George Lucas Educational Foundation
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The Common Core literacy standards ask educators to do something exciting. At the same time, Common Core asks us to coach students to write something real. As adults, we know that writing is more exciting, meaningful, scary, and engaging when we write to achieve our own goals. Real writing mashes genres together to captivate readers and ensnare specific audiences. Common Core necessitates educators to create reading and writing tasks that require mixed, complex reading for student-generated, real-world writing tasks.

This is an invitation to something lovely. This is an invitation to change the world.

Language Arts as Real-World Building Blocks

Many schools are investigating project-based learning to provide holistic and relevant learning challenges. Service learning empowers and inspires students to take their place in their communities, making both stronger. When we create opportunities for service-learning PBL in our writing classroom, we invoke the magic of using language arts skills for students to create real, lasting, tangible change in their communities.

A key to creating a service-learning English project is setting students up for success. My school explicitly teaches the skills for a good project:

  • Professional email etiquette
  • Dense reading of complex text
  • Professional greetings
  • Elevator speech
  • Credible research
  • Proposal writing
  • Professional meetings and discourse
  • Public presentations
  • Reflection
  • Critique.

We use the Expository Reading and Writing Curriculum from the California State University, but there are other ways to get there. Every year, I'm surprised by how much practice they need to achieve a great handshake. Thankfully, we practice every day.

Fortuna High's culminating Change the World Project allows every senior to develop his or her personal strengths and passions through unique service projects, connecting with and benefiting their local community and world as a whole, one project at a time. Culminating PBL encourages seniors to take what they know about the world and their passions, and connect it to their strengths, skills, and futures to challenge themselves to grow. The parameters of the project have been simple:

  1. They must connect their passions and strengths to the world.
  2. They must challenge themselves.
  3. They must in some way make the world better.

That's a lot of leash. We received ideas as disparate as pro-nutrition posters for elementary school cafeterias featuring high school athletes in uniform, working with the Bureau of Land Management to remove non-native species from our local beaches, hosting middle school fun nights, installing new school benches, historic preservation, and after-school tutoring.

A 2013-2014 Change the World project wrote a grant to get a California Conservation Corps energy audit for area schools, in order to work for our Advanced Placement Environmental Science’s goal of making our high school a zero net energy school.

Dream Bigger

The language arts skills transfer to real changes in the real world. At the end of their first semester, students write their Congressional representatives and often receive responses.

The course and the project foster intrinsic motivation -- the writing process, the interpersonal skills, and also the deadlines. It's not uncommon to see students in the library after school, finishing work or researching projects so that their lesson plan is complete or their fliers catch the eye. Although they might begin hesitantly, or even question their ability to change the world for the better, the chance to dream big and exercise control over their reality empowers them. Seniors routinely expand their projects, deciding that real projects are worth commitment.

As the PBL research suggests, if anyone knew the skills and creativity needed to complete big projects, we'd never try. Adult coaches know that there will be roadblocks, that students will need to problem solve and innovate, like the letter writing campaign to get a city battery recycling program that became a bake sale to fund a campus battery recycling program. Invention and innovation are encouraged. Like much PBL, most of the actual learning comes when students invariably have to improvise and problem solve. As proto-adults, it's powerful for them when we trust them to figure it out, trust them to come up with ideas that make them passionate, recognize that they can think through the steps, and have faith that, despite the obstacles, they will persevere. Mentors coach seniors while encouraging them to make as many of their own decisions as possible.

Assessment and Accomplishment

With the Common Core’s emphasis on authentic writing and thinking tasks for real audiences and purposes, as well as its emphasis on college and career readiness, the Change the World project and curriculum enables seniors to plan, write, work with others, interview community members, and accomplish real tasks. Critical thinking, interviewing, and formal letter writing are all explicitly taught in the first semester, giving them the skills necessary to rock the proposal and project. Multiple measures are used to assess students on all parts of their project:

  • Authoritative research
  • Project proposal letter
  • Project execution
  • Communication with mentors
  • Final presentation to community.

School gardens, afterschool chess clubs for second to fifth graders, mentoring at a Native American community center, petitions for a community aquatic center, science fiction for soldiers, childrens' books for the local hospital . . . 170 seniors worked together to complete 84 projects. What could your students do if you gave them the power to write the future they want?

2014-2015 seniors just planted crops to overwinter in the school garden created by a 2013-2014 Change the World Project.

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Amy Conley's picture
Amy Conley
Senior English instructor in Fortuna, California


We're lucky so many teachers and parents are concerned. There are lots of misconceptions about PBL. Most notably that "project" is the key word. When I was in school, project assessments were en vogue. Instead of a test, our teacher would check our learning from lectures and textbooks by assigning us to make a poster or skit of the three branches of government or the circulatory system. Projects showed what we had learned in different ways.

I would argue that "learning" needs to be the key ingredient in PBL. Good PBL has the project be where the learning happens. In my school, that means they begin thinking and researching on their large project while learning about how to write proposals and do professional interviews before applying that concept to their projects. In the above examples, we'd learn about visual communication or playwriting.

PBL is worth doing when it's done right. What could you do in your school community to help PBL research meet the classroom? Who could you enlist as allies?

I look forward to hearing your next steps, Amy

Lisa Wells's picture


I want to thank you so much for responding to my concern.The article was very helpful.I have a school board meeting Monday and I hope that those who attend will have open hearts as well as mind. It has gotten so very ugly in our district among school admin.,parents,teachers and students.A total disrespect for another.I have been going to our schools once week just walking the halls praying for peace. I am not angry I am just disappointed.I am trying to educate myself on PBL so that I can effectively share correct information. Pray that I make a difference.Thanks again.

Zachary Ramsey's picture

Lisa, as a teacher who is new to PBL, I can tell you there is a steep learning curve when it comes to implementing a new way of teaching in one's classroom. I also know what it's like to deal with reluctant or even hostile teachers when it comes to PBL. A great resource that helped me come to terms with my own shortcomings with regard to PBL is:

I watched all of the videos on that website (and some of them multiple times). I think that if you can find a few teachers who are really into PBL and share those videos with them, it may help.

Good luck at your meeting and best wishes.

Zachary Ramsey

Halima Penny's picture

Learning inspires! Thank you for writing about how Common Core and PBLwork together to help kids think more critically and problem solve. This is my first time hearing of PBLwork. I share stories/blogs with my students to encourage them to be creative, work hard and positive results will come of it. My students are in a district that has little resources for student success and they listen and want to push forward. I Love this blog. How do I learn more on common core and PBLwork in communities to make a difference?

Amy Conley's picture
Amy Conley
Senior English instructor in Fortuna, California


Edutopia and both have excellent resources to learn about about Project-Based Learning. If you twitter, #pblchat has information there.

Your students could take on a project as a class. You could try out a new way of teaching in an achievable way. Good luck! Happy learning to your students! Amy

Halima Penny's picture

Thank You Amy, for the resources. I will try as well. Great Idea and l look forward to trying these ideas with my students. Thanks again and Best wishes.

2seetheglobe's picture

I teach Grade 4/5 at the American International School of Bamako in Mali, West Africa. For 3 years my class has partnered with a local health NGO and 3 local elementary schools on a PBL service learning project, creating graphic novels (in French and English) on malaria, rotavirus, and malnutrition. My students work alongside the local students to research the medical facts, storyboard, write the story, create the illustrations, and insert it all into a comic software program. We produce hundreds of copies and distribute them in local schools. It would take me an hour to list the benefits that these projects afford my students! Here's a link to our malaria graphic novel, The Adventures of Anti-Malaria Man:

Amy Conley's picture
Amy Conley
Senior English instructor in Fortuna, California

Those comic books amaze me! I will be showing them to my students next week. Thank you!

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