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How to Build a Calendar for Project-Based Learning

Andrew Miller

Instructional Coach at Shanghai American School
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Teachers want to know what the day-to-day looks like. I know I do. After generating great project ideas, I want to know exactly what my day-to-day looks like. There is a pitfall there. Sometimes we plan the calendar too quickly. When this is done, projects can be unsuccessful. Why? Because not enough time and thought is given to content, skills, and knowledge that are required for students to be successful. When teachers reflect with me on projects that were not as successful, I often hear these comments:

"The project went longer than I thought."

"I forgot a lesson, or didn't think that the students would need it."

These all stem from rushing too quickly to the calendar. Here are the steps and some advice for building a calendar for a successful PBL project.

Begin with the End in Mind

Look at the products students are creating. What skills, knowledge, etc. will students need to be successful in the project? This teaching and learning guide, provided by the Buck Institute for Education, gives an example for an elementary project. It is very similar to Understanding By Design backward design process.

Project: First Peoples' Project Course/Semester
Knowledge and Skills Needed by Students
to successfully complete culminating projects and performances, and do well on summative assessments
Scaffolding / Materials / Lessons to Be Provided
by the project teacher, other teachers, experts, mentors, and community members
What is culture? --> Building Background Knowledge Workshop -- Mystery readings, artifacts, photographs, poems, articles
Analyze, interpret, compare, or respond to increasingly complex fiction --> Readers' Workshop Series -- Fiction related to Choctaw Indians
Analyze, interpret, compare, or respond to increasingly complex nonfiction --> Readers' Workshop Series -- Nonfiction related to Choctaw Indians
Conducting research (writing interview questions, facilitating interviews, recording responses, analyzing responses) --> Conducting Fieldwork Workshop Series -- Generating interview questions, facilitating interviews (fishbowl modeling and debriefing), facilitating actual interviews, analyzing responses, summarizing data
Taking photographs --> Field experience with technology teacher
Producing artwork to capture the culture --> Workshop series with art teacher
Producing descriptive writing --> Writers' Workshop Series -- Planning, drafting, revising, editing

In it, you can see the teacher thought about not only important essential questions and content, but also skills, like taking photographs. It is also important that you include thinking skills like evaluating, analyzing or inferring. These are often overlooked. Once you do this, you are ready for the next step.

Open Your Filing Cabinet

Please, please, please don't reinvent the wheel. Teachers have amazing lessons and resources that they collect over the years. I know when I moved classrooms I had an exorbitant amount of binders and folders of teacher "stuff." Use that amazing teacher bag of tricks. In fact, you may use traditional teacher tools. In the example below, you can see readers' workshops as a staple instructional strategy for the project. If this were a math problem, you would most likely see selections from the textbook, direct instruction lessons, or worksheets. If this were a project focused on writing, you might see worksheets on commas, as well as drafts and mini-lectures for writing skills. These are great, and will help your students. The important thing is that these teaching strategies are aligned to important content and skills needed for kids to do an authentic project. A small caveat: make sure you vary your strategies to meet the needs of all learners.

Plug and Play

This is the most gratifying step, because now, building the physical calendar is easy. You've generated necessary skills and content to be successful for the project. You've looked in your library of teacher resources to come up with specific lessons, strategies and tools to arm kids with these skills and content. Now, you can plug and play. Using the right column of the Teaching and Learning Guide, put the lessons and tools in appropriate places in the calendar. See the example calendar week below. Don't forget to include implementation and work time, where students apply the knowledge into creating and performing the tasks for the project. In addition, make sure you have your formative assessments and draft products built in, not only to check for understanding, but also to hold students accountable.

Project: Indigenous Peoples || Start Date _________________
Monday Tuesday Wednesday Thursday Friday
Building Background Knowledge Workshop
Share Entry Event and Driving Question for Inquiry and create KWL

Review directions for individual and group culminating projects, and rubrics and details about the exhibition and audience
Analyzing Artifacts (Artifact Analysis Worksheet)
Form expert groups -- share project "text sets"

Readers' Workshop Fiction related to Choctaw Indians (Literacy strategy: Leaving tracks of your thinking using Post-its)

Collaboration Skills Workshop Setting ground rules and creating a work plan for group project for Indigenous Peoples exhibition

Readers' Workshop Fiction related to Choctaw Indians (Literacy strategy: Leaving tracks of your thinking using Post-its

Collaboration Skills Workshop Creating a daily log


Readers' Workshop Fiction related to Choctaw Indians (Literacy strategy: Leaving tracks of your thinking using Post-its


It's a Reframe

We've all been there. We've all been to professional development where it feels like we are being asked to erase our teacher toolkit like an Etch-a-Sketch. This is not the case. Project-based learning is a reframe, ensuring that all teaching strategies and tools are aligned to an authentic project. You will use your teacher resources, and when taking the time to plan, build a successful PBL project calendar.

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Comments (3) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

gladiolus's picture

This has been a really insightful post.. Building a calendar for project based learning is definitely a good way to go about the regular learning curriculum..
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Mary Ann Stoll's picture
Mary Ann Stoll
Curriculum developer for K-12

I like the Teaching and Learning Guide. When I plan a PBL project, I do all this great planning to excite, motivate, and empower students, including anticipating the student need-to-know list of questions so that I am prepared to teach or direct when the students need to know. But then comes the calendar development where I get to say what gets taught and how on what day, etc. I think there's a disconnect. How do you put the students' questions, the students' ideas, and their need-to-know into the pre-planned calendar?

Along's picture

Thank you for the post! I recently completed a project that was not fully thought out and was rushed due to time. I really liked how you incorporated cross curriculum within your calendar.

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