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PBL: Picking a Start of the Year Project

Heather Wolpert-Gawron

ELA Teacher, Middle School, Curriculum Coordinator TOSA
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Just as school started to wrap up in June, I decided that at the beginning of next year we would be picking a local cause and trying to solve it. I was entertaining the thought that the kids would pick their own cause, but I'm thinking of building up to that later on. I think instead we'll start with a common cause -- one that we might actually make an impact on.

My school is currently under construction. Despite the fact that things are tight and we are a Title I district, our community voted to pass a bond that could update our school's desperately inadequate facilities.

So we're getting a new media center (although budget cuts have cut back our librarian's position), a new field to share with the community recreational center, and a new administration building at the front of the school. And we are grateful.

The Project

But what little green exists on our campus is under threat, including our few trees. In fact, the biggest and oldest tree which can be seen from the front of our school, which kids hang out under waiting to be picked up after school, and under which students read, is smack dead in the center of the scheduled covered walkway. (I'm not sure why in Southern California we need a covered walkway, but, shrug, I guess that's what was decided.)

So I think we should try to save the tree. I know it sounds all tree huggy, but schools need green. Right now, there's only one grassy strip on our campus and it seems to be where all the dogs in our city go to do their business.

This grassy strip leads up to the tree, and a huge indicator as to the plans to disrupt the grass and its tree is the fact that it hasn't been watered in months, and the browning has begun. My classroom and three others happen to sit right next to this anemic strip of nature, and we used to complain that the industrial size grass trimmer seemed to always appear on testing days.

But I swear, if we can save this patch, we won't complain about the distracting noise again.

I started by just trying to get an answer as to when the tree and grass were scheduled to be cut for good. This is proving difficult. So far, there's been no response from the administration or from the director of the construction on campus (growl).

Normally, I would be having students do this portion of research, but I want to know that when we return, there will be a tree still there to fight for.

Creating a Plan and Setting Goals

Once I get that answer, it will give me a timeline for our project. I can backwards plan due dates and students can set goals appropriately. We can begin preparing for a writing campaign, a publicity campaign, and oral speaking activities. We can stage informational lunchtime classes and even create a blog, perhaps create a petition. By the time the kids arrive, they will be the creators of the tree-saving movement, however, not I.

I'm starting with a local, applicable topic so that students can see the difference their efforts may make (hopefully). The immediacy may help them in their own learning. From there, later in the year, we'll move into student choices of topics, the further development of polls, and the writing of an executive summary.

On a side note: It's a pity that the test scores of one single setting can't reflect the learning that will occur in training our students to be advocates for a cause.

Regardless of the cause, we want our students to be adults that can stand for something and who will put their abilities to use in society. So far, no bubble test I know can capture the deep learning that can occur within a unit of PBL. (Interested in starting down that PBL road? Join the Edutopia group Project-Based Learning for ideas and resources.)

Anyway, I'll give you an update, dear readers, as soon as school starts and the battle really begins!

Meanwhile, what PBL do you have planned for your students in fall?

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Heather Wolpert-Gawron

ELA Teacher, Middle School, Curriculum Coordinator TOSA

Comments (5) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

Stephanie Dyer's picture


Your beginning of the year PBL is a creative and valid; not at all "tree huggy." In California it seems incorporating the tree into the covered walkway would be a way to keep everyone happy.

Good luck,

Christine Laurenzi's picture

Hi Heather,
It sounds like you are trying to get your kids involved in 'helping', generally speaking but you are the one picking the topic. Perhaps you could begin the year discussing 'helping' a.k.a. community service projects with your students and then let them select the project that they'd like to embark on. I've done this for the last 3 years in my classroom and would love to share with you some of the ways I've incorporated it if you're interested.
Best of luck,

Jessica Zielinski's picture

Hi Heather,

This project sounds like a valuable learning experience for your students. I think you are setting a great example, showing them ways that they can participate in their school and community to take care of the environment. Good for you!

Have you considered giving your students a self-reflection activity to complete after the project? It would be interesting to see what each student learned as a result of the experience.

I don't have this type of project planned for the beginning of the school year, but I'll start thinking about it. Thanks for the idea!

Best wishes,

Sabine Thompson's picture

If you remember the PBS series "Wishbone," there is an episode where the kids save a tree in the local park. It might help your students get inspired!

Kristy Jett-Brown's picture

I love your "Save the Tree" PBL activity. What is your progress with the project at this point? As I am reading this in late September, I'm wondering if the tree is still standing. In my mind, I envisioned this dramatic scene where the students have to watch the construction team cut down the tree through your classroom window. I'm hoping that your project was successful, and the tree is still alive and healthy.

Also, I really appreciated the point that you made in reference to the "learning that will occur in training our students to be advocates for a cause." Well spoken. Long live the tree!

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