Project-Based Learning is concerned with getting students to identify, research, and work on authentic, real-world problems—often within their local communities. But what if a PBL unit could be linked to a higher purpose? Brandon Lucas, a second-year high school ELL teacher in Nashua, New Hampshire, created an engaging month-long PBL unit that transforms his classroom into a high-functioning nonprofit, complete with an accounting division, websites, social media pages, and fundraising events.
The first time Lucas ran his PBL unit, while teaching English as a foreign language in Thailand, students raised cash to buy clothes, food, and cleaning supplies for a local orphanage—creating a local impact that motivated students throughout the unit. “It worked because of the empathy of my students and the higher purpose their class work served,” Lucas said. “And the payoff was a great experience: we were able to visit the organization with the proceeds of our campaign.”
After teaching students the basics of how nonprofits operate—the vocabulary of nonprofits, how and why they create mission statements, raise money, decide on their success metrics, and are held to account by independent organizations such as Guidestar—Lucas presented his students with a real-world task: Identify a local charity focused on an important issue in your own community and execute a plan to raise money for them.
At that point, Lucas advises teachers to turn over the keys to the project: Students should have a central role in deciding what organization to support and how to raise funds, for example.
Here’s how Lucas structures his PBL unit:
CHOOSING AN ORGANIZATION
Lucas focuses on student choice throughout the unit—an essential element of PBL design. This means letting students do the work of researching and selecting the organization they want to support as a classroom.
Lucas said his students spent a week’s worth of class time identifying causes that interested them most, grouping themselves with other students who shared their interests, and researching local charities that supported those causes. After their research was complete, small groups presented to the whole class using PowerPoint and Keynote. The goal of the presentations: Students must convince peers that their organization of choice is making a significant impact on important causes such as poverty, mental health, animal welfare, environmental protection, or homelessness. After hearing all the presentations, students vote on one organization to support as a class.
Lucas says teachers should consider the environment and community students are based in before beginning this independent research phase: Would students be more engaged in humanitarian projects abroad? Or would it be more feasible to allow their ambitions to run wild in their local community? “What would be the most meaningful for them and what would be the most actionable for the school as well?”
BREAKING UP INTO FUNCTIONAL GROUPS
After an organization is chosen, Lucas’ unit calls for separating students into distinct groups that take ownership of the various tasks to get a fundraising campaign off the ground.
In his classroom, Lucas created six functional groups, allowing students to choose the one they found most interesting:
- Accounting Group: responsible for tracking costs of the project, such as materials for a fundraising event, printing costs, and website domain fees. The group is also responsible for setting fundraising goals, tracking online donations, collecting and holding onto the money raised, and providing periodic reports to the class on the campaign’s progress.
- Marketing Group: responsible for creating social media pages on major platforms, coming up with a schedule of posts and being strategic about the message, calls to action, and the timing of each post. The group also keeps track of growth on social media pages and sets goals to increase followers and engagement.
- Webpage Group: responsible for creating a website to promote the campaign’s mission and collect online donations. The group also writes web copy addressing key questions: What is the problem/need they are trying to address? Why do they believe they can help? What exactly will the money be used for?
- Event Planning Group: responsible for coordinating and executing a campus fundraising event. Event planning is complex, and this group is responsible for everything from the services or goods provided in exchange for donations at the event, to how much setup and breakdown time will be involved, and how donations will be collected.
- Multimedia Group: responsible for creating videos and posters to advertise the campaign’s goals, online donation page, and fundraising event. In Lucas’ classroom, for example, the group wrote, directed, and produced a 3 minute video showcasing the campaign used on the website and social channels.
- Communications Group: the liaison between the classroom, school leadership, and the organization students choose to support. They write and present to school leadership and to the charity to explain the goals of the campaign, the prospective timeline, and ask for further assistance they might need—such as visual assets, funds, or permission to use parts of campus for events.
As groups worked together for two full weeks on their tasks in his classroom and another week setting up and executing a fundraising event, Lucas said he focused on identifying opportunities to stimulate collaboration between groups. “I’d say something like: ‘Oh that sounds like something the accounting group would need to know’.” In no time, Lucas said, the marketing group was working closely with the website group to make sure direct links to platforms were embedded in the site. The multimedia group was convinced to adopt QR codes and integrate them into posters advertising the fundraising event. “It was almost like they were getting experience working in an office or working in a real organization with real needs,” Lucas said.
ASSESSING THE PROJECT
As students in Lucas’ classroom worked to create authentic deliverables for their groups, Lucas focused less on being the source of knowledge in the room and more on providing feedback to students and keeping them on task. “I did a lot of listening, asking questions, guiding questions, and just checking in to make sure that they were making the right kind of progress.”
At the end of the unit, students received both a group grade based on a final report produced at the end of the campaign, and an individual grade based on a reflection letter, described below. Lucas focused on grading holistically, emphasizing the level of specificity and reflection in the report, the amount of effort and creativity demonstrated by the group during the campaign, and how well the group responded to and incorporated feedback from other students and Lucas.
The accounting group, for example, submitted a report breaking down how the money was spent during the campaign—paper costs, travel, social media and web expenses, for example—and how much was raised from both the web page and the campus event. The report included an analysis of the campaign’s overall effectiveness and areas for improvement. “It was a great way to exercise fiscal transparency for students who saw themselves in finance-oriented careers,” Lucas said.
Before determining a group grade, Lucas let students self-assess their report and their work during the campaign. For example, the event planning group reflected on how an incomplete list of materials nearly caused the event to fail. “Recognizing the impact of this, they gave themselves a lower overall grade,” Lucas said. Because of his student’s honesty, Lucas said he mostly agreed with their grades and only made slight adjustments.
Individually, students wrote a final, graded reflection letter on the entire project, focusing on what worked, what challenges they faced, and how they dealt with those challenges. As part of this letter, Lucas also asked students to think about whether they’d like to see the unit repeated again in future classrooms. The response was nearly unanimous. “They told me I should do it every year, with every class.”