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Finding an Authentic Goal for Your PBL Classroom

Heather Wolpert-Gawron

ELA Teacher, Middle School, Curriculum Coordinator TOSA
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A young boy standing outside in the grass has a robotic right hand, and he's smiling, holding a blue and red plastic horseshoe.

When we talk about project-based learning (PBL), we focus our curriculum on finding real-world ways for students to learn problem-solving and communication skills. When doing this, authenticity is key.

When you are first developing a PBL unit, you must begin the journey by establishing an authentic goal. By the end of the unit, you want students to have solved something. Along the way, they will have written, collaborated, created, pitched, discussed, and presented. It sounds overwhelming, especially if you haven't found that launching pad (authentic goal) in the first place.

I think this is the main reason why the e-NABLE Community Foundation seems to have taken the PBL world by storm.

e-NABLE initially began in 2013 as a simple but powerful matching service between children who might benefit from receiving prosthetic hands and designers and makers who could construct those hands inexpensively and quickly.

Their passion for the open source movement helped to propel its popularity, and people like Jon Schull created the organization as we know it now. He also created a Google + community that served as an informal café for people to seek information from each other on anything from 3D printing in the news to improved prosthetic designs.

The e-NABLE Mission

Then, a gentleman named Rich Lehrer discovered the organization. He was intrigued by what looked like both an interesting device and organization, one that could possibly meet the needs of his own son. Lehrer was also a middle school teacher, and he soon realized that it wasn't just the recipient who could be impacted by this exchange of needs. He saw the potential for students to adopt the mindsets of both the maker and advocacy movement.

Cut to two years later, and e-NABLE has found its way into hundreds of classrooms and clubs around the world, including my own English-language arts class.

But this post isn't simply about e-NABLE. It's about a movement, an undertaking to combine authentic goals with student learning. So I spoke with Rich Lehrer, now the e-NABLE Educators Exchange Coordinator -- as well as the Innovation Coordinator at the Brookwood School in Massachusetts -- for his take on PBL, e-NABLE's influence in the classroom, and how teachers can find authentic objectives in their own backyard.

How to Find Authentic Goals

PBL is focused on helping solve the problems around us. e-NABLE has definitely tapped into something, but it doesn't need to be the charity that you focus your classroom on. Frankly, there is great power in discovering the needs of your own community, and teachers have a role to play in helping students ask the questions to discover what those needs are. This process of inquiry should be the initial part of any PBL unit.

For instance, earlier this year, I helped a colleague learn about PBL. We decided (based on her own interest in marathons) to have her English-language arts class host a 5K Fun Run fundraiser for a local charity. Her kids weren't the ones running, however. Instead, they were meeting with the timing company, developing the registration website, pitching sponsors, working on mapping the course, and meeting with the city to seek approvals on the process.

They settled on a local charity by researching from a list of local organizations. In small groups, they started researching using a hyperdoc the teacher had curated. They watched videos, examined documents, and each group created a Google slideshow about their charity to pitch to their class.

3 Tips for Finding Real-World Goals

In terms of finding real-world goals for your PBL unit, Rich Lehrer has some further advice:

  1. Search Online. Google PBL + Authentic Projects. Also try searching the Buck Institute for Education website for project ideas using the key word authentic. There's a treasure trove of lists out there.
  2. Have an Authentic Project Mindset. Seek outlets for authentic work in your life and in the lives your students. Sometimes a goal can be found in the stories and experiences of those found in your own classroom.
  3. Make connections. "Connect with individuals and organizations in your community and around the world who are doing meaningful work and having tangible effects," recommends Lehrer. Involve your students in the work that is already going on in the world. How can we be of service? Lehrer stresses, "As the world becomes more connected, there are amazing chances for kids to do meaningful things."

Help your students develop a sense of their own power. Allow them in on the decision-making process in terms of selecting an authentic goal for your class' PBL unit and you will have increased their ownership of the unit from the get-go.

A Challenge to Rethink Your Overall Goals

e-NABLE has a happy problem: It has exploded in size. With that growth sometimes comes the pains of how to communicate quickly or how to address the needs of each of its donating participants. Nevertheless, if we, the participating classrooms, keep the focus on the experience of the recipients, we will have modeled other traits every PBL unit should strive for: resilience, patience, and selflessness.

In other words, we need to remember that PBL isn't just an authentic vehicle to teach literacy, writing, and speaking. It's also an authentic vehicle to teach character traits.

As just one of the many classrooms now affiliated with the organization, I find that I work hard with my students to print, write, pitch, and fundraise. However, at times, I find that I need to pause and remind myself, and my students, that we are now part of something far greater than a curriculum unit. At the end, there isn't a test. When we send a hand off, the learning isn't over.

The overall "mindset is vital," says Lehrer. This kind of experience gives students a "window to empathy and understanding."

"Kids have never been as empowered to change their local community than ever before," Lehrer exclaims excitedly. "Schools are now recognizing that this is vital for student development, that there is much educational value in this, and that kids now have access to the tools" to make long-lasting advocacy happen.

And so, I would like to leave you with this challenge: How can you create a unit that doesn't have an end? How can you tap into a local need to help teach deep advocacy, empathy, and problem solving? How can you transfer those lessons beyond a quarter or semester, beyond a school year, and beyond school in general? Please share in the comments section below.

We need our students to think of themselves as change agents in this world. They have access to the devices to help that happen, but now they need access to teachers willing to take them on that journey.

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Candice at The Yellow Canoe's picture
Candice at The Yellow Canoe
Making waves and starting ripples of change.

Yes! Connections! We are working with the blending of art, SEL, core subjects and youth activism. Love Mr. Lehrer's excitement about kids impacting their community. Personal, local, regional, national, global, go, go, go!

RichLehrer's picture
RichLehrer
Teacher, Advisor, Consultant fascinated by innovation and the power of schools to transform the world.

Great to hear from you again, David! Thanks for posting our conversation again...lots of cool things happening since we last spoke :)

Janette B. Fuller's picture
Janette B. Fuller
An educator who loves to acquire, act on and share knowledge and author of 'The Teacher's Gift'

"We need our students to think of themselves as change agents in this world. They have access to the devices to help that happen, but now they need access to teachers willing to take them on that journey."

This is so very true. And we need all administrators to share this vision and lend their support to the teachers who are excited about embarking on this journey. Thanks for sharing these insights.

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