PBL Meets ELA: A Case Study

Project Based Learning (PBL) is one of the hottest buzzwords in education. The term brings to mind students hard at work researching or creating, groups crafting tangible projects worthy of display during Open House night, and teachers beaming as students take the lead in their own learning. PBL is a goal many teachers aspire to implement.

I am one of those teachers. I even received training and certification in PBL two years ago. Despite this training, I was left wondering how individual teachers (especially those of us in the humanities) could implement PBL in our individual classrooms. Programs like the Apollo School in Pennsylvania offer wonderful, personalized, Project Based Learning for students. But what I wanted to explore this week was how teachers who don’t have administrative support, extra funding, interdisciplinary co-teachers, and extremely small class sizes could implement PBL.

Another reason I wanted to explore successful PBL was to counter the many less than stellar examples I’d observed in the past few years. For example, a high school English teacher boasted about skipping teaching narrative writing and instead having students blog pictures of themselves throughout the day to ‘tell a story.’ While I’m sure his students were very excited and engaged, I struggled to see an academic component or a tie-in with ELA standards. Furthermore, are selfies really a skill that students need to be prompted to do?

Further complicating my search were the numerous amounts of projects that teachers were calling Project Based Learning which really were just good old-fashioned projects. For instance, writing and performing a modern adaptation of Macbeth after reading the play is a great summative project, but it doesn’t qualify as PBL.

Defining Project Based Learning

So what constitutes Project Based Learning? According to the Buck Institute for Education (a nonprofit organization focused on promoting student learning through Project Based Learning), the PBL teaching method should include the following 8 components:

  • Key Knowledge, Understanding, and Success Skills: Project is goal-based and informed by standards with an emphasis on critical thinking, communication, collaboration, and self-management.
  • Challenging Problem or Question: An appropriately challenging question or problem frames the project.
  • Sustained Inquiry: To explore the problem or question, students engage in research. Through the initial research, new questions emerge and are also explored.
  • Authenticity: The project should deal with real-world concerns and issues relevant to students’ lives. The task, impact, and process should also be authentic.
  • Student Voice & Choice: Within the project, students have the opportunity to choose how to work and what to create to demonstrate learning.
  • Reflection: Students should have a chance to reflect on the process and outcome including what challenges they faced and how they tackled those challenges.
  • Critique & Revision: Feedback is not final. Students have the opportunity to refine their product/project based on peer or teacher feedback.
  • Public Product: Audience for the final product is not just the teacher. Students have the chance to present or post their learning in a public forum.

On her blog, Cult of Pedagogy, Jennifer Gonzalez explains Project Based Learning as follows:

“With project based learning, the content is baked inside of a long-term project, a real-world problem students need to solve in a creative and authentic way. In the process of solving the problem, students also meet required standards, but this work is integrated into the project, not separate from it.” (2016)

PBL Success in the English Language Arts Classroom

In the course of researching PBL, I stumbled upon a post by junior high English teacher, Hannah Reimer. The title of the post piqued my interest: Literature, Deep Inquiry, Makerspace: Memorial Projects for the Holocaust & Other Cataclysmic Events. A makerspace project in English class? Tell me more!

Like many middle school teachers across the country, Reimer is tasked with teaching the difficult and painful subject of the Holocaust. Unlike many teachers, Reimer uses Project Based Learning to explore the ideas of remembrance and learning from the past.

Reimer begins her Holocaust unit by asking the following thought-provoking questions:

  • How do we remember or memorialize the people, all the people, scarred by genocide?
  • Why should we remember them?
  • What does it mean to remember?
  • How does art help people remember?
  • How is memory connected to education and change?

Students explore the questions through historical fiction and nonfiction (they choose the books) as well as online research. Students are then asked to create a model of a memorial for someone who suffered due to the ‘us versus them’ mentality that the victims of the Holocaust faced. Students are free to choose a single person, group of people, or an idea to commemorate. They’re not limited to creating memorials solely for Holocaust victims. For example, one student chose to memorialize young people who had committed suicide due to cyberbullying.

Students visit real-life memorials in their city to get a feel for the relationship between architecture, design, and honoring the dead. Before constructing their memorial models in their junior high’s makerspace lab, students had to write a persuasive pitch including facts and statistics about why the memorial was warranted. They also needed to justify their design choices.

As students work to construct their 3D models, they are able to consult with local artists and architects as well as a college professor. The final projects are photographed and edited using software like Photoshop to look like authentic architectural proposals. All students present their projects to faculty members at the Milwaukee Institute of Art. The best projects are then displayed at the Jewish Museum Milwaukee.

Reimer’s Holocaust project is a great example of what successful PBL looks like in the English classroom. It involves literature, research, writing, design thinking, modeling, art, computer design, and verbal presentation. The ability of students to consult with experts and present to an authentic audience further makes the project a real-world learning experience.

In addition to the many Common Core English standards met through this unit, students also meet ISTE standard 4, Innovative Designer. Specifically, students worked with an open-ended problem, built prototypes as part of the design process, used digital tools to research and create their memorial models, and created an authentic artifact that demonstrated their learning (iste.org, 2017).

Of course the academic element to this project is extensive and exciting. More importantly, this project encourages students to empathize with victims and consider the impact of their actions on others. In a longer version of the post, Reimer shares that her inspiration for the project stems from a request that a principal (and Holocaust survivor) made to his teachers: “Help your students become human. Your efforts must never produce learned monsters, skilled psychopaths, educated Eichmanns. Reading, writing, arithmetic are important only if they serve to make our children more human” (as cited in Reimer, 2016).

Bie.org. (n.d.). What is PBL? | Project Based Learning. [online] Available at: https://www.bie.org/about/what_pbl [Accessed 17 Feb. 2018].
Gonzalez, J. (2016). Project Based Learning: Start Here. [online] Cult of Pedagogy. Available at: https://www.cultofpedagogy.com/project-based-learning/ [Accessed 12 Feb. 2018].
Iste.org. (2017). ISTE Standards For Students. [online] Available at: https://www.iste.org/standards/for-students [Accessed 10 Feb. 2018].
Reimer, H. (2016). Literature, Deep Inquiry, Makerspace: Memorial Projects for the Holocaust & Other Cataclysmic Events. [online] Bie.org. Available at: https://www.bie.org/blog/literature_deep_inquiry_makerspace_memorial_projects_for_the_holocaust_othe [Accessed 14 Feb. 2018].
Reimer, H. (2016). Searching for Meaning from the Holocaust. [online] Nais.org. Available at: https://www.nais.org/magazine/independent-teacher/spring-2016/searching-for-meaning-from-the-holocaust/ [Accessed 14 Feb. 2018].

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