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How to Design Projects Around Common Core Standards

Heather Wolpert-Gawron

ELA Teacher, Middle School, Curriculum Coordinator TOSA
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Call me bass-ackwards, but I don't design projects around the Common Core Standards. I design projects based on what I believe are engaging topics that encourage my curriculum. Having said that, I don't neglect them either. In fact, by the end of my design process, I would say that I've become rather intimate with the series of standards I'm trying to hit.

I should back up and say that I teach using project-based learning, and PBL is very different from just assigning projects. A project is a kind of assessment. PBL, however, is the unit that encompasses all of the lessons, all of the explorations, the research, and the delivery of a solution that the students are trying to present. Driven by an essential question, a PBL unit may culminate in a "project" in order to be the vehicle of the information being presented, but the end result isn't the proof of the learning. What is accomplished on the journey, however, is. It's about the process, not the end project.

In fact, designing and developing a project-based learning outcome is its own process, and while I don't tend to invite the standards to the party first off, they do end up being the guest of honor.

Now, I have a two-prong approach to designing PBL units or even developing the Performance Based Assessments for my own district. The first way, of course, is to look at the standards and work through each trying to sometimes fit a square peg in a round hole.

I prefer, however, a different way to design.

Do What You Want First

I prefer to enjoy what I'm doing. I want to be excited about what I'm about to present to the kids. That way, my excitement trickles down to my students. Working with the standards at the forefront of my mind and the content in the background is a stinky model. I prefer to flip that way of thinking.

For instance, when I first began building my Superhero unit, a unit based on developing everything from origin stories to advocacy speeches presented to a mythical United Nations, I didn't think at all about the Common Core Standards until my checklists and lessons were designed and in front of my face.

I knew I wanted my students to write origin stories as their narratives. I knew I wanted them to watch TED Talk speeches and model their blended-genre, advocacy presentations on those that included elements of memoir, persuasion, incorporated digital media, and website design.

But once the unit had been created, I knew that the next step was to see what standards my enthusiasm had hit all by itself. So I developed a simple checklist of Common Core Standards that I keep tacked up on my corkboard for just such moments.

Using that tool, I saw that all on my own, I had hit key standards for my ELA class. For instance, just based on the basic genres my unit was covering, I knew that I had hit:

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.W.8.1: Write arguments to support claims with clear reasons and relevant evidence.

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.W.8.2: Write informative/explanatory texts to examine a topic and convey ideas, concepts, and information through the selection, organization, and analysis of relevant content.

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.W.8.3: Write narratives to develop real or imagined experiences or events using effective technique, relevant descriptive details, and well-structured event sequences..

I also knew that I would walk the students through the writing process multiple times throughout the unit. So I knew that I had hit:

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.W.8.5: With some guidance and support from peers and adults, develop and strengthen writing as needed by planning, revising, editing, rewriting, or trying a new approach, focusing on how well purpose and audience have been addressed. (Editing for conventions should demonstrate command of Language standards 1-3 up to and including eighth grade.)

But once done, I looked at the matrix of standards and I looked at my lessons and student objectives, and I realized that I hadn't naturally gravitated towards something like :

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.W.8.2.A: Introduce a topic clearly, previewing what is to follow; organize ideas, concepts, and information into broader categories; include formatting (e.g., headings), graphics (e.g., charts, tables), and multimedia when useful to aiding comprehension.

I backwards planned and put in a series of lessons that guided students to develop infographics about their advocacy topic. They needed to embed subheadings into their argument to divide up their claims from their evidence from their results. To support each subheading, they we required to provide evidence, not only in textual references, but also in graphics. They created a visual using, incorporating text, icons, and data to support their problems and proposed solutions.

So designing towards the Common Core Standards becomes a basic process made up of three steps:

  1. Design towards what you love. Think about your own interests and the interests of the age group you teach.
  2. Look back at the Common Core Standards
  3. Fill in the gaps

Share the Burden

Of course, it's not always possible to fill in every gap. After all, at least in secondary, you really are limited by time. So that's where cross-curricular planning comes in. Find someone to partner with who might share your interest in your unit. Or, look towards what other subjects are doing at your grade level and see if their curriculum naturally fills the gaps in your own matrix.

We have to remember that we aren't the only ones with our hands on those students during their school year. There are others who, combining forces with your efforts, can share the burden of hitting those standards.

It's vital we collaborate. It's vital that we open our doors and utilize the strengths of a team of teachers per student. The Standards are broad and vast and deep, so much so that one teacher cannot possibly hit them all with the depth necessary for true learning and transfer.

That being said: plan enthusiastically. Go hog wild designing something that will spark your own excitement to teach. That alone will undoubtedly hit many requirements. Some targeted reflection might just reach some more. But without permitting yourself the freedom of curricular expression, you won't be hitting the most effective teaching standard of them all: enjoying the job.

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Heather Wolpert-Gawron

ELA Teacher, Middle School, Curriculum Coordinator TOSA

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Kenny Taylor's picture
Kenny Taylor
Eighth Grade Language Arts Teacher

I am quite intrigued by your superhero themed unit, and I would love to hear some other ways you organized other PBL units.

tamika's picture

Heather, I am in complete agreement with your approach. Before the hype of the "Common Core" standards, teachers were already addressing them. Those of us who successfully completed K-12 education, learned the skills and standards without having them placed before us. We learned through reading, writing, discussing, drawing, etc and are now equipped to teach English Language Arts. This article really resonates. Thank you.

Deborah Dixon's picture
Deborah Dixon
I work for a national association, representing our school constituency.

Great article... I'd like to suggest that you include support personnel like speech-language pathologists in your work. They bring unique expertise to the CCSS discussion, especially in the areas of the listen/speaking and language standards.

Anne Shaw's picture
Anne Shaw
Director, 21st Century Schools

This is exactly how I design PBL units. I, too, have gathered resources for a unit based on Superheroes!

Ensuring that the CCSS, or other standards, are learned is actually very easy. In fact, beginning with the standards will greatly limit the quality of a project. Many high quality and exciting possibilities for the unit will be eliminated even before you begin!

In my curriculum design workshops I ask teachers to put their standards aside until after they have brainstormed the possibilities for a unit on a theme they would like to develop. After they have brainstormed they take their standards out and start identifying all the standards already integrated into their unit plan. The smallest percentage for any theme was 50% of the science standards.

I recommend that teachers take a look at their entire school year, break it into six 6-week chunks of time, and plan a unit for each 6-week period. This is enough time to plan for deeper learning, and short enough that you have plenty of time to explore other themes about which you are excited.

This also allows you to think about which unit theme should be taught when, taking into consideration the seasons, holidays and traditions.

You might want to do your unit on Civil Rights in January and February. Of course, a unit focusing on gardening, environmental studies, etc., is excellent for March and April when we connect to Earth Hour and Earth Day! If you are building a unit around a piece of literature such as Frankenstein, maybe do that in connection to Halloween.

I have just begun thinking about planning a unit based upon Jekyll and Hyde - what fun! Of course this would include reading the original novella by Robert Louis Stevenson (online free at I would include other adaptations and forms of media such as the Broadway musical (which was awesome!) and the Jerry Lewis film, The Nutty Professor, along with dozens of stage, radio, film and book adaptations.

In addition to considering the disciplines, we also intentionally integrate development of 21st century skills and multiple literacies (such as financial, emotional/social, ecoliteracy, media literacy, and more.

As a matter of fact we have a workshop taking place in New Orleans on this very subject on July 10 and 11. It is CCSS and Designing the 21st Century Classroom. Attendees will leave with a framework for a high quality, interdisciplinary, project-based unit which they have planned for their students - something that they can actually implement.

Please see and

mmansuy's picture

I like your approach and think it makes a lot of sense in terms of developing highly engaging and meaningful projects. I wonder how, in a district system that has a CCSS pacing guide, this approach might be tweaked so that the projects are still authentic and engaging and, at the same time, ensuring that key CCSS are systematically addressed during the project?

Tori K.'s picture

This article was a much-needed read. With the focus turning to the Common Core State Standards, it is easy to lose creativity. Developing projects excites me, and when I come to think about it, I haven't been too excited lately. My school uses standards-based grading, which is essential to assessing students' abilities. However, I always start with my standards and I cans, rather than the other way around, as you suggest. Figuring out the standards at the end and filling in the holes makes me excited to plan! I have been researching PBL, as I want to implement it to improve student learning and engagement. Your ideas give me a place to start. Additionally, as you say, collaboration is important. I have recruited some of my colleagues to create a cross-curricular project and they are on-board. Thank you for the enlightenment!

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