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

My first full year of teaching was as an eighth-grade language arts teacher. It was my dream job at the time. I loved the energy of middle school students, and I was still taller than most of them (that changed towards the end of the school year!).

My situation was even better than expected because our MS teams had two language arts teachers, and I taught three 85-minute blocks, instead of five 40-minute blocks. Although this was more “time” teaching, it was fewer students per class and fewer students for my entire course load. It helped in grading especially (think of how long it takes to grade 130 essays versus 65 essays).

An added benefit that I did not see coming into the school year was how much extra time it would allow me to understand and get to know my students. When you spend 80 minutes a day for 180 days you really get to know someone.

It was in this first year of teaching that I was exposed to Project-Based Learning, and my first experience was awful.

I was really bad at scaffolding PBL opportunities for my students to own the process. Too often my scaffolding was me “telling them” what to do.

Most of the “project-based learning,” I had my students do, looked something like this:

  1. Teach the students about a concept or particular content.
  2. Have them demonstrate their learning in various ways.
  3. Give them an end of the unit project.
  4. Provide detailed steps to complete the project in a handout.
  5. Provide detailed unit to assess the project in a handout.
  6. Give students a detailed timeline on when things should be done for the project.
  7. Help students navigate project.
  8. Collect student projects.
  9. Notice that all their projects look eerily similar, almost like they were following a recipe.
  10. Grade the projects and hand them back with feedback.
  11. Repeat.

The problem with these projects was the recipe-like nature that happened when students began handing things in.

Chris Lehmann calls this “recipe-based learning” not “project-based learning”.

My students were still just trying to follow the rules, instead of actually creating something on their own that they could be proud of.

During one of these projects (when students had inevitably gone through the motions) I had to ask my students the question:

What was the last project or school assignment you did that left you with a feeling of accomplishment?

The responses all fell into two categories:

  1. Students were accomplished when they received a grade higher than what they expected to receive and/or if the class was known as difficult and challenging.
  2. Projects where they had choice in what they were creating and solving (there weren’t that many with this response). Most of them said this happened outside of school.

I wondered how I could do project-based learning in my class where students would be challenged, engaged, and also inspired to do great work they would be proud of (instead of only work that would get them a grade).

Finally, I did what I should have done from the start: I started to ask veteran teachers about their experiences using PBL.

Not only did they share their wins and fails, but they also pointed me in the direction of many other teachers who could share stories and insights on PBL. Teachers learn best from other teachers, and I’ll never forget those early days of listening and learning from people that have been doing it for years.

It comes back to HOW to do PBL in the midst of standards and curriculum. I’ve put together a free workshop to show you the 5-step process to do just that. You don’t need to start from scratch, instead, you can get a jumpstart on the process.

I’m holding three workshops this week (for K-5, 6-12, and school leaders):

You can sign-up to be a part of the training right here! If you can’t make the time, please sign-up so you can get the recording.

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

Jill Weaver

Valley View Junior High, 8th grade Science teacher

The Project: How the Rubber Meets the Road

Jill Weaver used PBL to teach her students how to deflect the water from the tread to prevent hydroplaning. They then built, tested, redesigned and tested again. The best performance designs were sent to Goodyear and they used their software to evaluate them.  They then had a conference with their design team.

Students worked through their understanding of contact forces as they saw how the water interacted with their tread during testing. Jill and her class still did background research and created force diagrams, but in PBL the force diagrams went with their test modeling. Students did a lot of testing and documenting results which resulted in very well done data tables; each student kept an engineering design log.  They went through the engineering and design principles and there was a lot of re-design and testing to make improvement to tread designs. The designs were evaluated during testing and that is how the best designs were chosen. Jill also did career connections with this unit and looked at what opportunities existed in these fields. Students loved talking to the test drivers that took Ford Mustangs to Nevada to test tires for performance and compared that to our test model. Junior high students are going to be driving cars in the near future so this topic was interesting to them, and they were very competitive due to the best test models being evaluated by Goodyear tire and rubber.

Jill had one gifted learner her first year using PBL that had been closed off to learning and he has come alive with PBL instruction. His confidence has been restored and he shines like a superstar when he works through a PBL. The highlight of the year for Jill was watching this team complete building a hydraulic arm to move toxic barrels to a new safe location.

Student retention of the content improved and student self-evaluation showed that the interest level for the topic of study improved. Overall, scores on this content standard in unit testing improved. When Jill did her first PBL, she wanted to make all of her units PBL. Jill’s advice is to take your time in the conversion process as it is very time-consuming trying to recreate your entire course of study. Jill has since tried to create one new PBL each year.

Jacob Shaw

Plains Junior School; Teacher

School Constitution

Jacob Shaw’s views on students taking notes from a PowerPoint? BORING! Jacob’s PBL journey began at the beginning of the 2017 school year. He first heard the term used in a leadership meeting during his preplanning. He was told it was an initiative that his district was trying to push for the teachers. Jacob’s initial thought was “Great, another acronym that we have to try to incorporate into the thousands of others we already have with the negative three hours of free time we get.”

Fast-forward to October of that school year. Jacob was invited to attend a PD session the district was holding about PBL. He had started doing a little more research into what PBL truly looked like. He had changed the environment in his classroom to a more conducive PBL classroom. Jacob moved his teacher desk into the middle of the room. He got rid of all his student desks and replaced them with tables from around the school or standing tables that he built himself. Jacob began to have a better understanding as to why these methods had to go and why PBL was a necessity in his classroom. PBL is not your typical “Here’s your project, here’s your rubric and this (shows class an example) is what you’re creating” type of project. It’s identifying a problem or challenge and investigating ways to find an authentic solution. Jacob likes to use the analogy with his students that he’s in the backseat riding along on their journey. He doesn’t know the destination and he’s okay if they take the scenic route. There will be times of heavy traffic and terrible storms to drive through, but he’s only there for the conversation. He can’t do the driving for them. They need to drive their way through these obstacles and setbacks and take him to their destination. Each student has their own destination they’re driving him toward.

This PBL project that Jacob implemented involved having the students participate in creating new legislation law for the school. Jacob and his students started with the idea that the twenty-first-century school environment needs to adapt to the needs of its current students. Jacob had students write down a word they would use to describe school, and they posted them on the wall. Once the groups identified their system of government, they began to work together on passing new legislation and creating an environment that is more conducive to their twenty-first-century learning styles. Since this PBL was attached to their constitution unit, they identified how laws and “change” are created through a legislative process and how, in a school system, the students are part of the legislative branch because they represent the school population. The groups then decided on “the branches” of a school system and how the accountability and checks and balances occur within a school system. By talking to staff, students, administration, and the community, they were able to create a new school constitution. Students realized that they have a voice in the decisions that are made in school. They realized that the process to pass new legislation can be lengthy yet worth it in the end. Jacob conducted small interviews throughout the process to assess their reasoning for their legislation law. It all needed to come back to solving their driving question. About halfway through the project, they completed an elevator pitch to the class who then critiqued the gaps and cracks and some ideas that might need to be added.

Ideas for change in their schools ranged from block scheduling to 1:1 Chromebooks for students. From adding in school pep rallies to changing over to washable plastic trays in the cafeteria to help the environment. From adding vending machines to how they utilize and assign homework. Each group brought a unique idea to the table for change. They, of course, needed to identify the reasons and research behind why and how these changes would make school a better experience. The class took their findings and research and went on a field trip to central office. Their school superintendent took time out of his day to take each of Jacob’s classes through the central office and speak with district directors. Jacob was very proud of how my students presented their research to these school leaders with such confidence.

Fast-forward two months later and the students have realized that they have a voice in their schools. At the middle school level, they will begin the 2018 school year with each student receiving their own Chromebook. They’ve added three additional technology electives for students to choose from. They’ll be giving their media center a twenty-first-century makeover and creating a MakerSpace. And most importantly, students are being included in the decision-making process for their school!

There were certainly some setbacks throughout the project too. Some of them were just speed bumps, but some of the students were running their cars off the road entirely! It was difficult for them to wrap their minds around not knowing exactly how to navigate their way through a project without having that model in front of them to recreate. But Jacob assured them he would always be there to help them along the way. After teaching for 17 years, Jacob has realized that the needs of students are best measured by the students themselves.

PBL is not just a change in the way educators meet their students’ needs. It’s a change in the mind-set of every educator. It’s letting go of certain areas of control in your classroom and trusting the process and your students to find solutions on their own. Be okay with taking risks and failing because it only creates more opportunities for you to learn and grow as an educator.

Kalli Colley

South Marshall Middle School; teacher

“Shark Tank”—Unit Title: Entrepreneurship: Collaboration, Creativity, and the Art of Persuasion

In this project based on the hit show “Shark Tank,” Kalli Colley has her students collaborate to create an original business or product. Throughout the project, they will research product development and competition, financial aspects of business, advertising, and other business principles. They will read both nonfiction and fiction in order to learn more about innovation, entrepreneurs, and the benefits and downfalls of technology.

The intended outcome for students is a business or product complete with a business plan or prototype, visual aid, and presentation that they will present to a panel of “sharks” composed of teachers, administration, and community members (specifically, community members who own a business or work in a financial field; these people can offer real-world feedback to students). The “sharks” will judge their work based on their creativity, cooperation, critical thinking skills, presentation skills, diplomacy when answering questions, and the product’s projected success in society. Students will make a “deal” with an investor.

Students are graded on the business itself, the process of brainstorming and collaborating with their group, their presentation skills, and other written assignments concerning the project. Investments and feedback from the “sharks” will have no impact on their grades whatsoever. Grades are determined through rubrics completed by Kalli throughout the entire project. The project was initially completed individually or in partners. Now, it is completed in groups of four to encourage collaboration.

At the beginning of the project, Kalli and her students watch an episode of Shark Tank to hook students and talk about innovation and persuasive strategies. After that, students take a “True Colors” personality assessment, which splits them into four groups based on leadership and personality traits (orange, blue, gold, and green). Students may choose groups but must have one of each color in their group. Kalli and her students talk about successful collaboration and how to communicate with different personality types. Then, students begin brainstorming ideas for their business. After everyone has submitted their idea through a “classroom patent application” and have been approved for an original idea, they begin working on a business plan, prototype, advertisement, logo, and pitch. There are several milestone deadlines through the project to make sure they are progressing appropriately.

In the end, students present and negotiate with sharks. Kalli has used a variety of different personalities for her “sharks” that she says adds to the “realness” of the project. One of her coworkers, a science teacher and avid cynic, is known as the “tough” shark who really asks them hard questions but gives great feedback. One of her social studies teachers loves to overdramatize and say things like “I don’t normally do this, but I’m going to roll the dice on you” and has been known to go out in the hallway to make phone calls to “ask his banker” or “consult with co-investors.” Kalli’s school secretary and guidance counselor have been sharks for her every year and have “invested” in many of the businesses that have been presented. Her administrators (in school and from the board office) look forward to seeing the ideas and jumping in to be a part of the fun. Community members including insurance salesmen, HR managers, entrepreneurs, bankers, store owners, and photographers have all come and given their feedback using their personal experience in the real world as well as their personalities. Presentation days are hectic and sometimes stressful but are her favorite part of the whole project. Each shark has an imaginary sum of $500,000 per class period to invest in businesses. They give feedback just like the show and complete surveys on each group. Kalli gives awards to the groups that earn the most money for their “first year of sales” based on an equation she uses involving their rubrics and investments. Kalli uses a rubric for each milestone assignment, a rubric for their ability to work collaboratively, and a rubric for the final presentation.

Kalli believes that because of this PBL project, her students research and read informational texts more diligently. They are more confident in their presentations and answering questions because they feel like they have ownership and are invested in their ideas. They think out of the box and get excited about innovation and collaboration. This project is truly cross-curricular, and even students who don’t usually enjoy reading class find themselves engaged.

Kalli says that one major struggle each year seems to always be the brainstorming process for students. It is difficult for them to come up with an original idea. She understands that it’s a lot to ask, but she really wants to see how groups do under this kind of pressure. How do they think through the problem? How do they overcome the feeling of “everything has already been invented?”

Kalli asserts that even if you don’t feel creative, there are plenty of resources out there to try—find one that interests you and modify it to fit your classroom and your students. PBL doesn’t have to be all nontraditional. There will be elements of traditional teaching scattered throughout group work, research, videos, and more. The opportunities are endless.


Randy Thompson

Menahga, MN, Middle School Teacher

Pre-Algebra Driving Question Connections

In Randy Thompson’s class, students come up with a driving question and then relate the standards to their driving question. His students have around 20% of their class time devoted to relating the standards and lessons to their driving question. Students create a portfolio that has each lesson relating to helping them solve their driving question. The project ends with a TED-style presentation that is filmed, complete with an audience and spotlights. Since my project runs simultaneous with my curriculum, I am assessing the content knowledge during the other 80% of classwork time. At the end of the project, students are scored upon completing each lesson as well as their presentation.

Randy knows PBL is directly tied to the increased student engagement, increased grades, and increased test scores he’s seen. He also does surveys with the students. These results are a wonderful tool in stepping back and seeing how the project related to each individual student. You can see last year’s results here: https://docs.google.com/spreadsheets/d/1Tw-mLtorFnn8JlBalu6HzOsT-vwbVFWvumA5vAsfnrs/edit?usp=sharing.

Randy remembers a student he had the first year who really shined. She was new to the school and quite shy. One of her friends from childhood had passed away from a four-wheeling accident, and she decided to research and find ways to improve safety in four-wheeling. She didn’t mention her experience with her friend until halfway through the project (two months later). Randy then began to see the passion that she had for the project. Her best five minutes of her life presentation was amazing, and the class was extremely inspired. She was one of the first students to do this project for Randy and still is one of his favorites to this day. Last year on teacher-appreciation week, she wrote Randy a note that read: “Mr. Thompson, I remember my first day of seventh grade at a new school, walking into your classroom. I was so scared and I wasn’t even sure I was in the right classroom. I am so thankful that you made seventh grade not as scary as I thought it was going to be. I had a ton of fun! Thank you!” In thinking about this student, Randy knows that she was born with confidence, but the PBL project in prealgebra allowed her to develop it even more. Now just last month, she was one of the few female participants in the world famous Beargrease Dog Sled Marathon.

Randy explains that PBL has had a tremendous impact on his career. He was on a team of teachers that his district allowed to meet once a day during two consecutive school years. Their task was to find a way to make learning more meaningful to their specific students. Randy’s team landed on project-based learning after visiting other schools in Minnesota as well as doing other research. This then impacted Randy individually where he did his Master’s Action-Research on PBL. This has carried over into his teaching and has influenced the other subjects that he teaches as well. You can see examples of his students’ work in some of his YouTube videos (“Thompson052312”). You can also see Randy’s action research on PBL as well with student examples and private YouTube presentations: https://docs.google.com/presentation/d/1vwehieBt6BEWfY-SMHHEP_r0KL3DE55kMIT7h4bjwiY/edit?usp=sharing.

The first year was indeed quite a struggle for Randy because he knew what he wanted in his head, but it was hard to translate that to his students. He didn’t have any examples to show. Now in his third year of this semester project, Randy is able to pick his best examples to show, and students have a better understanding of the expectations. “The cool part about PBL,” Randy says, “is that at the end of a 20% time class period, your head will hurt in a unique way that you’ll never otherwise experience as a teacher.”


Kristin Hundt and Katie Bielecki

Holt, Michigan—6th-grade educators

Building Equity, Building Outdoor Spaces

Kristin Hundt and Katie Bielecki design their integrated language arts and social studies curriculum around developing empowered global citizens who understand how to utilize their voices through choice. This teaching pair did not intentionally initiate PBL with their learners. It came to fruition by giving (their) students voice and choice during their first year of collaboration with each other, and it facilitated this wonderful change in their teaching and in their school which they have continued ever since. This PBL exploration was also the catalyst to the implementation of genius hour in their classroom.

Kristin and Katie study all sorts of global issues with their students while also continuing to look at their own community. Their students were shown video footage of the school’s outdoor spaces (playing four square by the dumpsters, a large field that used to be a parking lot) and some footage of a school in the district down the road, serving the same population of children, that had basketball hoops, playground equipment, swings, and outside places to eat and gather. The students were stunned and rightfully frustrated at the inequity of resources and felt the same injustice as they had in other global units of study on topics like food, water, and immigration. They wanted to act! So Kristin and Katie facilitated that, integrating all subjects and technology as they researched, surveyed, collected, and analyzed data, drew up-to-scale maps with plans, wrote grants and letters to stakeholders, and ultimately began to build outdoor spaces at their school where there were none before. The authenticity of this PBL lies in the fact that the students saw the problem and wanted to act.

This teacher team invited a contractor who’d been in their building giving some estimates on other projects to come check out their space after school. They shared with him that their kids had all sorts of visions and ideas for spaces in and around Hope School. They invited him to come and speak with the students about their ideas. He spoke with his boss, the owner of Hayhoe Construction in Holt, Michigan. The owner returned to their classroom for a community meeting (which happens daily in their classroom as an opportunity to share ideas, connect, and greet each other, hence building community, each day). She arrived to see their dreamings and drawings of the outdoor space turned outdoor classroom which was their dream. Once the community meeting discussion commenced, she could see the students were quite serious about enhancing their space and impacting their school community by doing so. The owner called Kristin and Katie at the close of the day to share with them that she’d been so inspired by the students’ ideas and vision that she wanted to match a grant that the students had already secured through the Education Foundation in Holt. She also wanted to donate labor and materials to make the project happen. Within four weeks a new outdoor space was situated!

Over the years, as they’ve continued this project over the course of several years, this project has continued to evolve with each new group of students that enters their team able to make their own adjustments and enhancements. They have built an outdoor classroom directly from student ideas and vision, made a garden, and purchased a GaGa Ball Pit for outdoor playground equipment. Their mission to foster voice and choice with this PBL continues today.

Kristin and Katie align the ideas that students are dreaming up with the sixth-grade learning targets over time collecting maps, argumentative pieces of writing, group work, assessing comprehension of reading, data and analysis of data, scientific observations, and surveys of the land, and are able to have all of that count toward sixth-grade standards in all subjects. The sixth-grade standards that this specific PBL activity have experience covered lent itself to include informational reading standards, argumentative writing, speaking/listening, math geometry standards, science ecosystem studies standards, and social studies studying of global issues and topics.

As you can imagine, one of their struggles was opening Pandora’s Box as one idea led to another…simply the magnitude of what they wanted to have happen and that they wanted it all to happen yesterday! Once the kids were turned on to the injustice in the community and they were able to get their ideas on paper, submit ideas to the learning community and eventually to the business collaborators, the work really came to life and moved.

In summary, Kristin and Katie feel that they now have complete student engagement; Kristin and Katie are passionate learners who recognize the impact of giving students voice and choice in their everyday lives. This voice and choice motivates learning—they are motivated with emotion inspired by the impact that students have had on their community and with the outcome of real change for their school. Having the learning be integrated is a wonderful way for students to have multiple entry points and be able to show mastery of multiple topics. They want to do this work. Each group of students gets to leave their own unique mark on their outdoor spaces each year. Consequently, every year looks a little different. Doing this particular PBL opportunity shows them what students can accomplish, change, and build while learning. It reaffirmed how important it is to give voice and choice—to really listen to your students and their interests and bring those into the classroom. It also began the implementation of genius hour in their team so their students could examine passion and interests on an individual level.

Next Steps

It comes back to HOW to do PBL in the midst of standards and curriculum. I’ve put together a free workshop to show you the 5-step process to do just that. You don’t need to start from scratch, instead, you can get a jumpstart on the process.

I’m holding three workshops this week (for K-5, 6-12, and school leaders):

You can sign-up to be a part of the training right here! If you can’t make the time, please sign-up so you can get the recording.

Are you ready to hit the ground running? Let’s get started!

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