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Creating Schoolwide PBL Aligned to Common Core

Eric Isselhardt, Ph.D.

Chief Academic Officer at the Green Street Academy Foundation
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Green Street Academy is a two-year-old public middle and high school in urban Baltimore, Maryland. One of the school's focuses is to embrace the green eco-sustainability movement and the new career paths it will generate. Like most schools, GSA is designed around extremely high academic standards that capture students' imaginations, stimulate their curiosities and inspire their successes. Unique to our program, though, is that last year we began the process of transforming the entire school to a true project-based learning (PBL) environment by the end of this school year. Here, are some of the transformation experiences -- both positive and negative -- we've had since beginning the shift.

Facilitating the Transformation

The transformation of a 300-student middle school from a traditional lessons and units curricular approach to a true schoolwide PBL pedagogy is not an easy process, and it required us to work on several interrelated fronts. Specifically, these were:

  1. Working with teachers to affect a deliberate culture and practice shift from teacher-directed instruction to inquiry-based learning
  2. Alternative pedagogical development
  3. Resource identification

Before approaching systemic change, we first considered the most prevalent instructional models. What we saw over and over again were relatively autonomous and singular teachers working with discrete groups of students. They were using directive instruction modes designed to impart information and learning within a specific topic area, often in isolation from other topic areas, and they were having inconsistent student achievement results with inner-city middle school populations.

We also saw that our school reform efforts attempted to bring "best practices" to that common instructional model by introducing research-based elements such as multi-sensory and differentiated instruction, while also encouraging faculty to work together in cross-curricular planning. We were concerned, though, that despite applications of the best reform initiatives, too many of our students still did not achieve to their potential; that authentic learning (which we believe so critical to urban student success) was largely missing; and that the fundamental issue of how to teach critical thinking was rarely addressed as an integrated element of instruction.

Project-Based Learning Model at GSA

In contrast with that traditional approach, several of our faculty came together to design a true PBL environment in which our teachers taught in a very different manner, creating a new pedagogical relationship between learning and teaching. That relationship meant that, rather than working in relative isolation, our faculty worked together to create and implement standards-based projects. Rather than acting as directive teachers, our faculty members were more like coaches in a student-led inquiry environment. Rather than relying on books and worksheets, our faculty led students through a less certain learning path. Rather than perceiving critical thinking as a "result" (of directive teaching), we saw it as essentially an immersion mode in which exploration informs and develops students' thinking processes.

In order to make that true PBL environment a reality, last semester (spring 2012), GSA ran two pilot PBL initiatives. Those pilots were designed to a) introduce PBL to our students, and b) provide teachers with the time and authority to design how PBL looks at the school. One of those projects involved the entire sixth grade (over 100 students and four faculty members), and one involved the eighth-grade Language Arts and Science classes (100 students and two faculty members).

How Project-Based Learning Works at GSA

1. Standards Map

Those pilot projects enabled us to identify and create particular process supports, which we developed and honed before, during and after the pilot experiences. Specifically, we saw that we needed a comprehensive, cross-curricular, Common Core-derived Standards Map that visually explicated every standard across each discipline -- literally a diagram on a large whiteboard of each subject area's standards across the school year.

We also saw another benefit of the Standards Map; it enabled us to globally review the standards to determine which could stand alone, and which had to be clustered together.

For example, a standard related to identifying the topic sentence may be arguably met as an isolated element, whereas a standard related to calculating square roots must be bundled with other math building blocks. Understanding which standards must be bundled then directly informed how we developed our next step.

2. Project Route

With the Standards Map in place, we were able to build a Project Route that outlined a project through time with specific skill sets and that overlaid the Standards Map. Our faculty members saw this as a great opportunity for creativity, as this was where they actually designed a "big question" project. We saw these steps as critical, as they attached concrete learning goals to any given project.

3. Preparation for Success

Once the Project Route had been created, we could then identify Preparation for Success classroom modules, which are needed for scholars to be successful in completing a given project. In addition, we identified which standards were not met by the project scope and planned auxiliary methods to meet those requirements. Finally, we identified student evaluation instruments to use throughout the project, including the culminating product.

Those support elements presupposed a curriculum that was concise and delineated over time. With the Standards Map derived from the Common Core, curricular requirements and project-based learning projects at GSA are now coupled to a very high degree. Once any given project has been created and the Project Route determined, we easily see what resources are necessary to the project's implementation. Those resources may be physical tools and materials, or they may be personnel offering support in technology, special education or the arts.

Pilot Project Lessons Learned

After our first week of pilot project implementation, we identified several critical "lessons learned."

  1. Throughout any given project, we must be able to informally touch base at any time.
  2. Backup resources should be available (when computers fail, for example).
  3. We need to plan together in a very detailed, day-to-day way.
  4. We have to be able to easily communicate "on the fly."
  5. How we introduce the project to students is much more important than we thought (and we thought it was very important).
  6. As a teaching group, we must maintain a flexible, problem-solving attitude to productively work through the inevitable implementation challenges.

With those lessons in mind, this year (fall 2012), we are coming together in grade-level teams to implement true PBL throughout the school in the spring of next year. In that time, our approximately 20 teachers will continue to work together to create authentic learning experiences for Baltimore urban middle school students. In doing so, we are attempting to dissolve the distances between individual teaching methods and dramatically expand the notion of what a classroom can be. We hope that our work will incorporate the best of what we know about effective education as transparent aspects of how students are taught.

Issues Still to Be Resolved

As evidenced by last year's pilot projects, this year an observer at GSA will see students enthusiastically engaged in standards-based learning, actively working in group cooperation, problem-solving and critical thinking. We clearly see that there are still large issues to resolve as we work our way through this unique transformation. For example, we know that without excellent classroom management, project-based learning efforts devolve to classroom chaos. In addition, we are still grappling with how to best prepare our students to be successful in a project-based learning environment when they have difficulty working together cooperatively. As we move the school closer to a true project-based learning paradigm, we are actively working as a team to address those core issues.

Was this useful? (2)

Eric Isselhardt, Ph.D.

Chief Academic Officer at the Green Street Academy Foundation

Comments (11) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

Olga Maltseva's picture

In a future post, I'd love to hear more about professional development. What kind of PD program do you have? What support do teachers get in order to prepare them for this type of transformation, both ahead of time and during implementation? Thanks.

Sue Wise's picture
Sue Wise
Prof. Dev. Provider --Teaching with Primary Sources Consortium

As Olga posted above, it would be very helpful to know in what PD your teachers were engaged and what specific aspects of the PD you found to be crucial.

Paul Shuster's picture
Paul Shuster
Teacher for 31 yers ( Computer Science, Physics Biology)

I have just built a tracking tool for the Common Core Standards for the iPad and Android tablets ( It could also be used on Smart Phones). It allows you to either track the standards being covered by the class, or track the mastery of each standard for each student in the class. It is modeled after the outcomes based assesment that we have been doing in Canada for over 15 years. What is unique about this tool is that when several teachers are using it, you can see the accomplishments of any student in all of their classes, as the common core standard mastery of a student in all classes is automatically aggregated.

Sue Wise's picture
Sue Wise
Prof. Dev. Provider --Teaching with Primary Sources Consortium

Is the app released, yet?

Eric Isselhardt, Ph.D.'s picture
Eric Isselhardt, Ph.D.
Chief Academic Officer at the Green Street Academy Foundation

In the beginning, the Green Street Academy faculty were much like any other high performing instructional group. They were more than competent, cared passionately about their scholars, and had a real interest in honing their art and craft. In short, they were pretty good at what they did.

What they did was much in line with what we know about best practices, with particular twists for working with inner-city middle school students. And, the scholar's achievement scores on Maryland State testing instruments showed good progress.

That work, though, was mostly interactive "stand and deliver," albeit with multi-sensory (and other best practices) elements, and still about a third of the students were not performing well. The faculty was ready for something beyond the ever-narrowing effectiveness of cyclical pedagogical reform, ready for something that might reach many more scholars.

But, they were trained in typcial methods and had a high comfort level with their knowledge, even though what they knew to do wasn't reaching a very high percentage of scholars.

So, the first part of PD at GSA is a review of the last 100 years of school reform--what it is, how it came about, why it does or does not work. In our case, we focus heavily on urban and inner-city pedagogical reform. Once teachers see the cyclical nature of school reform and understand how those reforms continue to hone the same basic pedagogical model (and thus continue to narrow its effectiveness), they begin to ask important questions about how to reach their scholars.

Those questions then formed the next phase of PD development at GSA in which we created a two-day PD that is essentially a Project Based Learning project. That project is designed to enable faculty to identify what skills/standards are necessary for our middle school scholars to be successful in a true PBL environment. Once they've identified those standards, they developed projects to meet them.

This is a long way around to say that it is my belief that if you approach PBL PD in the same way that you approach other PD, you will fail to imbed it with your faculty. It is not enough to simply present it (interactively though that presentation may be) with examples. Because true PBL requires faculty to teach as inquiry leaders, each school's approach to PBL will be different and specific to that school's needs.

The PD for creating that PBL environment has to incorporate a careful respect for what faculty know (and have been doing) with a gentle push towards a likely unknown with potentially high academic achievement returns.

Azul Terronez's picture
Azul Terronez
8th Grade Humanities Teacher, High Tech Middle - San Diego, CA

Project based learning is, most of the time chaotic, and often full of planned mistakes. Allowing students to have opportunities to try things and fail as a part of the process, rather than a penalty seems to give teachers and students the freedom to create something big. Projects that keeping kids engaged are projects that are "Bigger than themselves", says Micah, 9th grade student at High Tech High. For one PD session at High Tech Middle we invited former students and ask them what makes good projects great. Micah says that work that matters has to be something that if you saw it you would say, "Wow, kids did that?" I am not convinced or certain that common core standards are the solution for discovering or building these projects Micah was talking about, but I do know that Project Based Learning is a great way to address them.

Students that get more time working in teams, thinking, designing, problem-solving and tackling adult world problems makes a huge difference for kids. Building culture in a project based school requires tons of dedication and designing projects that provide time for relationships is essential. We spend weeks developing strong relationships in our classrooms otherwise the challenging projects would never be more than "Project-Based Standards." Congrats on taking on challenging and essential work GSA! I look forward to hearing more about your progress.

lisalovestech's picture

I would be curious to learn who was involved in the creation of the standards map. Making curriculum relevant to students is definitely a way to increase how much students remember, but allowing teachers to be a part of the process of deciding how curriculum is taught also increases relevance for them and their buy-in.

You mention that you are working through the issues of students have a difficult time working cooperatively. Some students do better at learning individually and therefore do have reservations about working with a group. I know that in order for students to be career and college ready they must be able to communicate and collaborate effectively with a group and these are skills that must be taught. In a school focused on teaching everything through PBL where interpersonal learners may flourish, I would be interested in learning about what are you doing to make sure you are also reaching your intrapersonal learners?

I would find out more details about your project and the results you see after this year. Good luck!

Tania Galiñanes's picture

I agree with the previous poster that faculty participation in creating the curriculum guarantees a certain amount of buy-in the process.

Our elementary school is an IB candidate school and we are entirely project based and inquiry led. When we began this journey a few years ago, teachers from all different grade levels and disciplines as well as administration worked together to match standards with the units of learning for the year.

Throughout the year, we meet as a faculty once or twice to do vertical planning making sure there are no overlaps.

I think one of the most important components of PBL is to reflect frequently on what worked and what did not and make adjustments along the way. PBL is fluid and to continue student engagement and teacher investment reflection and improvements need to be made along the way.

coffeechugbooks's picture
Instuctional Coach, former gifted education teacher, Bettendorf, Iowa

I am wondering if you have the docs mentioned in the article available for sharing? I would love to see these forms. Thanks

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