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3 Frequently Asked Questions About PBL... And Some Ideas

"I believe that PBL can be good for my students, but I just can't see how to make it work, because...."

Believe it or not, we love when teachers ask this question in workshops and coaching sessions. It means that they're really close to trying to transform learning for their students. They've moved past wondering "SHOULD I try a deeper learning model?", and into the space of "HOW do I try this?" As we’re coaching teachers, we keep hearing the same questions. These are three of the top tricky questions that come up wherever we work:

  • How do you do PBL when your students are frequently absent?

  • How do you help students learn to collaborate?

  • How do you connect your students with an authentic audience?

There’s no doubt that education has changed since the COVID-19 pandemic began. We have new ways of teaching and new challenges. We’ve all heard the saying that the more things change, the more they stay the same, right? These same tricky questions are still coming up, but COVID is adding new layers to them. We reached out to some PBL teachers and leaders for their wisdom, and we’d like to share their thoughts with you. Here are the same questions with a twist added on by our current era of education.

Question 1: How have you been supporting students in PBL who have to be absent due to COVID/quarantine/or other reasons?

Absences have always been challenging for teachers. Now we’re seeing absences that are more prolonged thanks to quarantining and other issues. Ginger Lewman shared guidance and reminders in her 2019 blog FAQ: Absences are KILLING my PBL. HELP! She encourages us to consider why students are absent, offers suggestions for leveraging teams, and gently reminds us that there are reasons why students can’t be at school that are out of our (and their) control. Empathy must be the driver behind supporting students when they’re absent.

Tip #1 Check in with students

Every one of our friends emphasized the need to first come from a place of understanding. They’re using Webex, Google Meet, Zoom, and other platforms to check in with their students, sometimes to see how they’re doing and what’s coming up for them. Teresa Garcia, a teacher at North Park High School (Baldwin Park, CA), shared that she’s been using all of her available tech resources, plus the good old-fashioned phone call to stay connected. Ryan Sprott, an instructional coach at Advanced Learning Academy (San Antonio, TX), noted, “I think the number one thing I’ve seen successful teachers doing is asking students what they need. When students are out of school, the contexts are so vastly different across cases that the single most effective strategy is to open and maintain doors of communication.”

Tip #2 Utilize your tech for PBL

Many also noted that the COVID era has brought us some additional familiarity with online tools such as Edmodo and Google Classroom. Our colleagues have suggestions for leveraging these tools as part of Project-Based Learning. Gabriel Fernandez, Principal of Gladstone High School (Covina, CA), said “Use Google Classroom to post ALL class materials and reminders about what is occurring in class so that students can follow along.” Meanwhile, an elementary school instructional coach on Oʻahu (HI) suggested, “Have students complete components of the project via Google Classroom. This creates continuity and collaboration when they’re absent.”

Tip #3 Plan with absences in mind

Two levels of planning came up in our conversations - unit planning and materials planning. Here's an example of planning a unit with absences in mind: Ellie Foust, a middle school dean of instruction in Denver Public Schools (Denver, CO), described a project that she facilitated with her students last year. She used power standards and milestones to create some segments in her project. Mrs. Foust said, "Last year my students created several prototypes for their coffee cup insulators. Some students were able to create several prototypes, and others only were able to go through the process twice. All students were able to reflect at least once to modify their designs based on the priority standards for me."

Brandon Petersen, a LAUNCH teacher at Altitude Elementary School (Aurora, CO), shared how he is planning for his students to access learning by considering materials. Mr. Petersen said, "I started creating take home kits with guiding materials and any items they've been working on so they don't rush through items or are worried when they miss a day. Example - with building skyscrapers all materials are accessible in paper AND digitally."

Tip #4 Determine what’s most important

The other theme that came up in our conversations with colleagues is the need to prioritize what is most important in learning. This can be key as you design learning experiences and make adjustments as your students’ needs shift. Drew Hirshon, principal of Pueblo School for Arts and Sciences - Fulton Heights (Pueblo, CO) noted, “We took the time to determine our power standards. I think every school should be doing that - especially now. You can avoid “learning loss” if you leverage those power standards.” Drew and his teachers credit this focus on power standards some of their school’s recent successes. Ryan Sprott added to Mr. Hirshon’s thoughts, “Teachers who take a mastery or standards based approach have shown more success than teachers who are concerned with the completion of tasks. Teachers who allow a range of pathways for students to show mastery of standards are generally more successful reaching students.”

Question 2: My students have forgotten how to be part of a community. What has worked to build community in your classrooms? What strategies are you using?

I’ve said before that I believe that humans are built for connections. We need to feel like we are connected to a community for the deepest learning to occur. But, what if you’ve forgotten (or haven’t learned) how to connect with others? Building communities has some new wrinkles. Many students have had nearly a year away from being in a physical community with peers in a learning environment. We’re having to take a fresh inventory of our students’ skills and strengths, because the experiences that they usually come with are dramatically different.

Tip #1 Refer to the CASEL framework to strengthen the capacities in SEL

Many of our friends said that they didn’t make assumptions about their students this year. They recognized that school has looked different for their students and wanted to use this as an opportunity to start fresh. Gabriel Fernandez said that his school is starting each lesson with peers recognizing each other’s feelings and celebrating each other being present. Teresa Garcia’s school has adopted an SEL curriculum. She says, “We are using a program called Character Strong for SEL development. It has been great at getting the students to talk to us and one another.”

By the way, if you’re looking for some SEL strategies, be sure to check out our free ebook!

Tip #2 Give students an opportunity to collaborate on meaningful work

I’ll never forget a philosophy about teams that Dave Ross, a former director for the Buck Institute for Education, shared. He asserted that people get to know each other best when they get to work together. I’ve found that this is true in my own life. Some of my closest friendships have developed by working alongside people I respect, striving towards the same goals. Teachers who practice Project Based Learning are reporting that their students are connecting naturally through the process of projects. An instructional coach on Oʻahu said that “Having students collaborate on various components of projects has helped our students develop partnerships, in addition to creating a sense of belonging in our classrooms.”

Tip #3 Make sure your students (and staff) are being heard

All of us need to be heard. All of us have experienced some trauma in the past couple years. Many of our colleagues are creating space in which students AND STAFF can be heard. At the Punahou School in Hawaiʻi, Liz Castillo shared that they are hosting class community meetings, lessons about how to deal with emotions, opportunities for students to listen to, read, and react to stories that address emotions. In Drew Hirshon’s school, teachers are utilizing strategies from restorative practices. He notes that, “Circles have been huge for us. We haven’t experienced too many ‘behavior issues’, and I attribute that to circles. I even start every staff meeting with a circle so that my teachers can share what’s coming up for them and so we can resolve any issues.”

Question 3: Many teachers wonder how to engage an authentic audience when visitors are limited. How are you connecting your students to the world outside the classroom?

Cultivating a network of experts and stakeholders has always seemed like a daunting task. It typically takes time to build, and we sometimes don’t know where to start. Add the complexities of COVID restrictions, and it might seem too much of a reach to be worth our time. Yet, veteran PBL teachers can attest to the power of an authentic audience. It adds a whole new dimension to learning and helps students develop a deeper understanding of content, essential life skills, and motivation to improve. Now that most of the world has experience with Zoom, professionals are comfortable joining a class from the comfort of their office. Here are some more ideas from the field!

Tip #1 - Pick up the phone and call (or send an email)

This might seem too simple, but every PBL teacher and leader said something similar. Every network begins with that first phone call. Drew Hirshon said, “As the principal of my school, I take it upon myself to help teachers make connections. For example, my second-grade teacher had a budget project and wanted his students to connect with pet store owners. I called some store owners and found over and over that people right now want to help, and they want to connect with kids. We just have to reach out to them.”

Tip #2 - Structure the interaction so that it’s asynchronous

Asynchronous interactions free up our schedules and can potentially allow us to extend our reach. A few of our colleagues shared some great examples. Laura Trimarco, a 2nd-grade teacher at Sage Canyon Elementary School (Castle Rock, CO), exclaimed, “I would say the most powerful audience related PBL thing we have is the public digital field guide we’ve installed around Wrangler Park. It’s authentic and extremely public. The kids work super-hard to do their best work knowing it’s ‘out there.’” Ryan Sprott also described how his school is facilitating asynchronous connecting, “I’ve actually seen audiences and special guests be easier to reach now than pre-pandemic. Recorded sessions that incorporate feedback forms allow more families and professionals to be able to connect with the school than before.”

Tip #3 - Move the connections outside

Some schools have opted to utilize outdoor space for interactions with experts and stakeholders. This allows students to have the experience of conversing face to face with an adult, while still respecting local health orders. Meeting outside has its challenges, one of which is being heard over ambient sound. Several schools are resolving this by setting up small groups. For example, Drew Hirshon’s kindergarten team wanted their students to meet with and learn about various community helpers. They took over a courtyard and set up tables so students could rotate in small groups between each adult. The adults also appreciated having an opportunity to interact with smaller groups of students.

Final thoughts

While each of these questions were focused on this specific era of education, the advice shared by our colleagues is going be be valid and helpful going forward. By no means will 100% of the tips and strategies work for you and your learners, but maybe some of these will spark an idea for you at your school. We would love to hear what you’re doing to make Project Based Learning effective right now! Please share your thoughts with us in email or on social media.

In the meantime, our friend Ellie has some terrific closing thoughts: "We are just starting to see some of the fruits of our labor, but we try to also remember that this will be a long process of healing and relearning for all of us." She's right. The road stretches far in front of us, but we're in it together, and we're not giving up.


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