the work of others).

It was early summer when I was doing a workshop in Texas. A few of the teachers were talking about how they wanted to get started with Genius Hour but felt like it was a big jump. I talked to them about starting first with a design sprint or a smaller project-based unit.

Here’s what stuck out to me about their response: “I’d love to get started but I feel paralyzed by the choice involved from my end. What unit do I begin with? How long should it be? What does the process look like? How will I grade the kids work? Or do I only grade the process? What am I going to be doing while they are working on their project?”

These questions (which came in rapid fire) spoke to me because I had the same questions when I started my first PBL unit. Luckily, I had an amazing mentor teacher who could help walk me through these steps and support the risk. I realized not all of us have that crutch that I had to lean on.

The following week in New York, teachers shared some of the same questions, fears, and thoughts. I listened to them share what worked well, and what didn’t in their classes, and how it was different to do PBL with each group of students.

It was after this discussion that I started asking a lot of questions. Which kicked me (at this time unknowingly) into the second phase of design thinking and the LAUNCH Cycle.

Phase 2
A: Ask Tons of Questions

Some of the questions I began to ask about Project-Based Learning:

  • Who was doing PBL well? I had seen it in various forms all around the world and in my own school, but how did it look different in 1st grade versus 8th grade? How did it function in a Physics class vs AP US History vs Algebra 1 vs an English elective etc?
  • What were effective practices in planning PBL experiences?
  • How did different teachers manage the PBL process?
  • What were some effective ways to assess PBL?
  • How did the frameworks that I know and use (design thinking, inquiry cycle, Buck Institute Gold Standard) compare and contrast? What were the non-negotiables for a successful PBL experience?
  • Was it better to plan PBL from scratch? Should you start with something already created that has worked in other classrooms?
  • Where are the areas to modify and accommodate throughout the PBL process?
  • What are some of the pitfalls shared across the board?
  • What resources are already available for teachers that share these best practices (and next practices) for Project-Based Learning?

This questioning/researching phase led me to talk to a number of people who are doing a lot of work in PBL including Ross Cooper, Erin Murphy, Katie Martin to name a few. I looked at research connected to PBL success and failure, read through books and journal articles, viewed a number of longer pieces around PBL, and talked to folks in many different grade levels with varying experiences.

Phase 3
U: Understand the Process and/or Problem

After asking a ton of questions and listening/learning to all things PBL, I had an eye-opening conversation with our STEAM Instructional Coach, Ignacio Jayo.

Ignacio, wise as always, put it this way:

Most teachers want a blueprint, or a playbook. They don’t need the exact lesson plan, but an idea, how it was executed, what worked well, and where common pitfalls are. Most of us want to learn from each other, and tweak as need be.

This word, playbook, stuck with me.

What if a book was less about the WHY and more about the HOW? What if a book about project-based learning shared real projects, happening in real classrooms, with real kids right now?

The problem seemed to be more about HOW to do PBL effectively, instead of WHY we should do it in the first place. Most of the teachers we talked to wanted to do more authentic work with students in their classroom, but they were wondering where to start.

Phase 4
N: Navigate Ideas

I had already begun to think about what this might look like. But, my main problem in navigating ideas was that I had to many! Here I had to go back to my initial phase of empathy. Who was I creating for? What would they need?

I started off by writing a blog series on PBL, and the actual “how-to” pieces that I knew I needed when first starting out.

Then I sent an email to my community of teachers and school leaders who have subscribed to this blog. I asked them for some help. I wanted to include real stories of PBL happening right now, and who better to ask than a community of educators that are busy doing the work (and aren’t afraid to share their wins and fails along the way).

The response was overwhelming! Over 80 teachers went into depth sharing their PBL journey. I took 40 of these stories and reached out to the teachers/leaders asking if we could use their work in an upcoming book about PBL. They were ecstatic and I began the process of putting together a book that would encompass ‘how-to do PBL’ without being overly prescriptive.

The writing process boiled down to about half of the book being written from my perspective, and another half of the book is stories told from teachers across the world in all types of K-12 classrooms.

This phase ultimately led to the creation of my upcoming book, The PBL Playbook: A Guide to ACTUALLY Doing Project-Based Learning.

Phase 5
Create A Prototype

Writing this book has been a challenge for a couple of reasons:

  1. I want to make sure it actually serves the audience I’m writing for.
  2. I want to make sure I’m accurately depicting the stories of PBL shared from the teachers who took the risk of putting their story out to the world.
  3. I’m not the best writer, I often take shortcuts and have to correct myself. For this project, I wanted to take time to make it right.
  4. It was frustrating to debate whether or not it was too prescriptive or, not practical enough. Finding this balance was tough!
  5. I had John Spencer writing with me on LAUNCH and Empower, and loved the back and forth we had during each book writing project. This felt a bit lonely throughout (even though I was collaborating), and also felt nervous because the buck ultimately stopped with me (and only me).

I could go on with why I felt nervous and anxious during the writing process, but I’ll leave it at this: The more I wrote the book, the more excited I got about it. I believe that is a good thing, even though I’m still a nervous wreck!

There are other pieces of the book that took some time to navigate when creating the initial draft.

First, should I share all of the stories from teachers at the end of chapters? Should I embed them in each chapter? Should I have specific chapters dedicated to  K-2 PBL, 3-5 PBL, Middle School PBL, subject-specific PBL?

In the end, after talking to many different people, I decided to devote the entire middle part of the book to thematic chapters about PBL, featuring the real stories from teachers. I’m also putting an index in the back of the book where you can quickly look and search for PBL experiences that are in your grade level or subject area.

Second, is what should I do about publishing this book? I had previously published with Routledge, Corwin, DBC, IMPress. I had good (and different) experiences with each publisher.

Yet, there was something I wanted to do with this book that made it different. During the navigation ideas phase, I wondered what it would be like to give the book away for FREE to teachers and leaders all over. Now, folks would still have to pay for shipping, but with printing costs as low as they are, I wondered how this was possible.

I had a number of really bad experiences of sending books out to teachers free. The organization and fulfillment of this process were tough for all involved.

I reached out to a few authors who had done this and found what I was missing: A process for getting the correct shipping information, payment for the shipping, and a drop-shipping company that would fulfill all the orders without a hiccup!

In order to do this, I would have to self-publish. I’m excited to say that is the decision I’ve gone with on this book, and I’m hoping to give away the first 5,000 copies free (just pay shipping) when it is released.

Self-publishing brought a whole next level of prototyping issues to solve including editing, formatting, etc. I’m still navigating a few of these, but the prototyping is almost complete.

Phase 6
H: Highlight, Improve, and Fix

My manuscript is finished, and I’m sending it to be edited and formatted. But, throughout the process, I have been getting feedback from many different people on what is working well, what is not working, what I can improve, and how I can fix some of the issues.

I have to come to grips that the book is not going to work for everyone. No creative project helps everyone. I know who I’m creating this for, and my hopes is that it works to give them the steps and confidence to jump into Project-Based Learning.

With that reality, I want to make sure it reaches as many people as possible. If you spend the time and energy creating something for an authentic audience, you also have to spend the time and energy to get your work in front of them.

This is not easy with the flood of information, materials, and resources we have in front of us at all times in today’s society.

The final step here will be to send out the final manuscript to a large group of people to get some last minute feedback. I won’t be able to act on all of the feedback, but if trends emerge of something I’m missing, or something that should be added, or something that is not clear—I’ll still have a chance to do right by the project.

Phase 7
L: Launch It to the World

Look for phase seven to happen sometime in May. I’m not sure yet when it will happen, but if you follow my blog, or are on my email list (sign-up is below) you’ll be the first to know.

This last phase is by far the scariest part of the creative process. For years and years, I had creative ideas and projects that I worked on without ever sharing them. In only the past couple of years have I taken this leap, and man it is scary. You have people that are critics of the work, that come at you personally, that bash ideas and all kinds of things.

That is part of the process.

You also have people who are helped by your art, who are inspired by your creation, who wish to take action after delving into your work.

This makes it worth it.

But, finally, there is an intrinsic piece to all of this. The part that I kept couped up for far too long. We all have something to share with the world, and honestly, there is no perfect time. So, get out there and share it and see what resonates and what doesn’t resonate. It’s only through the act of launching that our creation can truly bring us back to that first phase where we look, listen, and learn—and start the whole process over again.

Would love your thoughts below in the comments, and even though I’m a bit nervous and scared, I can’t wait to share The PBL Playbook with all of you!

Thanks for reading, and thanks for all your support!

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Join the discussion 40 Comments

  • Paula Meyer says:

    This sounds great! We are currently in the process of incorporating PBL into our Grades 5 to 8 classrooms. This has involved observations at a number of schools, a lot of reading, attendance at conferences, conferencing and collaborating. As we have some teachers already on board who have been incorporating the PBL model in their classroom for quite a while, it helps those who are new to it to get started. That said, even with support, it can still be very overwhelming when this isn’t what they are used to. A playbook with ideas that have been tried and tweaked by other educators would be a great place to start. I also love that you used the design thinking process to write your book…this is definitely something that can be transferred to any area where people are creating, staff and students alike. Looking forward to your book!

  • Laurie Mullin says:

    I read Empower, and like many others, I was left with the “How?” of it all. With several different project stories in your next book, it should give a little something for everyone as far as teaching style. We all look for something that we can make our own, so if you can give us some good, but differing, examples of how people have implemented PBL in their classrooms, it would be a great help.
    The idea of making it free is awesome. You’ll have fans for life.

  • I cannot wait for this book to be published! My staff and I love your work and are anxious to add PBL to our school.

  • Robin Hines says:

    I can’t wait to read this! We are looking at incorporating PBL into our classrooms next year. We have dabbled here and there and have had more failures than success stories. I look forward to seeing how others have made it work. Thank you for the time and effort you put into this project and for making it available to everyone!

    • AJ Juliani says:

      Hey Robin, I can’t wait for you to read the stories of PBL from so many other teachers around the world. That was the most fun piece in creating this book, was gathering those real projects to share!

  • Lynn Cashell says:

    I cannot wait to read your playbook. Using the LAUNCH process to write your book is brilliant and so logical. I read LAUNCH and EMPOWER and did not just jump, but dove in with both feet. Genius Hour–why not? PBL-sure! Design Thinking-you bet. The LAUNCH framework actually gave me the courage to try the other things. I knew WHY I wanted to do them, and continued to make up the HOW, so I look forward to your insights and ideas. Thanks for continuing to inspire me and my teaching every day.

  • Monique Chatman says:

    A.J. Juliani, I am so excited about your new upcoming book. Your energy gives me energy. PBLs are rarely executed in our building and here’s why: Most teachers love creativity, collaboration, critical thinking, and communication involved in a PBL, but standardized testing is still a very big deal. It’s easy to say, “don’t worry about standardized tests” until the state report card reveals an F. Please include PBLs that actually cover content standards. I co-teach STEM lessons throughout the year, so I am a very strong supporter of giving students the opportunity to create and innovate, but we must not ignore the fact that standards must be covered.

    Be encouraged through the process of writing your book! I love your work!

    • AJ Juliani says:

      Yes, I agree Monique! This is something I’ve heard over and over again. We dive deep into the standards during the planning chapter and the assessment chapter — and many of the projects share exactly which standards they cover.

  • Love the concept of your book! You colleague was correct – teachers need a blueprint. PBL has become the mandate in our school system for all teachers at all grade levels. We are looking into training through our local ESC as well as the Buck Institute. I will check regularly for your release date as I believe this could be an integral part of our training with our teachers. To be able to provide them with more than just they “why” and the research behind the effectiveness of PBLs will be a great option. Teachers feel over worked and stressed as more and more mandates come across their desk. Your book is a breath of fresh air. Thank you for your willingness to make it free.

  • Julie Dwyer says:

    I can’t wait! The “how” is exactly what I have been looking for. The design projects I have done with my class have been wobbly successes. I am excited to understand how to fill the gaps in my learning to make this concept better for my kids. Thank you!

  • Ashok kumar says:

    Aa i read in this article, it’s going to be amazing. I m waiting desperately for this book to implement in my school.Thank for working on the idea, need of the hour

  • Geetha Venugopal says:

    I would love to have the manuscript copy of the book and I promise to give you my feedback and to get my colleagues as well..

  • Dennis Rockhill says:

    AJ – I’m excited to read this book!
    A couple of thoughts – first, if you read any Seth Godin, it won’t take long until there is . mention that not everyone is going to love your work – and that some will go out of their way to critique it. That’s good, if you’re not ruffling some feathers, you’re probably not doing work that truly matters.
    I forget who wrote this (it is not my original thought) but when taking on risk – if you’re sleeping well every night, you’re not taking on enough risk. If you’re sick and vomiting all the time, you’ve taken on too much. A steady nausea is just right.
    With good intention – I wish for you a steady nausea in this final phase of your book!

  • Vickie Weiss says:

    Your book is definitely timely and will be helpful for so many people that just have trouble trying to “get started”. I like the idea of chapters or sections for the various grade levels. A person could go to their grade level first but then peruse the others when they wished. Also, I liked the idea of the teacher stories at the end of the chapter.

    I think the variety of people and ideas will reassure readers that there is no ONE way to do PBL but there are significant aspects of what should be included.

    I can’t wait for your book and hope I get a copy!! Thank you!!

  • Lori A Habben says:

    A. J.,
    Congratulations on this new and exciting adventure. I appreciate you sharing your own personal growth and struggle in creating your book. I found it very inspiring! I can’t wait to read your book and learn more about PBL. It sounds exactly like what I have been looking for to advance PBL in my classroom and school.

    Thank you and Good Luck!

  • So excited to hear about your process. One of the things you do so well is model both vulnerability and positivity. You’ve helped me personally to realize how important it is for us as teachers and humans to create and not just consume. I used to compare myself thinking someone else’s idea is better but now I realize if you can take an idea and grow it, so can I if I’m willing to do the work. Looking forward to seeing how it all comes together. Thanks for sharing the process and also demonstrating how this “stuff” isn’t just for lessons, it’s how we really go about doing the work of innovation.

  • Holly says:

    Thank you for this article! Not only am I looking forward to this book, but it solidifies my own thoughts about wanting to try to put something out there, but have been very hesitant about doing it, as we are of course our own worst cynics. In my district we have been approaching PBL in what I believe is a very unique way through the arts and a community partnership. It’s been exciting, and one that should be shared. Anxious for May and to read your newest publication, as I use Empower all the time with both teachers and students!

  • Kelly Wegener says:

    This sounds amazing! As an instructional coach, I agree that teachers would like a playbook. I have found that it’s easier for folks to deconstruct than to construct, meaning, it’s easier to start with something and deconstruct it to fit their needs rather than start with a blank slate. Also, your description of how you used the LAUNCH cycle to write the book is a great example of how to use design thinking. I learned so much from reading Launch and Empower, so I’m excited to see the final product! Thanks so much!

  • Rachel Thompson says:

    Your honesty in talking about the successes and failures in learning has always impressed me, and your work has had such a powerful influence on my practice. Thank you! I’ve talked with teachers about PBL and Genius Hour, and I received a similar response: “You don’t need to convince us about the WHY. Just tell us HOW.” And, like you said, it’s a critical balancing act. Just like with any learner, it’s a matter of determining the right level of challenge and the appropriate level of scaffolding necessary for them be successful and take ownership of the project. Success comes through the process, and your writing always model this.

  • Rebecca Jones says:

    I can’t wait! I’m a marine biologist turned Middle school teacher and in my first year I decided to plunge into Genius Hour (glutton for punishment). LOTS of lessons learned and the kids are wanting a Genius Hour 2.0. I have tons of questions on how to do it better but will have to fumble until the book comes out. A playbook is exactly what I need. How to navigate the students that are lost in the concept of freedom, how to navigate the ones that are completely ecstatic and come in with a tidal power turbine model on their first exposure. How to grade their work, suggestions for handling the launch…

    So many questions!

  • A.J.

    Rachel and I (www.schoolyardjunkies.com) are working on a book idea and had a ton of fun just now reading your blog and realizing that we were following your process in so many ways. We started with talking to students about how they liked to learn and then asked a ton of questions about how we could use that in our classroom discussions. Next week we are presenting at the Innovative Schools Conference in Wisconsin Dells and hope to come back with a ton of stories about how others have already brought some of the ideas to life.

    I’m super excited about your book – but right out of the box – I think sharing your process today was just an AMAZING way of validating and energizing our process. Thank you for that and please keep the ideas coming! – Theresa

  • Diane F Fox says:

    I think your ideas are fabulous and would be significantly helpful to many teachers that need to learn the “hows” of PBL. Students truly benefit from seeing models for work that is required of them; teachers would also benefit from a great model. Thanks for the inspiration and encouragement coming from your work and time!

  • Matt Miller says:

    A.J.,
    Can’t wait! I love how you’re going to dig into the “hows” of doing PBL. Teachers want to see how others balance everything, assess, keep the motivation high, and how it will exactly fit into their curriculum. Speaking in great ideas is great, but focusing on the process from the teacher perspective is going to be great. Super pumped!
    Matt Miller

  • Aaron Davis says:

    Thanks for sharing the process AJ.

    I’ve always wondered about self-publishing, but always from a digital perspective, using Gumroad or some other platform. I had never thought of physically publishing something and giving it away. I obviously need to explore this in more detail.

    Syndicated at Read Write Collect

  • Molly Leahy says:

    The honest admission of the nervousness you feel is so great to share with all of us, and it models the same type of reaction we feel in our classrooms when we decide to step onto the ledge and leap out of our comfort zones to take a risk. The concept of HOW is critical when teachers look for practical applications and examples, especially in a variety of content areas. The term “playbook” is perfectly consistent with the coaching model. Thank you for going through the self-publishing experience because you’ll be able to share with us your insights on that avenue or route to publication. Looking forward to your book as summer reading – I promise not to spill sunscreen on your book!

  • You are doing it again A. J.! You’re creating another wonderful, much needed resource for teachers that they can immediately identify with! You have an awesome way with words that puts people at ease and gives them inspiration at the same time! I love your idea of a PBL playbook (or blueprint) for this new book!—- Teachers want to understand HOW — and by this I don’t mean they want a recipe or a cookbook — Most teachers are already great “cooks” — it’s the one’s who know HOW to change student learning into relevant understanding that are the real “chefs!” —- the ones that make lasting impressions! Your book will be invaluable for this! Thank you for helping teachers see HOW to find the way A. J. !!! (waving my pom-poms!)

  • Jen Giffen says:

    This is a great example of the LAUNCH cycle in action…love it. I love how you share the vulnerability of it all – it is something we need to embrace when engaging in PBL. I also like how there was not one “right” answer, but a best fit answer for you.

  • Orla Berry says:

    I read your posts all the time and have read both your books and so I can’t wait to read this one. We have pockets of genius hours and pbl units in grades 6-12 science but I expect that with a “how to” guide, not recipe, teachers will feel more empowered to take the plunge., after reading about it in action elsewhere. This will be a definite on my summer reading list.

  • Meri says:

    I started Genius Hour in my class this year with a group of Year 5 – 8 students who are very raw in PBL. This didn’t even go the way I had planned and I too was tweaking my original planning along the way. My students were really engaged in their learning and I had to ask the questions to see if they were on the right track. It was an interesting term of PBL. I read your posts all the time and I am always reflecting on how I could do things better and move the students thinking to record their journey. We have a lot to learn.

  • Melissa Tom says:

    I echo your sentiments, Jen! It was powerful, A.J., for me to read about how you put the act of writing a book in terms of the Design Thinking Process; another clear example of how this process works to frame empowered learning experiences. I have been trying to do things differently this year, and have discovered that the students are definitely more engaged. It has been messy and nerve-wracking at times, but I know the journey is worth it since it puts the learning where it needs to be, with our students. I can’t wait for the ‘launch’ of your new book! Thank you for continuing to inspire me. 🙂

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