What Project-Based Learning Looks Like In A High School Classroom

In the 15 years since diving headfirst into Project-Based Learning (PBL),  I’ve connected with amazing educators doing some type of project-based learning and/or inquiry-based learning (whether it be Genius Hour, 20% Time, or any other name).

It’s one of the most empowering types of learning that can happen in (or out) of the classroom, and the real kicker is that we tend to follow this “inquiry-based” learning path in many other areas/aspects of our life.

Yet, when I started down this path of PBL and Genius Hour I had it all mixed up. I believed that I would be “helping” students by guiding them and giving them some advice here or there. I saw it as more of a call and response type of guiding where I had all the answers (or at least most of them) and could help in times of need.

Wow, was I wrong.

Since going through those first few PBL experiences, I’ve had my perspective and bias towards teaching and learning changed many times. When I have conversations with other educators about moving towards PBL or Genius Hour, I hear many of the same questions I had when I started.

Turns out, the best advice, insight, and perspective came from other teachers doing this type of teaching and learning in their classrooms. Below I share some stories that were included in The PBL Playbook of veteran high school teachers doing the work.

What Project-Based Learning Looks Like In A High School Classroom

Bryan Kuhlman and Claudia Litz

Mentor High School Intervention Specialist and General Education Science Teacher

Amazing Amusement Park Attractions

Claudia Litz had been a teacher with 28 years of teaching experience in the same school district when that district first introduced PBL. She said to her coteacher, Bryan Kuhlman, “this is what I had been doing years ago!” They were immediately dedicated to PBL. They spent 175 hours that following summer and reshaped the entire teaching layout and plan for their first semester class. This planning took a while due to the process of adding station rotations to save some class days and changing the daily experiences and activities to better match the theme and putting together their Amazing Amusement Park Attraction PBL. This is a semester-long PBL unit that Bryan and Claudia say covers the physics portion of the ninth-grade physical science course. These topics include forces and motion, energy, electricity, waves, light and sound, and engineering and design.

Blended learning and station rotations, incorporating mini labs and experiments along with rubrics and checkpoints to make sure students are staying on track and meeting deadlines are all incorporated. The team also did one-on-one interviews with the students for the first two checkpoints to make sure the students were on the right track and took it seriously. Also, Bryan and Claudia use peer evaluations and gallery walks for the students to give each other input and feedback on their PBL.

A big part of the PBL was making sure it looked and felt authentic for the students and they wanted the community to be involved on some level. The team had an engineer come in a few times to go through each of the students’ projects with them so he could give them direct feedback and help with some of the creation ideas. This really helped the students get to that next level of engagement and authenticity.

Bryan and Claudia teach a total of 125 students a semester in physical science. Before the PBL was included in their teachings, they, on an average, had six to seven students fail a semester. Since embedding the PBL into the curriculum, they are now down to one student failing a semester for each of the last two years. Students are retaining knowledge longer, which is evident by them being able to reference content from the first semester. Along with all the academic gains, Bryan and Claudia have seen much improvement in their students’ soft skills including eye contact when speaking to others, more confidence in themselves when they present and talk about the content, their persistence when overcoming obstacles, and the way they maintain a positive attitude throughout the PBL due to student choice.

In one of their cotaught classes, Bryan and Claudia had a set of twins who got added to their class after the semester started because they were failing in another teacher’s physical science class. Their reading levels were at the first and second grade. Because the PBL groups had already started, the twins worked in a group by themselves which they were very pleased with! This also worked well based on what Bryan and Claudia knew about them. They ended up learning quite a lot of content and doing a great job on their project. Because the PBL was embedded in their daily work (and vice versa), these two students went from an F with a different teacher to a C− and a C+ from Bryan and Claudia.

Bryan and Claudia held an evening exhibition open to the community and so many of the comments they heard revolved around
 how well the students knew their content and how strong their soft skills were—communicating and maintaining eye contact, the way they presented their project and themselves (everyone dressed up), the technology involved, and their ability to collaborate and explain the difference between collaborative learning and cooperative learning.

This teaching duo is very aware that their students have become more engaged in their learning and have shown greater retention of more information. They have become more independent learners and try to figure out things themselves or collaborate with their peers to find a solution to their problem. If the educational pendulum does not swing back the other way, being the teacher in the classroom will remain more fun and creative. This style of teaching will keep, and possibly attract, more teachers into the profession.

 

Erin Loch

Upper Dublin High School, 10th-grade environmental science teacher

“The Golden 13”

Since attending training at the 2009 Real World Navy Challenge on project-based learning (PBL), Erin Loch has been certain to implement several whole-class projects in her environmental science courses each year. Projects have ranged from proposing a restoration plan for a local pond to creating a Wikipedia page, but the most rewarding always include community involvement. With PBL, the teacher is commonly not the expert. Therefore, it’s important for students to get into the community to learn from and collaborate with the real experts. Erin’s favorite projects involve students connecting with professionals in the community and developing the project around the input of multiple stakeholders. The students learn a great deal more in this manner, and so does she.

One such project, accomplished in a tenth-grade environmental science class, utilized the Philadelphia Zoo’s Unless Contest as a platform for having students select one environmental issue that they could help resolve. The students chose to think globally and act locally by addressing water pollution in Upper Dublin Township, PA. The local source of their drinking water, the Loch Alsh Reservoir (no relation), is located less than 90 feet from a major highway, PA Route 309. Therefore, students planned to build and plant a buffer zone as well as introduce water-bottle-filling stations to minimize the high school’s water footprint and reduce the amount of single-use bottles in landfills, thus improving groundwater quality.

Erin was always interested in attempting a yearlong PBL, and this project presented the ideal opportunity. Best of all, a class from the remedial track quickly proved themselves most worthy of tackling this endeavor. They showed early problem-solving skills, willingness to work together, and excitement for trying something new. Erin decided to take advantage of the small class size and prove to both the administration and the students that this challenge would be more rigorous and educational than a traditional classroom experience. PBL can be done with any and all students.

The students pitched ideas, conducted interviews, created their own team of professionals, leveraged social media to help raise funds for their projects, and created informational videos about their mission for school administrators. They learned time management, task delegation, and how to work with difficult personalities. Erin learned that it was important to step back and, at times, let them fail. Most commonly, “failure” entailed them not meeting their own expectations.

Using the library MakerSpace and help from the school librarian, her team employed three-dimensional design to create props for the presentation and stencils for their shirts. Buttons were made to advertise their purpose. Breakoutedu was used along the way for team building and at the final presentation to the zoo for purposes of making their pitch interactive. The director of technology for the district was essential in helping them to meet twenty-first-century skills, employ video technology, and leverage Google tools.

The community was instrumental in helping students get their products finished and publicized. Throughout the project, the class worked with the local township, a sustainable landscape architect, a native plant nursery who donated all the plants, a project supply company, Temple University students, the athletic department at Upper Dublin High School (UDHS), and the district facilities department. These partnerships required the students to write professional e-mails, ask for donations and permissions, and generally become comfortable speaking to adults in authority.

The students ultimately took second place in the contest. Their greatest moment was the final presentation to the zoo. The students were so dynamic and knowledgeable that the committee—who had preselected the winner before any presentations—changed the format of judging for future contests because the students “wowed” them in person. Still bittersweet for the students, that announcement made second place a perfect win for their teacher. The “Golden 13” exceeded the fundraising necessary to their $2000 budget and was able to donate the additional funds to Water.org, a charity that provides sustainable water solutions around the world.

Members of the Golden 13 continue to visit the reservoir and check on the status of their buffer zone. Erin has overheard members tell peers with pride that they were responsible for the water bottle fillers. When UDHS students are asked what makes their school “green,” many cite the water-filling stations as their first example.

Implementing PBL gave Erin’s students greater understanding through application of the content knowledge. Breadth of environmental knowledge may be slightly diminished, but understanding goes deeper and is more long-lasting. Additionally, students show measurable growth in needed life skills of collaboration, communication, critical thinking, and creativity. Erin believes so strongly in the benefits of project-based learning that she has developed a yearlong environmental course at UDHS taught entirely in PBL format.

Erin believes that in order for PBL to be truly successful, the teacher needs to act more like a coach than a conventional teacher. Coaches provide encouragement and critique from the sidelines, help participants review “plays,” pick them up from failures, and celebrate their successes. Erin warns that one of the hardest things to manage as a teacher new to PBL is not immediately jumping in when students are struggling. You can’t play the game for them. Providing guidance without taking the reins is important in allowing them to maintain ownership—an essential component to success of any PBL. When you feel like they’re losing, it’s time to take a step back, let them struggle, and find their own way forward. Setbacks are a normal part of life, not losses: and sometimes, second place changes the world—and the future—for the better.

Tara Irani

Richmond Hill, Ontario, High School Chemistry

Chemicals Rule the World!

This particular PBL project has evolved over the years. Initially it started with Tara Irani’s previous department head. They wanted to make a more meaningful assignment for their students covering quite a few curriculum expectations. So in its original state, it was less robust. Tara’s school is very much in favor of personalizing student learning in the form of more rich, larger-scale projects. In August 2017, Tara attended a PBL workshop at Hillfield Strathallan College offered by the Buck institute. That is where she took the current project to the next level and basically redesigned it from what she had originally to its current status. When Tara came back to school in September, she discussed everything with her teaching partner, and together they put together the project framework and rolled it out to their students.

Students were required to discuss both qualitative and quantitative components of their element and compound. Concepts needed to include the structure of element/compound, their properties, the type of bonding and reactions involved, the amounts of reactants and products needed to form your compound, and how the structure helps determine the compound’s properties. Students needed to explain how the compound properties help suit it to the job(s) people commonly use the chemical for. Students would evaluate the safety of the chemical by analyzing both its potential benefits and its potential risks to human health and/or the environment. Students also needed to recommend guidelines for the safe use of the chemical (e.g., suggest ways to reduce any harmful effects and suggest safer alternative chemicals that can do the same job).

Tara is a big believer in putting the curriculum in context for her students so that it can provide real meaning and application for them. The grade-11 chemistry course lends itself nicely to a project-based approach by allowing students to connect what they learn in class and apply it to an element and compound they are curious to learn more about.

As Tara has learned through her PBL workshops and personally relating these ideals to her students, she says to keep an open mind about PBL. Take something that you are currently working on and build on it to make it a richer experience for your students. Be prepared to make changes along the way and be flexible.

 

Jesse Damiano

Warren Hills Regional High School—Biology Teacher, 10th grade

Is Your DNA Yours?

This PBL project directed by Jesse Damiano taught his students the makeup of DNA, and how it relates to genes and chromosomes. It explored the topic of ethics in terms of genetically designing humans. It began by having the students discuss whether they would send their DNA into companies such as 23andMe or AncestryDNA and what they would hope to get out of it. Jesse then passed out sample reports from 23andMe and had students answer questions about what information can be found in the report. Student then researched the companies and explained exactly what they do. As a class, students filled out a scaffold-type class data sheet with this research. Questions included: What is a genetic profile? What are genes? When we say “sequence of DNA” what does this mean? What exactly are the letters (ATCG) shown in an image of a strand of DNA? What patterns do you see with these letters? What are chromosomes? Students were also asked to add one question of their own and someone else must answer it.

Students completed a virtual lab on cloning plasmids to further understand how genetics can be bioengineered. Students then prepared for a formal debate about the ethical implications of companies like 23andme or AncestryDNA.

Students were assessed on their contributions to the shared Google document. They were also assessed using a rubric for the writing prompts and the debate.

Jesse attests to the fact that his career has drastically changed. He is no longer stressed when his students cannot remember the definition of terms that mean nothing to them. He finds his job so much more rewarding when his students can read a newspaper article about a topic and actually understand it because of the PBL they completed. He knows he is creating informed citizens, which is so important in today’s world. His advice is a little different than others but so very true. He says: “Don’t get stuck on trying to find a PBL that someone else created. Go with your gut. Most times the one that someone else created is for their class. Your class is different. You know your students. Go with that and get creative.”

Anne Krolicki

Princeville Jr./Sr. High School, English and Mass Communications teacher, Co-teach interdisciplinary English III/ US History

The American Experience

The course description for Anne Krolicki and her co-teacher Chris Bergschneider’s PBL project states that students will explore American history through both literary and informative texts. Rather than focusing on specific events or people, students will explore the American experience through topics and movements, tracking the development of a nation and its people. This interdisciplinary course will build and strengthen students’ individual reading and writing skills while simultaneously enhancing their understanding of America’s past and students’ role in its future.

The teaching team addresses a wide variety of the Illinois social studies standards as well as their 11–12 Common Core ELA standards. They also incorporate ISTE standards into instruction. Using the Marzano (2017) approach to competencies, they have combined standards to create more cohesive checkpoints for kids to measure their movement toward and beyond proficiency.

Anne and Chris have both used PBL in their separate classrooms before, but certainly not as an entire course, and certainly not to this extent where students get to work on different standards at different times depending on what they find important within the topic of study. They had never heard of anyone using PBL quite this way, but when they decided to teach this class together, they started with what their ideal would be (within the confines of the school schedule, that is), and then tried to create it. This is what they came up with. They’ve had two units where kids design the projects, and three where they’ve given them a few more parameters because they weren’t used to the design process yet having come from an incredibly traditional environment before (workbooks, hour-long grammar lectures, etc.). They needed to ease them into projects first and then design.

Students learn content at an individualized pace through video lessons, whole group, small group, and one-on-one instruction and design projects by developing research questions and writing project proposals. After receiving feedback multiple times from instructors through teacher-designed checkpoints and conferencing, students revise and share their final products with classroom and authentic audiences. While all students write informative, persuasive, and narrative writing throughout the year, they choose the writing style they feel best suits their current topic of study and their particular research questions within that study. Many students have expressed that they see themselves as writers for the first time because they are creating content shared with and useful for others, and they receive immediate, face-to-face feedback on their individual strengths and weaknesses.

The biggest difference is in who these kids are now. Kids are coming in during homeroom, before and after school, and they’re constantly e-mailing questions and asking for advice, not to hit a point on the rubric, but because they are genuinely just more motivated and interested. Anne, Chris, and their students all struggled at the beginning of the year because it was so new, and honestly, the kids weren’t loving it at first. It was much harder than they thought it would be, and that’s not to say that everyone loves it now. Some kids want to go back to the worksheets and lectures because, while boring, they were good at that game. But those same students talk about how they are writers now. It’s such a powerful thing for Anne and Chris to hear them call themselves writers when they didn’t before. They say they know how to research and understand that it’s not about finding facts, but about how you analyze and do something with that information. They are talking about race and gender issues. They are becoming people who are ready to navigate a complex world with complex problems. Anne knows that’s not an outcome easily measured, but it’s the one for which she is most proud of them.

Anne explains that she and Chris design four checkpoints for each unit. Students assess themselves during each of the four conferences and show evidence while they lead the conversation. These first two checkpoints are about developing the research questions and the written project proposal. This lets all parties know how strong the project design is. They give their feedback and then make a decision together about where they are in progress. The same is true for checkpoint three, but this “rubric” looks exactly the same as their fourth checkpoint (depending on which writing style/type they are using). This is their “in-progress” project check so that they know which areas they need to focus most in during revision. Then they present their projects on the last day of the unit, and Anne and Chris complete checkpoint four as the “summative” for the project.

Of course, Anne admits, they’ve had both epic success and epic failure from students. Notably one of the toughest failures was in their first unit, which was their history of education unit, when a student (we’ll call him Patrick) turned in the answers to his essential questions without actually submitting a project. He had a plan that was approved in his second checkpoint, and in his third checkpoint, he had done all his research and answered his question but hadn’t started putting all of it together into an informed action item that could be shared and stir change. When they asked him why he hadn’t created a project, he didn’t have an answer. In further conversations, Anne came to realize that several of their students had never had this kind of freedom before. They had a lot of great ideas to make projects, but even with the checkpoints and feedback, many of them felt helpless to troubleshoot and problem-solve. It was a big eye-opener for Anne and Chris as teachers. They truly felt that giving kids the freedom they’d been begging for—to explore their interests within a topic and create something of their own—would unlock their potential and bring incredible outcomes, and while it did for many of their kids, a good amount felt overwhelmed by applying their learning and developing critical thinking and design skills. After that first unit, they took a step away from the more personalized, inquiry-based PBL and into three units of more “product-driven” (as John Spencer has called this type of PBL).

In their criminal justice unit, students explored high-profile cases in history, explained their significance, created a script, and performed it in front of their classmates who acted as the jury. In their economics unit, students all became marketing consultants and chose an American company to investigate. They had to develop a multistrategy proposal based on finances, marketing, advertising, product lines, etc. and then “pitch” to the board of the company, showing they understood the history of the company in order to make quality suggestions about the future of it. Doing these more explicit projects helped the kids get a better grasp on the idea of PBL and what is required of them. Then, Anne and Chris were able to give more freedom again and ease them back into designing their own projects within the theme of the unit.

Patrick’s struggles supplied a learning opportunity for Anne and Chris which likely helped multiple other students ease into the PBL way of learning by helping their educators realize how to better facilitate each and every student. There was also one very big win for this teaching duo after introducing their PBL project. When two parents came in for conferences, they were in tears because they felt that their children had, in the past, been overlooked because they weren’t “typically successful” students. In Anne’s class, they were able to be part of the conversation and could explore an interest with parameters, which made them want to work harder and see value in a subject which had always made them feel less-than. In their quest for answers to their research questions, students have made contact with major corporations and universities, and created products that have the ability to change our community. One student is writing a children’s book series, and any money that she makes will fund another student’s community-problem-solving project. These two girls are in the process of setting up a nonprofit organization and have made some incredible contacts to help them accomplish their goals. It has been so rewarding for Anne to have kids pass her in the hallway in the morning and already be asking where the conference/feedback sign-up list is for each of them. They are excited about feedback, and they are applying it because they are getting that critical feedback when it matters—multiple times throughout the unit.

Anne admits that it is incredibly hard to organize the projects sometimes, but she thinks that’s important, too. The kids have seen her struggle, and that’s so powerful for them—to know that she’s not just preaching challenges to them, but that she’s living it right alongside them. Anne also explains that some of their parents struggled even more. They faced some harsh criticism in the community from some parents who just didn’t understand and refused to come in to discuss matters with them. Anne has always had great relationships with her students’ parents, and for the first time, she was struggling to feel like she could even reach them. Anne and Chris overcame that by continuing to adapt for and have conversations with their kids. Those conversations have been the key because once the kids buy-in, the parents usually do, too. While their students don’t take any traditional tests throughout the year for her class, on their winter standardized progress monitor, Anne’s students saw incredible growth—more than she’s seen from her class and at that grade level in a long time.

On top of that, Anne can’t stress enough how important administrative support is to learning/skill-building outcomes for kids. She believes that sometimes people see the teacher as the main influence for kids, and while obviously there is a lot of truth in that, none of this would be happening if Anne’s principal, and her superintendent, didn’t share ideas and encourage their teachers to try new things and push kids to develop the skills they need to become lifelong, independent learners. Having that collaborative team has been so important to Anne’s growth as a teacher. She knows that when she gets better, she does better for her students. She jumped in because her mentors and leaders jumped in with her. She has never felt alone or unsupported, which has made it easier to try.

Once you teach this way, it’s awfully difficult to see a lot of value in many of the traditional ways of assessing students. Using PBL means Anne gets to see all the learning. She is able to watch it and guide it and feel their frustration and celebrate their success. She sees the figurative wheels turning and knows exactly where each kid is in terms of skills.

Katherine Johnson

Mentor High School: Teacher

Causes Worth Fighting for

In Katherine Johnson’s “Causes Worth Fighting for” project, students select a societal issue (locally or globally) that is important to them and strive to become agents of change, to make an impact on improving their selected topic in some way. In some cases, projects are research intensive with the goal of educating others. In other cases, projects are more hands on, requiring careful planning and execution. There is quite a bit of choice in this project and a high level of personal accountability. Katherine’s goal is to put students in situations where they have to practice communication skills that many are under equipped for handling when they advance to postsecondary school, such as making a simple phone call, scheduling an appointment with a contact, writing a professional e-mail, and persevering when they hit dead ends. Some of their projects are instant success stories, but most of her students hit several roadblocks along the way. Katherine’s goal is to show them that there is much to be learned through failure and they should never give up.

This unit was created specifically as a result of a push for PBL in Katherine’s district. She wanted something that both her and her students could walk away feeling good about. She wanted something that would provide them all with a unique and authentic experience. Katherine’s ideas were constructed after several professional development sessions on PBL.

Katherine’s students are assessed using the following: summative assessment through formal writing and reflection, summative assessment through formal presentation of materials in a final showcase conducted in April (community members are invited to the final project exposition where students present their projects), formative assessments over the course of the project through work logs, and also formative assessments through weekly meetings with students.

The rapport Katherine has built with her students over the last two years has been incomparable to years past. Her students all pick topics that are deeply meaningful to them. She gets to hear their story (the good and the bad) and they get to tell it, and be proud of it. Some are deeper than others, but they all have walked away with a true sense of pride in their work. The gratitude they have shown at the project completion speaks volumes. Many started off feeling like this project was just like any other. The skills and experience they walk away with though, is unlike anything many have experienced before. Students have picked projects that they plan to study further in college. Students have picked projects that have allowed them to showcase skills that they have that would otherwise not be displayed and they get to link that to charitable causes. This has been refreshing to Katherine because what they choose is at the core of who they are.

The following is a link to the slide show Katherine created for the most recent years’ project. It showcases some great projects from that year. https://docs.google.com/presentation/d/1NKlpZHaIsrEhyPbM7rfyPzCYdAwjqr_pfDrte0S6YBI/edit?usp=sharing.

Katherine also likes to add that she had a number of student projects that did indeed fail which Katherine feels is equally, if not more, valuable than a successful project. Part of what she wants to teach her students is that there is so much to be learned through failure and that in the real world, you have to pick up and try again when something doesn’t go your way the first time around. Even though their projects may have failed, the effort that they put into them is what’s important.

Katherine’s particular project’s purpose was to give students real-world experience in research, writing, and communication skills. Her students were given freedom to explore whatever they wanted in whatever field they were interested in, as long as they were meeting the ELA standards (which wasn’t hard to do in this project). The biggest struggle Katherine faced was from a small group of teachers in a different subject area who were extremely critical of her work, not fully understanding the project and ELA standards she was addressing. She did her best to explain to them the nature of the project and why her students were doing things that were not “English” projects. Ultimately, Katherine isn’t sure they wanted to hear anything about it. She did take this as an opportunity to learn and contacted staff members at the start of this years’ project with a brief explanation of what students were doing and to contact her if they’d like to be involved and/or learn more.

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