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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

Models for PBL in Language Arts

Models for PBL in Language Arts

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Long post alert!

Hi, everybody. I'm about to start a new job teaching 7th grade language arts and 6th and 8th grade social studies, and this year I want to approach the work in a new way. I've been attracted and intrigued by what I've read about PBL, and in previous years have attempted to bring it into the classroom -- with limited, minimal success. Some of the difficulty no doubt had to do with attempting to change approaches mid-year, without the benefit of having colleagues and admins engaged in the same change. It's tough to pull off on your own, in other words, especially if you don't really know what you're doing.

Well, I'm trying again. This summer I've been reading up on PBL here at Edutopia and elsewhere, scouring the web for whatever's freely shared. I'm particularly interested in examples of what PBL looks like in practice. I'm on board with the philosophy; now what I need to see is the nuts and bolts of how it actually works, so that I can plan the school year. I can't make plans until I have a clear vision in my mind of how these learning experiences actually function. I need models for PBL "lessons" -- if that's the word for these learning experiences -- specifically for language arts.

So far, I'm stymied. Most of the examples I've found focus on science and math, and most of them are geared toward younger students than the ones I'll be working with. Also, the examples tend to be video montages in which you see a few snippets of kids working together on a project, intercut with teacher interviews where they talk about how great it's going. That's inspiring, but it's not terribly helpful for someone who's trying to put it into practice.

So, some questions:

** What are some models to follow or examples to consider of successful PBL-based language arts lessons, particularly at the middle school level?

** Does one write lesson plans for Project Based Learning experiences? If so, what would those lesson plans look like?

** How does PBL work in language arts? Should it be the whole curriculum, or should it be intercut with systematic instruction? I've led a writing workshop before, a la Nancie Atwell, and that's certainly project-based -- but what about literature?

** How do I make sure I cover the bases in terms of state standards? I get that I can't be prescriptive with PBL -- I can't just say "we're going to cover X and Y today, and tomorrow it'll be on to Z" -- but I have benchmarks to meet. I'm expected to cover certain material within a certain frame of time, and there's some flexibility, but I have to show that my students are making progress -- not just with the topics and skills that interest them, but with the stuff that the educational system has decided they should know. How do I ensure that without being prescriptive?

Any constructive feedback would be appreciated. Thanks!

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Suzie Boss's picture
Suzie Boss
Journalist and PBL advocate

Hi Yosha,
Glad to hear that you're ready to give PBL another try. You've asked some great questions. Here are a few suggestions.

Getting started:
Resources here at Edutopia can help you get your feet wet. Check out Project-Based Learning in Maine resources, especially http://www.edutopia.org/stw-maine-project-based-learning-six-steps-planning and http://www.edutopia.org/stw-maine-project-based-learning-ten-key-lessons
Project-Based Learning Start to Finish is another good one: http://www.edutopia.org/stw-project-based-learning-best-practices It's from a high school, but you can find many ideas to borrow.
The Buck Institute for Education website (www.bie.org) offers a goldmine of resources for project planning. (Full disclosure: I'm on the BIE National Faculty.) Explore the site and you'll find a DIY tutorial, an extensive project library, more videos, and downloadable project planning materials.
Several networks of schools that teach via projects also make resources available. For example, here's a free PBL guide co-authored by High Tech High: http://www.innovationunit.org/sites/default/files/Teacher%27s%20Guide%20...

Models and project plans:
PBL is an instructional strategy that works across disciplines, so there's not a model that's unique to language arts. However, I think you'll find that the writers' workshop fits naturally into PBL, so you're already on your way!
For examples of detailed project plans, check out the BIE project library (www.bie.org), and then search by subject area and grade level.
You'll find more good resources for teaching writing through PBL at the DigitalIS site of the National Writing Project (http://digitalis.nwp.org ). Here's an example of a middle school language arts project from George Mayo, a PBL veteran: http://digitalis.nwp.org/resource/3509

Meeting standards:
All of the examples I've shared involve projects designed to address core academic content. So as you design a project, be clear about the standards you are intending to meet. And think about how students will demonstrate their understanding. PBL advocates often refer to "starting with the end in mind," and then planning backwards (from finish to start) to figure out how you'll help students get there.
For a deeper discussion of these topics, take a look at Reinventing PBL (which I co-authored) or the PBL Starter Kit from BIE.
Good luck with your PBL journey! And don't hesitate to post more questions. There's also a weekly #pblcat on Twitter where you can connect with colleagues who can help.

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