Peggy Bryan: A View on Project-Based Learning

Peggy Bryan

Since this interview was held in 2000, founding principal Peggy Bryan has moved on from Sherman Oaks Community Charter School, but current principal Irene Preciado carries on the school's original vision.


Peggy Bryan, principal of Sherman Oaks Community Charter School, explains the school's project-based learning practices and how technology supports these practices.

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  1. What are some major instructional strategies at Sherman Oaks and how do they differ from those at more traditional schools?
  2. Project-based learning appears to be an integral part of Sherman Oaks' schoolwide curricula. On a pragmatic level, how have you been able to incorporate project-based strategies in this comprehensive way?
  3. How does technology support project-based learning at Sherman Oaks?
  4. Where does the project fit into the regular curriculum?

1. What are some major instructional strategies at Sherman Oaks, and how do they differ from those at more traditional schools?

The foundation of that instruction is questioning. It's unusual for us to give a student an answer. It's more typical of us to give that student enough questions that they can begin to articulate their own answer or find the resources to get the answer for themselves.

Technology is another key. We just put in a major order this week for $50,000 worth of computers and we scraped and scrounged and came up with another infusion of technology above what we already have because we want the kids to have the best and the latest. So we're getting some laptops so the kids can begin to use those.

Keeping the kids familiar and comfortable with technology, with computers, with online access, with fax machines and e-mails -- [it becomes] second nature to them. That would be another ingredient of our school that would look different if you looked at it long enough. There are other schools that have a lot of computers or computer labs, but it's not part of the flow. Our kids -- it's part of the flow. As needed, they can go fire up a computer and work on it.

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2. Project-based learning appears to be an integral part of Sherman Oaks' schoolwide curricula. On a pragmatic level, how have you been able to incorporate project-based strategies in this comprehensive way?

Well, from a very pragmatic level, we have what's called an Exhibition Cycle, and so twice a year the kids are working on a project of their choosing and their interest. But it's within a defined subject so it would be, for instance, science, or life science, or plant science.

The kids sculpture a project. Usually there's an artifact and a technology piece and a presentation. And they do it to the community. They present to the community at the end of the cycle, so we'll have 800 or 900 people here, and the kids will be telling about what they learned and why they chose this project and what it meant to them. So it's not your typical science fair. Last year, we had hot air balloons the kids designed and lifted. We had versions of mudflow, mudslides to show how much loss there would be of soil at a certain degree of hydration. Those are pretty sophisticated, and that's at third grade.

I love to tell the story of the young man. His name is Pedro. He's not here anymore, but we had him for a couple of years. Pedro speaks Spanish, and he came to us with very little English. He took, of course, the standardized test and if you were to look at his test scores, you would wonder if Pedro were alive and breathing. They were just rock-bottom low. But he decided that he wanted to present a project on lightning.

So he researched lightning, and he created his own multimedia presentation. It was a movie that he did with a puppet- show backdrop to show different ways to be safe in a lightning shower. And this little puppet got killed, I don't know, six or seven times. He got struck by lightning because he didn't do the right thing. But then Pedro, in his monitoring or in his conversation, would tell you what it was that you should have been doing. So he created this film and on Exhibition Night, Pedro's film was a feature for the evening. And he was very proud. He learned a lot. And if you look at that film you can say this kid's on his way. If you look at his test scores, you say this kid is on his way to special education.

So, that's the picture we get of our kids, and that's the picture we want to give to the public. If you give a child an opportunity to work on something they want to, to research it, if you give them the resources and the tools to do it. He was online, he was looking up things, he was going through books, he was looking at his own videos the teacher rented for him, so he put it together. With the resources, it's not like he just started with nothing, but what he produced was amazing.

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3. How does technology support project-based learning at Sherman Oaks?

It's an avenue for the students to express themselves in a manner beyond paper and pencil, so it's an expectation that there will be a written report with each of the projects. And that's done using word processing software -- you know, computer workstations that the students use over the course of the Exhibition Cycle.

So they draft and edit and produce this off the word processor. Multimedia expectations start about second grade, although we've had some first graders that can do some amazing things, far more than any of us can at a certain point. They're not afraid of it. And if it's around them more and more, they're less afraid of it and then they start creating. They import sound. They scan in photos. They add animation. In second grade, they were studying animals so they had to choose an animal they wanted to present. So they visited the zoo.

It's not like we do everything in the virtual world. We get the kids out and they saw a lion. Then they came back and they wrote a report, for instance, about a lion, imported the photographs, got on the Web, found lions, brought it in to their report. And then they created a fantasy animal with their own head on the animal body. So they took pictures of themselves on digital cameras and then scanned, downloaded that into their drawing. We feel the kids need a lot beyond clip art. We want them to do a lot of their own drawing, so they drew their animal and they downloaded their own head on it so now we had this fantasy animal. And all of that's real exciting for the kids.

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4. Where does the project fit into the regular curriculum?

It's a culmination, or it's part of the second-grade project, that they use a digital camera and take a picture of themselves, and then draw a picture of their animal. We really try to stay away from a lot of clip art. One of our first trainings was with Disney research and development. They took us to the tech museum and walked us through some minor programming and really emphasized how important it is that students learn how to do minor programming and do a lot of their own drawing. That really stimulates different parts of the brain.

So, our kids drew their own animals and imported their own pictures. So now -- voilá. They had a fantasy animal to go along with he nuts and bolts and facts of a lion. But they added that creative edge.

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This article originally published on 10/1/2000

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