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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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The Power of Project-Based Writing in the Classroom

Heather Wolpert-Gawron

Middle School teacher by day, Tweenteacher by night

As some of my readers may know, I had an awakening of sorts this past summer: I am NOT going to teach so test driven, I told myself. I'm tired of the five-paragraph essay! Where does it exist anywhere but in school? Instead, I decided, that everything I did this school year would have some connection to the world outside of school. The plan: to immerse my lessons and my classroom assessments in authenticity. And test scores be damned.

OK, so maybe I wasn't that confident. Nevertheless, I went ahead with my plans and devised units based on project-based writing.

Now, I'm lucky. I work in a district and, more specifically, in a school, that permits me to develop units and lessons that align to our tests, but they allow me my better judgment in how to prepare for them. So this year, I chose authentic lessons and authentic classroom assessments to prepare my students for our more traditional district assessments.

However, my luck is not the norm. Too many teachers are told that the classroom tests, the district tests, the state tests, and the federal tests are the driving force of the curriculum. They are not permitted the freedom to use their own training, their own expertise, and their own instinct to look beyond the test prep lessons.

But in this day and age, with textbook adoptions on hold, and the era of democratization of information upon us, this economic era of cuts can be an opportunity. Teachers can supplement in a way they have never been permitted before and design in a way that they have never been permitted before. (But only if they're lucky enough to be in a district that trusts their professional judgment.)

Believing the Publicity

But that's not to say that all teachers are eager to start. So many have been brainwashed. Yep, I said it. Brainwashed. I think some teachers have actually started to believe what the media and politicos would have us think: that we aren't capable of creating. That all we can do to prepare for standardized tests is regurgitate the canned lessons from the textbook and test prep companies. But this year I planned to prove otherwise to myself.

Taking what I know about PBL, I spun the concept for a writing focus. That is, our writing units became based in real-world scenarios for real-world audiences using writing as the means to communicate the answer to real-world problems. The first unit was called The DARPA/NASA Unit (a topic of which has led to serious blog fodder over these past few months).

We then quickly moved into our next unit, this one focusing on a blend of Advocacy and Memoir similar to those performed for TED. We are currently presenting our TED-esque speeches in class over this next week. The students will then evaluate each other and select the best presentations to perform in front of a wider audience as a book drive for our school library.

But not once did I teach to the five-paragraph essay that my students are tested on twice a year. You know the ole' format: Intro, Reason, Reason, Counterargument, and Conclusion. Yawn.

In other words, I created units that I believed to be more authentic to the real world. But I didn't see this as preparing them for a test, I saw it rather as preparing them for something more altogether important: life.

Proof in the Data

My project-based writing units allowed total student choice of topic, involved the students in creating the rubrics upon which they scored their peers and themselves, and required students to blend genres rather than segregate them into different assessments.

Yet I heard from some colleagues that I was taking a risk. That my students weren't going to do well once it came down to it. Sure, they acknowledged, the students learned a lot. But did my students learn how to exceed in the school-unique genre that is test taking?

In the end, my scores from the district assessment came back with an enthusiastic answer to that question. This group of students performed better than any of my classes in the past. Whew. With this victory of test scores, will hopefully come encouragement to others in my department that authenticity is the way to go for both more enjoyable teaching and more successful learning.

I have little doubt that it was my leap of faith into project-based writing that got them there. I also have little doubt that I will never look back.

But to all naysayers out there, to all those who believe our thrust should be prepping kids for assessments they will see nowhere else, I present to you this:

Ten Reasons to Teach Using Project-Based Writing

  1. It is an organic way to integrate all CORE subjects: math, science, history, and language arts
  2. It proves to students that imagination and creativity are connected to research and expository writing
  3. It hits all the major elements of the higher level of Bloom's Taxonomy: analysis, evaluation, and creation
  4. By allowing a student to choose their format of showing what they know, the buy-in for the quality of the final project is tremendous
  5. Students develop projects individualized, unique, and specific from each other
  6. It is a powerful way to incorporate all multiple intelligences: visual, audio, kinesthetic, musical, linguistic, logical, etc.
  7. It desegregates non-fiction and fiction, blending the two
  8. It integrates the CORE subjects with non-core subjects, potentially using technology, art, music, etc.
  9. It is a rigorous assessment requiring high-levels of thought and communication
  10. It requires use of the entire writing process from brainstorm through revision, editing, and final draft regardless of the genres picked and the topic chosen

The list above is an excerpt from a workbook on Project Based Writing that Heather wrote for Teacher Created Resources, due out in 2013. In addition to teaching middle school by day, Heather Wolpert-Gawron currently teaches an ecourse in Project Based Writing for Powerful Learning Practice.




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