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by Brady Venables
Instructional Technology Coach, Saluda County Schools

by Dr. Shawn Clark, Ph.D.
Director of Curriculum & Instruction, Saluda County Schools

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Topic tags: Gold Standard


May 10, 2016
3 Lessons From Teaching Our First PBL Unit

by Brady Venables
Instructional Technology Coach, Saluda County Schools

by Dr. Shawn Clark, Ph.D.
Director of Curriculum & Instruction, Saluda County Schools

After attending the Buck Institute for Education’s PBL 101, we embarked on our first Project Based Learning (PBL) unit. At the workshop we learned that if you are just “doing a project,” don’t call it PBL. So one of our goals was to make it gold standard instead of just implementing a cool project. In many ways the results of our PBL unit exceeded our expectations.

Our PBL unit focused on exploring the driving question, “How did the floods in South Carolina in October of 2015 affect the human and physical geography?” Our third graders at Saluda Elementary School in Saluda, SC created museum exhibits to answer this driving question. In this project, various social studies and ELA standards were addressed.

That said, we learned that we can improve our practice for future PBL units. We analyzed our PBL experience and came away with three lessons for other educators implementing Project Based Learning:

Lesson 1: Partner with Another Teacher

Without a doubt, the most significant takeaway of our first PBL unit was seeing the students blossom while engaged in Project Based Learning. The power of that experience, however, is closely matched by seeing the power and importance of embarking on this journey with another trusted teacher. Planning and executing PBL with another teacher is a strategy we suggest for many reasons. Even if you are charged with doing PBL on your own, do not hesitate to reach out to a building level instructional leader, mentor educator, or even a fellow teacher via social media.

The first and most obvious reason to co-teach and co-plan is that it allows you to share the workload. Although there are many ready-made PBL units available for your use and adaptation, there will be significant groundwork for you to do as teachers. The amount of preplanning may be intimidating and a reason to convince yourself to opt out of PBL.  Picking a trusted partner to work with lightens the load.

Next, and perhaps even more important, having another teacher experiencing the PBL unit allows for greater reflection on daily lessons and activities. PBL units will be filled with unanticipated (but valuable) twists and turns. Student achievements, large and small, will occur every day and celebrating them with a teacher magnifies the experience for you.  Moreover, having a teacher to help troubleshoot stumbling blocks and create scaffolds and lessons based on student feedback makes the experience much more manageable. 

Having taught with the teacher previously is certainly not a prerequisite; having a teacher whose practice and knowledge you respect and trust is. We are not actually classroom teachers in our district, nor had we taught together previously. As part of the district’s leadership team we felt it important to implement PBL before asking teachers in our district to begin the important work of PBL. Implementing PBL first also allowed us to demonstrate that it is valuable to make mistakes and learn from reflecting on the project. 

The reflecting and debriefing that occurred between us immediately following each lesson allowed us to pivot and adjust our goals for the next day to maximize student success.  “Debrief” sounds consuming and official, however, these conversations happened in hallways between classes and transitions. 

Working with a trusted teacher who reminds you to continue stepping out of your comfort zone, trusting the kids and the process, and who can share in the delivery of content will prove to be a highlight of your PBL experience. 

Lesson 2: Don’t Underestimate Your Students

Our culminating public display of student learning involved creating a museum featuring how natural disasters affect the physical and human geography. Asking students to plan, design, and host a museum is a significant undertaking. It requires a multitude of opportunities for student voice and choice: researching a topic, choosing a method to showcase learning, making the exhibits, practicing public speaking, inviting the community and many more details.

At times we worried if our kids could do it. We should have been more worried about stifling their creativity and underestimating their capabilities. While we assumed the students might be able to be captains of their own canoes, we were surprised that they were fully prepared to commandeer a cruise ship. Don’t underestimate the problems your children can address, the products they can produce, and the levels at which they can think. 

We required our kids to engage in types of thinking and problem solving to which they had little exposure in previous lessons. With the right supports, the students were able to handle the rigor we demanded. Unprompted, students even went beyond expectations and worked on projects at home and during recess. If you’ve given the students ownership, autonomy, and trust from day one in your PBL unit, they’ll take the project so seriously that they will not let themselves down, let alone you, when it is time to set sail. 

Lesson 3: If You Build It, the Community Will Come

We and our students were not sure if the community we invited would actually come to our exhibition. However, over 400 community members, students, teachers, and district staff flooded the Teaching and Learning Lab in March to witness a public display of knowledge by elementary students. After engaging in an inquiry driven learning experience for approximately 10 weeks, students created and hosted a museum entitled “And Still, We Rise.” This showcase of student work was the first of its kind in Saluda County Schools.  

Of course, the parents and community members did not show up out of thin air. PBL inspires kids to own their learning and as a result, parents become curious about it, and learning becomes valuable enough for the community to want to witness it. Students created invitations that were sent home and to district employees. We called every child’s home to personally praise their efforts in the PBL unit and to invite families to attend the museum. 

Parents were in awe of the products their children created. Many parents were overcome with emotions as they watched their students speak professionally about their museum exhibits. This authentic showcase was not just good for parents, though. Other teachers in the district saw the power of PBL and were immediately inspired to sign up for professional learning offered this summer in our district on PBL. Fellow students were similarly inspired by the work of their peers, even asking their teachers if they might ever get to do a PBL unit in their classrooms.

Jump into PBL
Just as with the kids, the learning for us happens in the revision and reflection on the process. Mistakes will be made, lessons will be learned, but not without amazing student success. Do not avoid PBL because you don’t think you can pull it off perfectly or because you fear you won’t reach gold standard on your first try. The power of jumping into PBL with two feet (or better yet, four, if you are co-teaching!) is indeed worth it.  

You can read more about our experiences in educational leadership and with Project Based Learning and other topics about improving education on our blog, Classroom Confessional and follow us on Twitter @shawnblove and @bradyvenables.


Do you have questions or comments about starting your first PBL project? Please enter them below.


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