Project-Based Learning (PBL)

School Culture: It Must Extend Beyond School Walls

The students in this small-town school reach out to enhance their curriculum.

September 1, 2000

After analyzing the content of samples from local wells for a project about the quality of drinking water, fifth- and sixth-grade students at Shutesbury Elementary School display their information on a large map of the town and look for patterns in the data.

At my school, we do all we can to bring the outside world in, in the form of local experts for our studies and community members to view and critique our work. And we also do all we can to get our students out into the community for fieldwork, exploration, and service. The town support that my school enjoys could never have been built without this two-way outreach.

Field trips are an integral part of all major studies. Classes visit caves, mountains, sawmills, factories, laboratories, artist studios, retail stores, farms, hospitals, private homes, colleges, other elementary schools, and all kinds of sites. These trips are a chore to plan and often exhausting to manage. The payback, though, in student and teacher excitement and investment, is well worth the trouble. Because we have no money for buses, all trips are accomplished with parent drivers. Almost all families have two working parents, so arranging field trips takes early and ongoing effort to persuade parents to take a day off work to help with their child's education.

A Community Learns Together

This tiring task has its hidden benefits. Students are prepared well for field trips -- already possessing an impressive knowledge of the area under study -- and parents accompanying us on trips are invariably delighted to see the students shine in this way, asking perceptive questions and exhibiting real interest. Parent loyalty to the classroom, the school, and its methods is forged during these occasions, and parents begin to feel an ownership of the school's goals. Parents, teachers, and students are all learners together. Most of all, these trips serve to put learning and knowledge clearly in the sphere of life rather than simply in books and classroom studies.

Similarly, outside experts are brought into the classroom to speak with students whenever possible. These experts may be professionals in a field, sharing information in an area we're studying. They may be individuals coming in to critique or assist with artistic or academic skills. Or they may be people just coming in to share firsthand stories from their lives that bear on our work. Some of these "experts" are professors, craftspeople, or businesspeople; some are parents or siblings of students; some are even ex-students or students from other classrooms.

Well-Prepared Students

Once again, students are prepared thoroughly for each visitor so they are not only polite but sophisticated and astute in listening and responding. Some experts are hard to line up for the first visit, but most are so pleased and excited by the level of interest and knowledge in the students that subsequent visits are easy to schedule.

One professional Egyptologist, who I think had never presented to students below the college level, lowered her fee to visit us and planned to give a one-hour talk. She was so astonished at the students' passion for ancient Egypt and their knowledge of history and hieroglyphics that she stayed all morning, sharing stories and knowledge and helping students to translate hieroglyphics. She offered to guide us free of charge on an upcoming museum trip and stayed in touch all year.

These outside experts serve to keep me fresh and excited as a teacher and serve as models for students. They provide us with the vocabulary and concepts we need to critique our work in their field. They interest students in careers. And they allow students to watch me, as teacher, learn along with them.

We try to involve parents and families in school projects and studies as much as possible. Aside from field trips and giving presentations, parents, relatives, and neighbors are also invited to school regularly to listen to presentations by students or outsiders and to see exhibitions of student work. Families are encouraged to take an interest in projects, and their help is welcomed. Some projects are specifically designed to be community projects.

Research Benefits Town

Recently, third- and fourth-grade students, accompanied by parents, visited senior citizens and historical sites all over the town to conduct interviews and research, which is to be included in a book being published this fall about our town in the twentieth century. At the same time, fifth and sixth graders were taking water samples from all the streams and lakes in town to test for pollution. They also gathered samples from the wells of families in town to assess the quality and mineral content of drinking water, using a mass spectrometer in a partnership with a local college laboratory.

Bringing the community into our school builds for us the foundation of support we need in our town. We are a strange and newfangled school in a small, conservative town; we have no textbooks, no grades, and, in some rooms, no desks. We have won over the hearts of much of the town, not because we talk a good line but because the students do well in real-life measures of learning. They are capable and confident readers, writers, and users of math. They are strong thinkers and workers. They are polite and treat others well. We want people to see this, and we achieve it both by bringing the community in and by sending out of school each day students whose excitement in learning doesn't end at the school door.

Reprinted with permission from A Culture of Quality: A Reflection on Practice, published by the Annenberg Institute for School Reform at Brown University, Providence, Rhode Island. To order the full text, contact AISR at (401) 863-2018,, or

Share This Story

  • email icon

Filed Under

  • Project-Based Learning (PBL)
  • Place-Based Learning
  • 3-5 Upper Elementary

Follow Edutopia

  • facebook icon
  • twitter icon
  • instagram icon
  • youtube icon
  • Privacy Policy
  • Terms of Use
George Lucas Educational Foundation
Edutopia is an initiative of the George Lucas Educational Foundation.
Edutopia®, the EDU Logo™ and Lucas Education Research Logo® are trademarks or registered trademarks of the George Lucas Educational Foundation in the U.S. and other countries.