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Learning by Doing: A Teacher Transitions Into PBL

Shawn Canney

English Teacher- PBL American Discourse and Drama and ADE 
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I have been a high school English teacher for 15 years. Every year, I try to do something a little different because I like learning from the process. After teaching AP Literature for a while, I became an AP Reader. Then, I presented at a national conference. I feel that I need to grow and develop every year. By the time I read Julius Caesar aloud in class for the 55th time, it was time for a change. That's why my new school was a project-based learning school.

The First Try

To be honest, I had not heard the term PBL until the job interview. I went through a week of in-depth training and met with some veteran PBL teachers. The idea sounded great in theory -- creating projects that helped students learn educational concepts. The first unit that I created taught the basic elements of writing through analyzing advertising campaigns. Students selected a product, determined the target audience, and then had to rebrand the product and create an advertisement directed at a new target audience. I spent a lot of time putting the unit together, and I thought it was pretty good.

I wish I could say that it went well, but it did not. I tried to embrace the idea of exploration and let the project grow organically. I wanted the students to discover things for themselves. I floated around the room to answer specific questions about the assignment, and I worked to make sure that students were on task. Some finished the assignment pretty quickly, but others were still in the early stages when the project was nearly due. For their presentations, I got a friend who works in marketing to come in and provide feedback for their finished commercials (the authentic audience component of PBL). Out of 12 groups, only two were able to present by the end of the period, and they were scrambling to get their presentation together at the last minute. I felt like a failure.

The next day, the students and I had a pretty good dialogue about the process. Many said that they felt embarrassed because they were not ready to present. It turned into a real teachable moment for both my students and myself. Many of them said that they felt overwhelmed by the assignment because it was so broad. I realized that I had made some judgmental errors as well. This productive discussion made me realize that I had learned a lot from that first project.

6 Lessons Learned

My school is on the 4x4 block, so I made the following changes in January, and I am happy to say that the projects became a lot better. Here are the lessons that I learned.

1. Set clear goals.

In order to be successful, the students have to know what is expected of them. If you can, save projects from previous units to model your expectations.

2. Over plan.

One of the great things about PBL is that it has differentiated instruction built into it. Students move at their own pace and ask questions when they don't understand something. The second time I assigned this project, I also had my students read an outside novel for homework. Those who finished tasks early could then read or work on something else instead of hanging out and distracting others.

3. Make students accountable for their time.

I had students share their work with me through Google Docs so that I could see their progress on a daily basis. One group didn't want to use the school-issued laptops, so I took pictures of their handwritten documents with my phone. One way or another, I was able to see progress every day.

4. Give concrete deadlines for products.

This helps make a project seem like a goal that can be accomplished. I added steps to be completed by the end of each day. When every step was completed, the project was done. My students knew what deliverables were due each and every day.

5. Share rubrics in advance.

Rubrics help give your students insight into the design of the project. This helps them understand what they should be taking away from the experience. For example, when my students had to write essays about their projects, they were kind of lost. They were summarizing instead of analyzing, so my second rubric listed terms and devices that I wanted to see in their essays.

6. Reflect on what you are doing.

One reason why the project went smoothly the second time was because I took notes about the positives and the negatives the first time that we did the project. Reflection and bouncing ideas off your peers can help solve problems before they arise.

As I stated earlier, I grow and develop each year. I am interested to hear of any additional practices or tips that other PBL teachers maybe utilizing as well. Let me know what works in your classroom!

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Shawn Canney

English Teacher- PBL American Discourse and Drama and ADE 

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JudyB's picture

Here are my questions about PBL. When I was hired, I was told we were moving towards being a PBL school. I was sent to a PBL training and had already taught at a PYP/IB school so I was all ready to do this in my elementary classroom. How do you implement PBL, though, when you are required to teach from a writing program that is an hour every day, a spelling program, a math program, and a vocabulary program? They don't integrate together at all. My team and I tried to figure out how to align them, but can't. We have a couple of PBL projects that relate to social studies that we are able to fit in this year, but it is a struggle. Anyone else have this issue?

Laura Thomas's picture
Laura Thomas
Director, Antioch University New England Center for School Renewal, Author of Facilitating Authentic Learning, Director of the Antioch Critical Skills Program; Elementary Library Media Specialist

JudyB, sometimes PBL can be a really useful method of assessment. Maybe an interdisciplinary project that cuts across multiple content areas? You'd gain good information about what your students really understand and what needs to be retaught or explored in a different context?

Shawn Canney's picture
Shawn Canney
English Teacher- PBL American Discourse and Drama and ADE 

Hey Judy, I would try to incorporate a few of the areas if it is possible. This year, I co-teach an English/Drama course. When we can, my co-teacher and I try to support one another. One of his standards is to teach dramatic voice, so when I have my students read poetry, I encourage them to use dramatic voice as well. Our Social Studies teacher and Art teacher work to reinforce each other as well. Maybe students could write a short story that focused on an English concept (like spelling) that involved story problems for math?

John S. Thomas's picture
John S. Thomas
First & Second Grade Teacher/Adjunct Faculty Antioch University New England, former Elementary Principal

Judy B, I totally have this issue. We are in the middle of switching several programs too so it is even more difficult because I don't know the programs just yet. You have received some solid advice with the interdisciplinary project and starting small in a few focused areas. I wouldn't necessary try to align the programs as much as find a few meaningful curriculum pieces you can focus on. Science, and as you described social studies, have been my gateway to PBL in my classroom. I started with the topics and found ways to connect them to ELA, math, and the arts. Have you spoken with your administrator about your situation? While your school has adopted programs, perhaps you can get the freedom to find lessons in the programs you can adapt or even skip because you are able to find ways in the PBL to meet those standards. Good Luck.

MTantlinger's picture

Would you be willing to share your rubric? I'm curious about the words you included to hone in on the analysis component of their writing. Great article, overall! I'm inspired!

Shawn Canney's picture
Shawn Canney
English Teacher- PBL American Discourse and Drama and ADE 

MTantlinger, I'm glad you liked the article! This project has a lot of different tasks attached to it, so I use several different rubrics. For writing, I focus on audience, message, medium, purpose, speaker, and tone. I am finishing an iBook for professional development hours that I am publishing for free. I can send you the link when it goes live if you would like.

Don Doehla, MA, NBCT's picture
Don Doehla, MA, NBCT
2015 California Language Teacher of the Year, Co-Director Berkeley WL Project at UC Berkeley Language Center

Shawn, thank you for your article. I really appreciate your honesty about the learning curve for PBL. There is one, to be sure. I found that the learning curve was well worth it because I got such amazing results from my students! They comment all the time how much the projects are the best part of our French classes. They love having the opportunity to be creative and to own their learning. My job is not an easy one. PBL, or as we now way in language learning, PBLL for project-based language-learning, requires that I do a LOT of advanced planning. But, to be honest, I enjoy the opportunity to be creative as well. The advanced planning means I spend a lot of hours thinking and inventing. I finally learned that it is well worthwhile to invite my students into the planning process. When students really understand the process, they can help create the driving question, if I have a list of clearly defined leaning targets for them. We build our rubrics together, and when the projects are complete, the students can help make the decisions about the assessment as well. What more could we ask? Engaged students + meaningful work = joyful learning.

Best regards in your PBL journey!


Heather Calabro's picture
Heather Calabro
Teacher in Simsbury, CT

The Hawaiian proverb my Kupu Hou Academy colleagues and I live by is: ma ka hana ka ike. It means, "by doing, one learns"! Can't agree with your post more. Nicely done!

permina peter's picture

Glad that have become a part of this. i have set in the first step in this approach.. just feeling lost. Looking forward to know the ways of approaching regular syllabus( with a coveragge compulsion) for high school students.

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