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PBL: Jumping in Headfirst

Matt Weyers

6th Grade Teacher, Byron (MN) Public Schools
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Editor's Note: Matt Weyers and co-author Jen Dole, teachers at Byron Middle School in Byron, Minnesota, present the first installment in a year-long series documenting their experience of launching a PBL pilot program.

The Project-Based Learning (PBL) Pilot Program we will be embarking on this year has been several years in the making. Approximately two years ago, a group of educators from our district attended an Innovative Quality Schools Conference in Minneapolis. The conference focused on student-centered teaching methods designed to increase achievement and engagement in students of all ability levels. Naturally, this sparked us to ask ourselves and our administrators a series of powerful questions, such as:

  1. Are our current teaching practices rewarding compliance or student engagement?
  2. If our district is as successful as we believe it to be, why is there a growing percentage of students that do not demonstrate proficiency on state-level standardized tests?
  3. How might we develop a "Research and Development" branch of our district specifically designated to test these alternative teaching methods?

Two years, several conversations, and a new District Strategic Plan later, the PBL pilot was on its way to being born.

The Path We Took

We approached the administration with this idea after the district and community co-developed a new Strategic Plan for Byron Public Schools that included the clauses, "Byron Public Schools will challenge the status quo and develop new norms for education by the year 2018," and "Byron Public Schools will leverage real-world tools and skills to develop in students a passion for learning." Fortunately for us, our administration was extremely receptive to this idea and encouraged us to develop the concept further.

The program was officially approved when our Director of Curriculum and Assessment saw a possible connection between our previous work and the expectations of our state's Achievement and Integration Program. In accordance with Minnesota Statutes, section 124D.861-862:

Minnesota's Achievement and Integration Program was established to close Minnesota's academic achievement and opportunity gap. Participating districts are to pursue racial and economic integration and to increase academic achievement, create equitable educational opportunities, and reduce academic disparities based on students' racial, ethnic, and economic backgrounds.

In addition to these expectations, the "integration" part of this program asked us to find opportunities for our Byron students to collaborate with Rochester Public School students (a collaborative district). Seeing the benefits of this partnership, we applied for and were awarded the funds necessary for this innovative project. We couldn't be more excited!

As we worked through the expectations of this program, we continued to see clear connections to the work of the team who attended the Innovative Quality Schools Conference. To best align with both Rochester Public Schools and the criteria of the Achievement and Integration Program, it was decided that the pilot would involve two fifth grade teachers (that would be us, Jennifer and Matt) who would teach almost exclusively using the project-based learning philosophy. To gain a better understanding of PBL, we attended a training facilitated by the Buck Institute for Education to help us with curriculum development over the summer.

A classroom ready for furniture -- and project-based learning!
A classroom ready for furniture -- and project-based learning!

Planning Curriculum

This past summer was spent outlining the structure and function of our program. We decided that our main goals would be:

  1. Closing both the achievement and engagement gaps
  2. Explicitly teaching character traits to help students develop "soft skills"
  3. Develop authentic projects utilizing community connections to help us meet the criteria set forth in our District Strategic Plan.

We discovered early on that our enthusiasm for this pilot was exhilarating, and that we would need it to buoy us over the hurdles we almost immediately started to encounter.

The initial hurdles were large and numerous. The time and effort it took to start blending PBL philosophy with building grading systems, schedules, and a professional learning community (PLC) structure, along with developing parent communication for the pilot project (gathering resources, mapping projects to standards, and creating Moodle pages), has been astounding. For example, after working diligently all summer, the school year is upon us and we only have three projects planned to the extent that we deem necessary.

We are completely confident, however, that the projects we have planned will offer students learning experiences unlike any they have ever encountered. The conversations our students will have when we ask them to fundraise for, and then manage, a Kiva.org microfinance portfolio; collaborate with the local nature preserve to develop informational websites to be placed on nature trail signage via QR codes; and use their knowledge of geography to develop and publish a survival plan in the event of the Zombie Apocalypse will be worth every minute that we've spent planning. On September 3, when the students arrived for the first day of school, we officially jumped headfirst into PBL, and neither of us could be more excited!

Stay tuned for future posts detailing our adventures with this pilot, and feel free to visit our class blog. Meanwhile, we welcome your thoughts in the comments section below.

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Comments (9) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

Chris Davis's picture
Chris Davis
Teacher, Tech Innovation Project Coordinator

Hi Matt,

Exciting stuff! Especially the adoption of Zombie Based Learning.
http://www.edutopia.org/blog/zombie-based-learning-andrew-miller

I pilot something similar, managing projects within an elementary school. We look at everything from Buck Institute, to challenge based learning, to Design Thinking and what I find is that everyone has a completely different notion of what a project is. Since we use a UBD framework we try to look at outcomes as production, not just what do you want students to learn, but what do you want them to produce. This creating, making, doing emphasis to learning has reoriented our defining of knowledge. What good is it if you don't get to do anything with it?

But we have challenges - allowing for immersion and authentic student inquiry,
getting away from the grade production mentality, and
fomenting the importance of prototype loops.
How do you deal with these challenges among your teachers, students, parents, and admin?

thanks, Chris

Matt Weyers's picture
Matt Weyers
6th Grade Teacher, Byron (MN) Public Schools

Good morning Chris,

Thanks for the comment! It is exciting to hear from a fellow educator who is interested in PBL. It sounds like you and I are working towards solutions to many of the same issues. We have tried to make this pilot process as transparent as possible (informational parent meetings, class blog, use of the Remind text messaging service, ePortfolios, etc), which has been comforting for some families but has raised concerns with others.

In a nutshell, the biggest piece of the puzzle for us has been finding a way to communicate to the parents that their child is still receiving a well-rounded education rooted in the mandatory state teaching standards, albeit in a much different approach than they may have been used to. We have fielded concerns from several parents about the possibility of the PBL approach causing their child to academically fall behind their grade level peers (which if you ask me, comes back to standardized tests and as you mentioned, the grade production mentality).

We've been working on developing assessments through Mastery Connect (in a sense, standards-based grading) to help provide parents more data that their child is still receiving instruction in the more traditional school skills even if they are not receiving nightly homework. In addition, we have created parent surveys asking them to self-report their understanding of PBL and to help document any differences in school engagement their child might be experiencing in a PBL format. We are hoping that we can continue to build relationships with parents to build grassroots support across the community.

We are fortunate to have an extremely supportive administrator who is willing to let us move the pilot any direction we choose. And although we have not collaborated much with other teachers in our building as of yet, we are hopeful that through constant positive communication (as well as parent support) that the definition of "learning" and "school" evolves throughout our district.

How is it going for you? I'd love to hear about some of your projects and how you have approached some of these similar issues. Thanks again for the comment.

-Matt

Ashley Tensen's picture

This is great! I want to start integrating PBL into my health curriculum but I feel on my own and unsure of how to even start. Many, if not most, health topics are easily relatable to my students lives, I just don't understand how begin to plan and what the day to day lessons are supposed to look like. How much do you lecture? What do the kids do every day so that it builds up to the larger project? How do you get students on the right track?

This is my first year teaching and I am searching out for teachers who will be mentors in helping me become a transformative teacher! My goal would be to have my whole 7-9 Health Curriculum be PBL based eventually but right now I need help on how to start.

Hillary Hill's picture
Hillary Hill
Social Media Marketing Associate at Edutopia

Ms. Tensen,

PBL can be a big undertaking, and you ask some great questions. While I can't answer them with any authority, I'd like to direct you to our PBL topic page: https://www.edutopia.org/project-based-learning

There are tons of resources and examples of people successfully implementing PBL in their classrooms. Also, here's a list of resources for getting started with PBL: https://www.edutopia.org/project-based-learning-getting-started-resources

Hope this helps, and good luck!

Matt Weyers's picture
Matt Weyers
6th Grade Teacher, Byron (MN) Public Schools

Good evening Ms. Tensen!

Thank you for the wonderful comment and questions. I think Health is a wonderful subject in which to utilize PBL. Can I ask if you are on Twitter? If so, and you have interest, feel free to send a direct message to me at @mr_weyers. I would be happy to share with you my email address at the point where I would love to continue this conversation. It is always great to connect with other educators who share a mutual interest in PBL! Have a great night.

-Matt

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

Hi Ms. Tensen! You can find some GREAT resources on the pages Hillary shared (really- Edutopia is like an encyclopedia of all things PBL), but you may also find some useful stuff over at the Critical Skills Classroom page (antiochne.edu/acsr/criticalskills). We curate additional resources on Pinterest and Youtube @CriticalSkills1 as well. Feel free to give me a holler at acsr (at) antioch (dot) edu if I can help!

Ashley Tensen's picture

Currently, I am trying to implement 2 PBL units with 9th & 8th-grade students. The 9th graders are starting the ATOD (Alcohol, Tobacco, and Other Drugs) Unit and then Nutrition after that. The 8th graders are doing Communicable and Chronic Diseases. I've tried looking for inspiration, but I haven't been able to find much. I think the driving question and project idea is the hardest part for me to come up with. If anyone has suggestions on good DQs or culminating project ideas for those topics, I would greatly appreciate it. I want the DQ and Project to make it so that everything that all of the topics get covered and are necessary to do well on the project.

JoLynn's picture

My school has been thinking about implementing PBL's in our school. I love the idea how Matt's school had his classroom and someone else's transform into a PBL. This type of PBL was never brought up as an option. At this time we have an English teacher and a math teacher working together to design PBL projects.

I can see how more effective a PBL could be if the teacher just kept her students all day and ran a PBL in her room. I am glad Matt did it with another teacher. I am sure a project like this takes a lot of conversation time and support form not only the school but outside community resources.

I am going to take this model of PBL back to my principal and explain the advantages of creating a PBL in this format. The divergent learners could really flourish with the differentiating of groups, use of real life situations, and not to mention how challenging it would be for all types of learners within the classroom.

Matt Weyers's picture
Matt Weyers
6th Grade Teacher, Byron (MN) Public Schools

JoLynn -

What a wonderful post! I am glad to hear that you are planning on taking the PBL model to your school administration. It is a truly transformative experience for everyone involved (especially the students!). Please feel free to let me know if there is anything I can do! My Twitter handle is @mr_weyers. Thanks, take care, and good luck!

-Matt

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