“I am a big believer that students learn from experience and exploring…They have to figure it out on their own.  It’s like a light bulb going on. They just get it. ” Jackie Chisam, Warhill HS

Many seasoned teachers know that the first year teaching can seem like a struggle to just survive each new day in the classroom.  There is a steep learning curve and the work is seemingly endless. As a new teacher in the English classroom, Jackie Chisam admits that it would have been easy to fall into the trap of taking a more traditional teacher-directed approach to teaching English: read a novel, write about it, take a test on it…wash, rinse, repeat.  However, because she was thrown into the role teaching multi-disciplinary, project-based learning in the new Pathways program at Warhill High School, using project-based methods has really become her go-to approach, even in her traditional courses.  She suggests that this may be tied to the multidisciplinary nature of Advanced American Studies, where it just seems to make sense to do projects where students are able to figure out how all of the historical and literary pieces fit together.  Jackie admits, though, that PBL can be easier said than done sometimes. For example, she and her co-teacher had hoped to do a full-blown PBL project from the start of the school year but haven’t been able to fit it in until 3rd quarter.

PBL doesn’t have to be all-or-nothing

Jackie suggests that, even if she can’t do an all out PBL project,  it has become natural to use many of the PBL strategies that she learned during her first year teaching, including individual and group self-assessment, reflection, and groupwork strategies.  For example, in Advanced American Studies, students recently read House on Mango Street, and groups led discussions on the different vignettes that occur throughout the novel. Each group was responsible for teaching the class about their assigned section of the novel in relation to topics such as imagery and figurative language, and their relationship to meaning.  

Jackie learned through teaching PBL units that student directed work in groups is more productive if they have a project agenda that outlines who was responsible for doing what and if they reflect at the end of class on what they accomplished and what they still need to do. Jackie also had students self-assess using her rubric the day before the student-led discussions were due.  Students used that self-assessment to guide any improvements that needed to be made and she was able to get an assessment of whether or not students needed more guidance or time to complete the task.

It is also key to have individual accountability within the groups to ensure they run smoothly.  This means outlining specific, defined roles, who is responsible for each role, what individuals have accomplished each day, and switching up the roles so students become attuned to engaging in different kinds of responsibilities. This gives students who may be reticent to take on roles such as serving as the group leader the chance to develop those qualities in themselves.  Because the teacher is often circulating to help groups, it is helpful to provide probing questions on each role card so that students have a model for next steps.

Sample Role Card from Humanities by Design

Jackie suggests some small strategies that have made a big difference in her classes:

  1. Empathize with students through the experience– Do some of the activities and projects you plan to ask students to engage in.  This results in an exemplar that can be given to students as a model and allows you to experience the project as the students will so you can better anticipate questions or possible stumbling blocks  
  2. Take small risks and fail forward- Try something, and even if it fails, you will see what needs work.  It’s difficult because things not working usually weighs heavily on teacher’s minds.  However, in the grand scheme of things, what we fail at can be used to make us better next time. Drawing from experience is incredibly powerful and can only be done once you have actually experienced it.  Giving students a voice in reflecting on the process also provides valuable feedback for moving forward.
  3. Student reflection- constantly have students evaluate and assess their individual and group-level work.  Rubrics for student reflection should be tailored specifically to each assignment, but they can be as simple “glows and grows” or checklists rather than an extensive 4-point rubric.  Choice in kind of rubric really depends upon what stage students are in the process.
  4. Focus on group dynamics first over content- Group dynamics must be taught.  In order for group-work to be effective, students need to develop a foundation of trust and a sense of accountability to others in the group.  If there is too heavy a content focus at first, then students can get caught up in their grades rather than effective teamwork, which can breed animosity amongst group members if groups fail. Master group-work, then introduce important content.   
  5. Baby steps-  It’s ok to take small steps in releasing the responsibility to the students within the traditional classroom.  Even typically traditional assessment strategies, like creating a multiple choice test, for example, can use PBL elements like student voice and choice.  One small step towards more student agency would provide students the opportunity to work in small groups to create a study guide for the test. Give them an agenda to keep them active and accountable, but construct the test based upon the study guides they create.  Students like having the responsibility in their hands. It is more engaging than just giving them a study guide and it gives them a voice in which content they believe is important.
  6. Steal, steal, steal– Most of us don’t need help with the creative aspect of planning, but sometimes it helps to see what others have created to get the creative juices flowing or just to get a template that we can use to help us to organize big ideas.  The Buck Institute for Education has templates for all kinds of resources ranging from rubrics, to reflection templates, to project planning guides.  Use them as is or adapt to your own needs.

Jackie stresses that using these kinds of PBL-inspired strategies has helped her to build a rapport with students that helps her challenge her students in authentic and meaningful ways.   Once students get used to learning in a more student-directed way, which may take a little time depending on how often they’ve experienced these practices, it creates an environment where the teacher has the freedom to work more directly one-on-one with students.  Rather than wielding a clipboard to see who is working, Jackie feels able to act as a kind of floating group member that students can bounce ideas off of and use for instructional support when needed.

How do you implement PBL strategies, even when you’re not able to take on a full-blown, “gold standard” PBL experience? Please leave a reply in the comments below.

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Katalin Wargo is a doctoral student in the Educational Policy, Planning and Leadership: Curriculum and Educational Technology program at William and Mary. She holds a Masters in Education from the University of Washington and taught high school English for a decade before deciding to venture into academia. Her latest position was as the English department chair at Warhill High School in Williamsburg, where she worked as part of the innovation team to design the Pathways Program.