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PBL Pilot: Rolling It Out to Parents and Students

Matt Weyers

7th Grade Social Studies Teacher, Byron (MN) Public Schools
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Students at Byron Middle School listen to the district's business manager discuss budgets to plan their project.

Editor's Note: Matt Weyers and co-author Jen Dole, teachers at Byron Middle School in Byron, Minnesota, present the second installment in a year-long series documenting their experience of launching a PBL pilot program.

The Situation

When our fifth grade PBL pilot was approved this past spring, we realized immediately that we would need to spend significant time and energy on messaging and brand-management. We knew that it would be vital to brand this idea in such a way that project-based learning would become an accepted method capable of meeting all of our students' needs. To do this, we acknowledged that we needed to create a consistent, positive, and supportive message so that grassroots support would germinate across the community.

As educators, we fundamentally understood that our PBL approach was going to look drastically different than more traditional classrooms. In addition, we were cognizant of the fact that human nature often makes us gravitate toward a mixture of excitement, trepidation, and awe when we encounter something new or different. The aforementioned understandings left us with a major decision to make: How might we brand our message so that it best communicates to parents that their children will still be receiving a well-rounded, standards-based education?

The Rollout: Parents

After looking at our school calendar, we came to understand that our two best opportunities to share our message with parents were during the fifth grade transition night (when our students are invited to hear a message from our principal and tour the school in preparation for making the transition from elementary to middle school), and our "Walk the Halls" afternoon when students and families are able to meet their teachers and drop off their school supplies in their lockers. Both of these events take place in the second half of August. We decided to hold two separate informational meetings describing our school year, with the hope that parents would be able to attend one of the two. Having a deadline to meet helped us immensely, as it forced us to promptly begin planning and coordinating the many facets of this program.

By the time the end of August rolled around, we had created a 30-minute presentation briefly describing our teaching philosophy, and elaborating on significant points in our program. Some of these points and our reasoning for them included:

1. Extreme Focus on Group Work

The 2014 version of the annual "Job Skills" survey given by the National Association of Colleges and Employers listed "Ability to work in a team structure" as their number one desired trait in future employees.

2. Explicit Teaching of Soft Skills and Critical Thinking

Recent literature by Dr. Tony Wagner and Paul Tough demonstrates the need for students to be as adaptable with their physical, emotional, and cognitive selves as they are in understanding core content knowledge.

3. Learning Would Be "Non-Googleable," Authentic, and Revisionist

We wanted to move students away from the idea that all questions only have one correct answer, and toward the idea that learning never stops. Our grading policy was that students would receive an A, a B, or a "Not Yet." A grade of Not Yet indicates that students can do their work at any point in the school year to demonstrate learning growth.

Interestingly enough, the dichotomous response to our presentation was greater than we ever expected. On one hand, there was an astounding amount of support. Parents saw a great deal of value in authentic experiences and the idea of learning through "failing forward." But on the flip side, we heard from multiple parents asking versions of, "If traditional schooling allowed me to become successful, why are you attempting to do things differently?" or "How will this approach affect my child when he or she returns to a more traditional setting?" We knew that while we experienced a level of success with this presentation, we would need to communicate frequently with parents throughout the year to grow our brand in a positive way.

4 students contemplating iPads
Students pondering their project's driving question.

The Rollout: Students

At the time of this writing, we have just begun rolling out our first project to students. We're asking them to fundraise for and manage a portfolio utilizing microloans from Anticipating that this type of learning would be different than any other they have experienced, we asked students to generate a "need-to-know" list (concepts that need to be considered and understood) around this practice driving question: "How might we improve our school's playground?" The immediate responses from students were "Tire swing!" and "A new slide!" We found that we needed to shift students into thinking more along these lines:

  • How much money do we have?
  • Who needs to approve spending the money?
  • How can we find out what the majority of students actually want?

As a result of our practice with driving questions and need-to-know lists, we now appreciate the amount of time it will take to shift students toward less egocentric, more macro-level thinking. We'll know that the time we spent frontloading this macro-level style of thinking will have paid off when people around the globe begin receiving microloans from funds raised and appropriated by our fifth grade students. By that time, our students should be showing palpable excitement -- and we cannot wait to see it!

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Launching a PBL Pilot Program
Launching a PBL Pilot Program: Follow two middle school teachers through their first year with PBL

Comments (8) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

Laura's picture

This is my school's second year as a STEM School. We required 450 students to complete PBL's over the summer and turn it in by the first day of school. There was only 40 students who did not complete on time. They were given Saturday Detention for not completing the assignment. I am pleased that parents stood behind my decision to give detention and hold students accountable. My teachers school wide participated with great results even down to kindergarten. Some of the PBL"s were tremendous. I can't wait for the next PBL that is school wide for it is also becoming a community project to help a homeless shelter.

Matt Weyers's picture
Matt Weyers
7th Grade Social Studies Teacher, Byron (MN) Public Schools

Wow! 450 students getting experience in PBL is a wonderful thing. Can I ask what the project was on? Where is your school located? I would love to hear more about it. Have a great rest of the day.


Laura's picture

Actually we required all grades K-12th to participate. 817 students. K-5th their project was to read books and to choose new endings, story lines, create life size characters and make dioramas. This is their introduction to PBL's. 6th grader were required to create a mobile home with specific parameters. They were required to build to scale size. 7th graders completed an investigation on fast food restaurants. The students had to go to the restaurants and interview two different groups. Group one was allowed to order off the regular menu. Group 2 was given calories count and how much exercise to the minute on how much it took to burn off the food. They were creating the menu, making predictions and analyzing the data. They were also required to write a letter to the Congressman/woman and ask for change in the way restaurants present their menus.
8th graders - had to research a historical monument and built it to scale.
9th graders - like Shark Tank had to make an invention and sell it.
10th graders - Investigated working for Google and how technology has changed over the last 10 years. They came up with a new gaming system and had to do interviews on being able to work at Google.
11th graders - Used peg boards and built a game using lasers and mirrors - sort of like laser tag.
12th graders - had to build roller coasters - loops were required.
I work for a charter school in Houston, TX. A math teacher and I are the contract writer for the STEM Project and we also closely work with UTMB University Medical Branch. Our liaison, Valerie Clem is a fantastic person to work with on projects. She is very encouraging and gives great ideas on projects.

Matt Weyers's picture
Matt Weyers
7th Grade Social Studies Teacher, Byron (MN) Public Schools

Sorry for the delay in responding. We have been away on fall break for the past few days. It sounds like you work at quite the amazing school with spectacular faculty and even better students. That work you are doing is phenomenal. Keep doing the great work in PBL!

Anamaria Knight-VIF International Education's picture
Anamaria Knight-VIF International Education
Director of Curriculum and Instructional Design, VIF International Education

We also used Kiva when we developed our global Spanish Immersion Middle School course for graduates of our elementary Spanish Immersion programs. Kiva, and the notion of Social Entrepreneurship in general, is a wonderful way to bring current, global issues into the classroom in a way that encourages inquiry.

Anamaria Knight, Director of Curriculum and Instructional Design, VIF International Education
VIF website:
Twitter: @VIFprogram or @VIFLearn
Facebook: VIF International Education or VIF Learn

Matt Weyers's picture
Matt Weyers
7th Grade Social Studies Teacher, Byron (MN) Public Schools

Thank you for the comment! We found the Kiva organization to be the perfect vehicle for our students to experience social entrepreneurship and to make a positive impact on a global scale. Our students still refer to the Kiva project as the highlight of their year. I hope you have a great start to the week!


Laura's picture

Dear Matt, My teachers are doing so well with PBL's that we were in Austin presenting in December for the Dallas Teacher's Convention. A person who was attending the convention has requested that my math team now come and present PBL's at another teacher's convention. They leave next week. Even though it does cause a little strain on other staff members this has given a new confidence to my math teachers. It has also become a little of a competition between the math team and the science team. Science team last week presented in Galveston TX at a STEM Conference on how easy it is to complete PBL's. If you need some PBL's examples I have some great ones that adults and children are able to complete.

Laura's picture

Dear Anamaria, I reviewed this website. Such a great reminder for our students to think outside of the box and help others. The charter school that I work at the students are required to complete 100 hours of volunteer work before they can graduate. Thus I am going to encourage some of the slackers to use this website. I have some great students. I had invited community leaders, law enforcements, judges, lawyers, religious leaders and parents to informational session on Human Trafficking in Houston. The students collected items to help the victims when they were rescued. The students then took it further and sponsored homeless families, military and abused women. They took quart size plastic bags and in it they put trial sizes of shampoo, conditioner, feminine products, lotion, toothpaste and toothbrush. All of these items were donated by students and parents. Most of these items were donated from people who didn't use the hygiene products from the hotels during their stays. It is a great project and everyone can participate. Let me know if you want to do this and how it turned out.

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