George Lucas Educational Foundation

A Place for PBL: Envision Schools’s Project Exchange

September 18, 2007

This is a guest posting from my colleague, Kyle Hartung, who has worked in small schools for ten years as a classroom teacher and instructional leader in New York City and the San Francisco Bay Area. As part of the Leadership and Instructional Team at Envision Schools, he coaches and facilitates professional development among school leaders and teachers.

Hartung also supports educational projects for Envision Schools, including the Stanford School Redesign Network's portfolio-assessment system, and assists WestEd Interactive in implementing the Project Exchange, an online tool that supports effective project design and promotes sharing of best practices.

Powerful examples of project-based and problem-based teaching and learning exist in schools and classrooms across the country, but how can we learn from and build on these models? Most teachers I've met who teach with PBL want to discuss successes and struggles, and desire to collaborate and share ideas with others as a way to learn and stay professionally inspired. But how? Many resources, interesting lesson plans, and great ideas can be found online, but rarely is the scaffolding of how to implement the "great" project available.

Until now. Envision Schools's Project Exchange captures our teachers' work, celebrates best practices, and provides opportunities to publicly share and discuss ideas about how to effectively implement PBL at our schools. The exchange is a place for teachers to share high school PBL curriculum, and highlights exemplary projects both small and large. For example, when teacher teams began their project planning for this school year, they used the Project Exchange to reference previous work and replicated materials and project elements for use in their own classes.

The Project Exchange isn't simply a showcase for end products. What sets it apart as a curriculum and project library is that teachers both inside and outside our network can access the variety of project samples and accompanying instructional activities, resources, and assessments. All these materials are downloadable and ready to be replicated, adapted, and built on according to the teacher's specifications.

The projects on the site also indicate how the work is mapped to state standards and performance outcomes, and provide examples of the students' work. And because projects are organized by school, subject, assessment, and outcome, teachers are able to search the library to find the materials, resources, or inspiration they need.

The sample projects and student work, teacher reflections, and audiovisual instructional modules reflect the values of our professional community, provide a platform for our development and instructional design, and support the dissemination of our vision and practice. The Project Exchange supports our efforts to build capacity for sustained PBL at all grade levels across our network of schools, and, because it's available to the public, it keeps us honest in our practice.

Although preparing projects for publication on the Project Exchange is demanding and time consuming, teachers feel it's worthwhile. The time spent revisiting the work and looking at it more objectively is powerful and promotes a sense of closure -- they know that the project is finished and that next time, it has a chance of being even better. And because the work is public, the material is high quality and provides a clear view into the struggles and realities of implementing PBL.

Looking back on her work, one teacher identifies an area for growth: "I noticed many different facets of the project that engaged students. Those who didn't feel confident with interpreting the research were assets during the use of iMovie." Another identifies a successful sequence of choices in the project design, observing that "the reading-process project in combination with the banned-books essay was a great assignment that engaged students with issues in a rigorous, yet engaging way."

By sharing what they've learned, teachers also impart simple advice. One teacher reflects, "It was difficult to steer students away from the traditional story-revision and editing process. In the future, I would implement more structured feedback sessions so students could become comfortable giving and receiving constructive criticism." Still another commented on the mock-trial assignment, saying, "The First Amendment principles could be touched upon but not displayed in depth. If we could have incorporated actual court procedures where students argued these principles, the trials would have seemed much more authentic."

Teachers outside our network can also access the Project Exchange and comment on projects, provide feedback, email questions to the original project designer, and share how they implemented the work in their own classroom or school.

Our goal is for your teaching and learning community to benefit from the Project Exchange and build a stronger web of critical friendships with those who share a common vision. We are all busy and must remember to reflect on our work and share our successes, consider the powerful impact we've made on a student's ability to learn, and share resources with others to move the experience of all students and schools toward transforming what is possible in classrooms.

In what capacity would you like to see the Project Exchange used in your professional community? What aspects could be improved? We'd like to hear your feedback.

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