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by Megan Parry
Curriculum and Program Manager

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Topic tags: Gold Standard


May 4, 2016
Ensuring that PBL is not One. More. Thing. in a School and District

by Megan Parry
Curriculum and Program Manager

To serve the needs of each student who comes through our doors every day, schools and districts implement a variety of different initiatives and programs. It’s easy for teachers and site leaders to become overwhelmed.

There are the standards to teach, and reading program X, writing program Y, or math program Z.  There’s PBIS to manage student behavior, new technology to integrate. There are AVID strategies for college readiness, parent engagement strategies, dropout or truancy prevention programs… the list goes on. It’s no wonder that when a district decides to implement PBL, teachers and site leaders often feel like they cannot possibly do One. More. Thing.

Ideally, all these programs and initiatives come into alignment in a district in support of achieving the strategic plan. District administrators may see the big picture as they bring each one of the new programs on board, but it can be hard to see the connection from the classroom level day to day. One of my goals as a systemic partnership coach at BIE is to help district and school leaders create coherence out of what might seem to teachers like a collection of competing initiatives. Helping teachers see the connections helps reduce their sense of being overloaded and leads to better implementation and sustainability of PBL and other initiatives.

Alignment to the Strategic Plan
One of the very first things BIE does with new systemic partners is look at their strategic plan for language that explicitly or implicitly calls for Project Based Learning. We want to make sure that what we offer is actually a good fit for the direction the district is heading. When we begin implementation planning we work with key stakeholders – teachers, site leaders and various district leaders – to develop goals specific to PBL implementation that align with and leverage or support the strategic plan. This process is key and can help build buy-in not only among staff and school board but parents and the community too.

Crosswalking Initiatives
Alignment to the district strategic plan is important but not sufficient to eliminate the sense that PBL is One. More. Thing.  In helping administrators and teachers see the forest instead of each tree, I facilitate an “initiative crosswalk” to specifically identify how initiatives align. 

Principals in Bassett Unified School District just went through this process.  And it was exciting to see the lightbulbs of connection! We brainstormed a list of everything that is going on in their schools and district. Initiatives just kept coming and coming.  Here’s a sample of their list:

  • Academic Parent Teacher Teams
  • Abolish Chronic Truancy
  • An ELA content focus
  • A Math content focus
  • An ELD focus
  • Thinking Maps
  • MTSS
  • GATE
  • PBIS
  • NEU
  • AVID
  • Saturday Academies

After we got them all out, I think we were all a little surprised and maybe even more overwhelmed than when we started by everything on the list. Small groups took responsibility for identifying the vision and key components for each initiative. Each list was reviewed by another group to make sure initiatives were accurately represented. 

As a whole group, we identified the vision and key components of PBL to make sure there was a clear and common understanding. Then the groups went back to their posters and circled in green the places where there was alignment between PBL and each of their initiatives. There were a lot of green circles on their posters. Some of the initiatives, it was discovered, could live wholly inside PBL – meaning there was complete alignment, e.g., for content-specific work, Thinking Maps, and AVID. For others there were only a few areas of crossover, like parent engagement strategies and truancy. None of the initiatives showed misalignment with PBL.


Helping Teachers See the Connections
This process really helped Bassett leaders see the connections and help shift their own thinking away from PBL as One. More. Thing. Their next step is to help teachers actually FEEL that way.  They could do this in a few different ways:

  • Site leaders could complete the crosswalk activity with their staff. This would allow teachers making their own sense of it and see the connections across of all the initiatives.
  • To streamline the work, teachers could work together to adapt and integrate planning forms or other supporting documents from several different initiatives.
  • Plan and provide professional development to allow teachers to really think through how to integrate initiatives where there is really close alignment. For Bassett, this might be planning time to learning how Thinking Maps and AVID can be used as scaffolding opportunities within a project. 
  • Develop a calendar for professional development or staff/department meetings that keeps the connections alive by shifting the orientation of meetings to focus on student goals or outcomes. Then look at existing initiatives to figure out what’s already in place to help achieve those goals. 

In Bassett, the leaders are taking the time to thoughtfully develop an action plan anchored in the district-wide goal of ensuring that all students graduate college and career ready. They’re using the Common Core Claims and Targets to identify school-specific, academic goals for students and ensure student academic success is the focus of all work. They’re determining key actions the adults need to take to ensure students are successful in accomplishing the goal. And, the site leaders are ensuring their various initiatives are embedded in their action plan so that their work and their teachers’ work is an integrated whole, rather than a collection of One. More. Things.


Do you have questions, comments, or tips on how to ensure PBL is not One. More. Thing? Please enter them below.

For more information about BIE’s systemic services, click here.


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