How to Develop a Grade-Wide PBL Unit
Teachers can collaborate to create a student-centered project that focuses on multiple content areas.
As I was heading out of my apartment for school earlier this year, I grabbed a banana from the bunch and was surprised to see a sticker of Captain America on the peel. Later that day, I showed the Captain America banana to my students, who saw right through the oddly placed advertisement. That’s because we had just spent six weeks critically examining the Marvel media empire in a learning expedition called “Marvel Morality,” developed by my colleagues on the eighth-grade team at our school.
Learning expeditions are sequences of interdisciplinary case studies and projects organized around a guiding theme or topic. Our “Marvel Morality” expedition had students use science, math, and history to analyze and critique the ethics of Marvel’s superheroes. Students investigated the science fact behind science fiction and created trading cards explaining the real-life feasibility of superpowers. They analyzed the screen times and salaries of Marvel’s top actors, calculating the value of various heroes and questioning why some were worth a lot more than others. Students learned about Captain America’s origins as a propaganda tool during World War II and debated the ethics of representation in Ms. Marvel.
Inspired to take action, students developed their own superhero stories and wrote letters to the company behind it all, where fans and haters alike applied what they learned.
Organizing weeks of curriculum around something like the Marvel universe might seem unconventional, but it’s the result of our teachers’ collective efficacy—believing that when we center student interests, profound learning can happen. Here’s more about our process.
1. Think Outside the Box
We started by brainstorming guiding questions as a grade team and settled on a few relating to ethics and morality, since eighth grade is a good time to discuss what it means to do the right thing. But beyond that, we struggled to come to a consensus on topics and projects for the expedition. Ultimately, Dana Lawit, our school’s instructional guide, pushed us to see the puzzle from a different angle, asking us to consider where many of our eighth graders are after some very hard pandemic years:
“Some of them just want to talk about their dogs, draw characters from their favorite anime, or debate which Avenger is strongest.”
“What if… we used Marvel?” asked another colleague. After all, the Disney-Marvel empire is ripe for critical analysis of what it means to do the right thing with such great power. That set the wheels in motion, and we began ideating possibilities. It’s important for schools to be places of imagination, and engaging in that practice as teachers makes magic.
2. Involve Students Early, and Often, in the Planning Process
We knew we needed student input on an idea like “Marvel Morality,” so we held face-to-face focus groups to get feedback about their experiences in class. Right off the bat, we learned that not all students were thrilled with the idea of spending weeks on Marvel. Among the many surprised “We’ll be learning about Marvel in school?! That’s so cool!” comments, there were a few groans. To ease that engagement gap, our teachers designed lessons that allowed for any student to access the learning regardless of their familiarity with the topic. We opened space for all students’ voices to be shared and heard in our classrooms by using discussion protocols and designing collaborative tasks.
We knew a number of our eighth graders were coming into the expedition with expertise on the topic, so we assembled a steering committee of students who met weekly during recess with teachers. That group planned and organized the expedition’s culminating presentation of learning. They decided we should hold our own ComicCon, a comic convention that families and community members would attend to view student work.
Steering committee students decided that the projects would be organized by subject area at “booths” that all eighth graders would take turns hosting. They also insisted there had to be music, a photo booth, and many, many stickers. Because of our students’ input, the MS 839 ComicCon was a party of learning.
3. Involve Families and the Community
It’s important to keep students’ families informed about and engaged in what their children are learning. As a grade team, we write weekly emails to families in the languages spoken by our community to share brief updates about the learning we’re doing and plan to do. A little over a month before the ComicCon event, we shared our ideas about the “Marvel Morality” expedition and a general schedule of project deadlines with parents.
That led a parent to connect us with Angélique Roché, the host of the Marvel’s Voices podcast and editor of the Marvel’s Voices anthology. Angélique spent a few hours on Zoom talking with our students about ethical representation and tokenism in science fiction. Being able to hear directly from a real-world expert gave students insight into a unique career and an opportunity to discuss their learning with an authentic audience member who wasn’t one of their teachers.
4. Be OK With Change
Creating learning that lasts a lifetime requires flexibility. For us to create “Marvel Morality,” teachers rearranged their unit sequences, lost some class time that they had initially planned for something else, and rewrote many lessons to fit within the expedition goals.
To decide what to teach, we met with department teams to review our subject-area standards and match them with possible Marvel-related entry points. For example, since students needed to learn about genetic mutations as part of their living environment regents course, it made sense that they would apply that learning to evaluate the X-Men during this expedition.
The flexibility extended to our schedules, where instead of regular classes during the week leading up to the event, teachers met with small groups of students revising their final projects in preparation for presentation. The result was that every single eighth-grade student had work that they were proud of on display at our ComicCon.
Learning expeditions like “Marvel Morality” prove that depth of student learning isn’t sacrificed when student interests are centered. Making such dramatic changes to curriculum can seem daunting alone, but by collaborating with colleagues to align projects to student interest and across content areas, teachers can transform students’ experience in school.