Category Archives: Project-Based Learning

Developing integrated units from commercial curriculum

Walking through what it looks like to take commercial curriculum and develop a vibrant, personalized integrated unit.

One thing we hear all the time in our work as professional development coordinators is:

“How do you both personalize learning for students AND use the curriculum materials adopted by the district or school? Aren’t these things in opposition?”

The answer is no, they don’t have to be in opposition at all. Like anything worth doing, it takes time, creativity and collaboration.  But you can do it! You can create integrated units that use the Lucy Calkins writing or reading units as a basis, for example. You can turn them — viola! — into project-based learning units that engage and excite students.

Case in point:

Burke Town School in the Kingdom East School District wanted to tackle this problem head on. We helped them to take their leadership team, plus district coaches through an example of what it looks like to create an integrated unit using the Units of Study for Teaching Reading commercial curriculum by Lucy Calkins reading materials. We decided to use the grade four extreme weather unit as our basis for the exercise. Our goals were to:

  • Experience the hands-on process of integrated planning with a focus on personalized learning approaches and using the curriculum as a foundation. 
  • Develop capacity and understanding of the intersections between curricular programs/resources and personalization.

Our guiding question to explore together:

How can we create an integrated unit plan that addresses Teachers College Writing Units, the CCSS standards, NGSS, and other academic standards while personalizing learning?

Here we go. Consider it a creative process. 

Review engaging pedagogies

First, let’s review some engaging pedagogies.

When teachers begin creating a unit, we often choose a teaching pedagogy or approach. And some might say that you can create hybrids of blends of pedagogy in your unit plans. What approach will you use? What are the parts of these pedagogies?

These are all engaging because they feature student choice, voice, authentic audiences, relevance, purpose, and community partnership opportunities. Choose your pedagogical approach that best fits the needs of your students and your topic. 

Create a brainstorm web or map

First step is to think big. What core concept will be at the center of this unit?

In this case, it’s reading about extreme weather. Together create a web of ideas about all of the teaching and learning, possible integration points and parts of project-based learning they might contain. As in, what might be the driving question(s), the exciting launch event, the possible project creations, the community partners, and the culminating event? What concepts connect, extend, and support the learning?

Think big. Think about all of the connections and possible community activities and partnerships.

Here is our web within this theme:

                 EXTREME WEATHER

commercial curriculum

Dig into the unit materials

The unit orientation or overview is honestly something that busy teachers often skip in any curriculum. But really, when creating personalized learning units and approaches, it is critical to read how the unit theme fits together with a progression of lessons and activities. Also, we need to consider how to make sure those activities are as engaging and as personalized as possible.  So, saddle up, and do some reading. Sticky notes might help you label some of these important parts.

  • Look for:
    • Engagement, purpose, entry events, community partners, relevance. 
    • What do you notice? 
    • Possible spots for integration.

Fill in a planning template

commercial curriculum

There are many to pick from and you might have a favorite. We used our own PBL planning template. You can use one you prefer but make sure to address these items:

  • Identify the driving question 
  • Brainstorm the launch event 
  • Decide on the culminating event 
  • List and describe the learning experiences, lessons, and artifacts 
  • Uncover what scaffolds are needed
  • What will students create as an end product?
  • What knowledge, skills, proficiencies will students meet?
    • For literacy, these proficiencies have already been identified. What else?
  • How will students reflect on and show their learning?
  • What assessment will you use?

Plan nuts and bolts

Now consider your next steps. What are the nuts and bolts of this? Grab a colleague, and decide when, what and how will all of this happen:

    • Make sure you have the driving question, the template filled out.
    • Set the date for the culminating event and work backwards from there.
    • Take time to discuss: What are the learning experiences, lessons, and artifacts be?  What scaffolds are needed? How will students reflect on and show their learning?  What assessment will you use? 
    • How will intervention/strategy groups still occur, how will mini-lessons and workshop time be managed?
    • Set up your Project calendar
    • Discuss and decide, how will you monitor the project? (Regular common planning time is essential!)
    • Plan the lessons, create the learning scales, checklists and scaffolds needed

Reflect and Refine

commercial curriculum

All truly great learning emerges from reflection. During your teaching and after the unit is finished, spend some time considering what worked.

  • What did you notice in your students work?
  • What did you see about their connections to the real world?
  • How was student engagement?
  • How did YOU feel throughout the process of teaching the unit?
  • What might you change next time?

All of these reflective prompts will lead you to deepen your awareness of your teaching practices. And teachers need to look back on the learning experiences they create for their students. It’s what makes us all get better at our craft.

The Teacher’s College Units of Study are commercial curriculum ripe for personalization, project-based learning, and building relevance.  This workshop is used throughout many schools. There are endless possibilities for integration, and it just takes a bit of planning, curriculum design, and collaboration. Add this extra planning to the existing curriculum and you can create a rich, rigorous, deep and powerful unit for students.

Share your examples with us.

How have you found ways to bring personalized learning approaches into a commercial curriculum?

We’d love to hear your stories of what worked for you.


Project-based learning at home

It all started with a pandemic

Dear reader, as you are well aware, back in March a global pandemic struck and in-person schooling was suspended for the remainder of the school year. Quite suddenly, my family, like many, found ourselves home together all day, every day. My kids, also like many, thrive on routine. When we realized we would be spending All The Time together, we quickly built a family “home school” schedule.

This was in that in-between period before remote schooling had begun in earnest. We designed a schedule that had our three kids rotating through hands-on work, learning apps, and ….(drumroll)….project time. While I continue to work full time, my husband took over all things kids and schooling. My husband is a carpenter. This means that project time is also known as building-cool-stuff-with-dad time. Like birdhouses… or a playhouse… or a mountain bike pump track… or a new bedroom.

Wait a minute, I thought, this would make an excellent PBL project!

As my kids and their dad set about planning out each kid’s dream project (see: playhouse, pump track, and new bedroom), I immediately thought of the math! The physics! The ecology! The design thinking! And the skills: Self-direction! Project management! Critical thinking! Problem-solving! Perseverance! Collaboration!

The kids could take pictures, write reflections, and make a mini-documentary telling the stories of their projects. This is personalized learning at its best, right? These are Passion Projects! And this would be the perfect content for my students’ — ahem, I mean, my children’s —  PLPs.

I gleefully invited the kids to begin thinking about how they could document their projects and learning.

Unfortunately, I was met with eyerolls and groans.

Somehow it seems that they’re not all that excited about “school-ifying” their projects.

As an educator, I can’t ignore the myriad learning opportunities these projects offer. But my learners aren’t playing. This is real life, they crow. Why do we need to write about it? they plead.

Right now, the lines between school-and-home and teacher-and-parent are blurred. I need to think about this.

We interrupt this blog post for a few words from John Dewey:

That Dewey guy, fellow Vermonter? He was pretty brilliant when it came to education. (For the record, so was his wife Alice, whose career as an educator provided Dewey much of the fodder for his astute observations and Pedagogic Creed.) His more famous quotes often rattle around in my head at pivotal moments. Here are a few that have been circling my thoughts lately:

“I believe that education… is a process of living and not a preparation for future living.”

Education is life.

And that couldn’t be more true as we plant seeds, make bread, and learn the names of the spring plants emerging in the forest.

“We don’t learn from experience…we learn from reflecting on experience.”

And reflection is where we make meaning. Just like savasana following a yoga practice lets all the good sink in and lets our bodies integrate all that work, we need to pause after these rich learning experiences.

We need to evaluate and write our mental note-to-self.

To let our experience sink in.

If Dewey is right (and I believe he is) it is both these real-world pandemic projects and the process of reflecting on them that is The Real Thing. Our Aim in Education.

But how can I help my kids reap the benefits of these learning experiences without the eyerolls and groans? (Read: suffering for children and parents alike.)

Striking a balance

I remember in high school English class how I would lament that I just wanted to read the book and enjoy it, not pick it apart into such fine detail that it loses its appeal. I remember how I assigned my students to complete reading logs, documenting minutes and pages read.  Arguably these both killed some of the joy of the experiences.

Yet, I’ve been actively involved in book clubs for the past 20 years, where I show up so that I can discuss books (and yes, eat cheese and sip beverages). And I now keep track of my own reading on the Goodreads app. I love seeing my collection of books grow, and the satisfaction of reaching my reading goals.

project-based learning at home

So what’s the difference?

How do I make sense of my adult behaviors in the context of my schooling experiences? Why now do I deeply enjoy something that I resisted as a student? There are probably many answers, but one stands out: without having become proficient at the skills necessary for these behaviors (decoding and meaning-making! literary analysis! goal setting!) I probably wouldn’t engage in them as an adult.

Similarly, our kids need to develop essential skills.

And developing these skills takes practice. Take perseverance, for example, the stick-with-it-ness that allows us to meet even the most challenging tasks with success. Based on my recent observations, my kid isn’t likely to learn perseverance by practicing his multiplication tables or emptying the dishwasher.

So is there a way to get there without as much resistance?

Based on this kid’s new-found passion for his bike and his drive to build a pump track, he just might learn it with a shovel.

project-based learning at home

And this is the promise of personalized learning.

When we give kids a choice of what to do, and when it’s something they love (or like; like is good enough) they can develop the skills they need to succeed, driven by their own interests. They can work toward developing proficiency in a wide array of skills while engaged in an activity that captures their imagination and interest.

When this happens, our role shifts.

Questions, questions, and more questions

So maybe I’ve figured out my pandemic project problem. My kids already have passion projects underway.  Education = life, check! And ok, as a mom, maybe it doesn’t make sense to assign actual documentation and reflection in a PLP (though as a teacher it sure would).

But it does make sense to slow them down, ask them questions, and help them plan and reflect. This will balance my Deweian-experience-and-reflection equation.

Here’s what I’m thinking:

Before work

My role before the kids get started is to help them make a plan and get organized and to anticipate and plan for challenges. A few of these questions would do:

  • What are you going to do today?
  • How long do you think it will take?
  • What materials do you need?
  • What do you think will be the hardest part?
  • How might you handle it if that happens?

During work

For the most part, when things are going well, they need little intervention. But when they get frustrated, or when we see things going off track, a little redirection can nudge things back in the right direction.

  • How can I help?
  • What do you need to do next?
  • What do you think will happen if you do that?
  • How are you feeling? Do you think it would help if you took a break?

After work

When work is done (for the hour, for the day, or the project is complete), we can hold the space for reflection.

  • What went well?
  • What didn’t go well?
  • Next time, what would you do differently?
  • How do you feel?
  • How did you solve the problem?
  • What are you most proud of?
  • What is your next step for next time?

I can notice, aloud, how they located the information they needed or worked together successfully, or how they worked hard to achieve their goal even though they were tired/frustrated/hungry. I can celebrate their success with them.

Also, please notice that these aren’t leading questions. (Like: what will you do after you make a mess? What will happen if you don’t? Do you really think that’s a good idea? Just what do you think you’re doing, mister!?) And they aren’t statements, either. They are generous, curious, scaffolding questions.

By asking questions I’m engaging their brains in problem-solving. I’m asking them to figure it out, perhaps with a little support.

Considering the questions is more important than having the answers

Here’s the truth: even when I ask my kids these questions they often don’t have the answers. There might be an IDK. But in just considering the questions we are helping them build the neural pathways for planning and reflection in their brains. Just like it can take up to 40 experiences with food before a child decides they like it, it can also take numerous iterations of

  • “What’s your first step?”
  • “What went well?”
  • “Next time, what would you do differently?”

to build those connections and insight.

But soon they’ll have an answer, and eventually, they’ll be able to ask themselves the questions.

And once they have those skills (and they’ll know they have those skills because they’ve noticed and reflected on them) they will be able to call on them in the moments when the content of their task is less appealing.

We may need to remind them of this, too.


So after reflection (hey, thanks for reading) I think I know how to solve this learning documentation conundrum. Now, in this pandemic spring, I will urge my children to continue their projects.

And I will ask them questions. (Lots of questions.)

And that will be enough.







In case it’s helpful: Super Sisters Academy schedule and project sheet

Connecting students to community in the Northeast Kingdom

How do we help students connect to their communities, and consider how to enrich community life?

That’s the question Chrissy Park and her 3rd through 5th grade students at Burke Town School, in West Burke VT, have spent their year exploring. Together and in-person, they considered ways they could all take part in their community. Now, as Chrissy and her students face the move to remote learning, they continue that work with renewed vigor.

The Connect Vermont Students to Community Project

After Burke Town School moved to emergency distance learning, Chrissy built digital structures to reinforce and expand on the community work. She created a unit that uses project-based learning structures to shape remote learning.

She built the Connect Vermont Students to Community Project: a four-week online adventure exploring the questions:

  • What is community?
  • Why is community important?
  • Thinking through the lens of the Global Goals, how has community been effected by the pandemic?
  • What do we want to do in the fall to bring community back together?

The unit invites students to consider ways to come together virtually. It also encourages them more than ever to become active, contributing members of their local communities.

She started Week 1 with a Padlet to create daily guides for students. It featured playlists of resources.

You can find her emerging plans here.  Feel free to make a copy for your own use — thank you, Chrissy!

And for dealing taking the project offline, due to bandwidth or screen fatigue, Chrissy’s also created a slideshow of this project, where the resource links could be viewed separately or printed out.

But taking the project online worked so well because of all the scaffolding Chrissy did with students in person, in the before time. She worked with them the entire year on this idea of community connection.

This community work took a village: Learning Lab VT

To focus on community and civic engagement, Chrissy signed up for Learning Lab VT, a year-long project that brings educators together to support each other in pursuing personalized learning. Chrissy’s inquiry question?

How does personalization and project based learning help students connect and engage in their local community?

Chrissy and her teaching team intentionally prepared students to have the skills to engage in community work. They wanted all students, no matter their age, to participate and find success. With the support of the Learning Lab, they invited the Burke 5th graders into roles as consultants and co-planners in this multi-age class. Students quickly took on leadership.

Scaffolding skills and habits to self-direction: introducing the whole loaf metaphor

Early in the school year, Chrissy recognized the need to provide clear, concrete, step-by-step supports for PBL work.

“At the beginning our our PBL time we rushed a lot of things and it ended with students not understanding the purpose of what we were doing and not understanding how what they were doing connected to the real world. We took a step back and came up with 4 slices to our loaf.

We started by having students doing collaboration activities which helped them feel closer to their team members and also helped us realize potential group issues early on in the project. And we then went to our second slice, which was having students practice being a historian by researching a VT landmark. They used a rubric to create an infographic that displayed their findings. Third slice: together we then researched how the global goals were being worked on throughout the world community. We launched our PBL website with all the links they needed. Easy access to a help link on the website supported more independence during project work time.”

Throughout the different slices of the year, students experienced different scaffolds and supports to aid in self-direction and independence. Google Forms helped support a communication flow between teachers and students. Exit tickets and an engagement survey allowed students to provide feedback for mid-project corrections. The Help Link on the project website provided a just-in-time space for students to reach out when necessary but maintain independence. And the Google Doc Project Note Catcher helped group members keep track of the daily work and for teachers to monitor progress and provide necessary supports along the way.

Students as project planning partners and team leaders

Chrissy and her team recognized the importance of students taking an increased role in the design, development, and evaluation of learning in a PBL environment as a key indicator of personalized learning environments.

Kallick and Zmuda suggest, “a balanced approach as students become more capable being increasingly more self-directed and educators find more opportunities to allow students the space to participate in design work.” What Progressively Student Driven Means in Personalized Learning

Chrissy gathered her 5th grade student leadership team and explained their role in this work. As leaders they would partner with her by providing feedback, help plan activities and serve as in-class supports during PBL time.

First, she tasked them to choose standards for different phases of the project. Next, the student leadership team created transferable skills rubrics. They based them on scales they had been using for PBL. The scales focused on what makes for successful collaboration and civic engagement. And, they planned whole group collaboration activities because they recognized the importance of practicing this important skill. Together they created a powerpoint presentation about engagement, personalization and effort and how all three of these connect. Finally, they helped collect and analyze data. And then they proposed solutions to problems that arose from the data analysis and during PBL work time.

The two-pronged approach of scaffolds and student leaders? That was sure to set up these Burke Town students to be successful.

How might you create an extended community of Vermonters coming together with a shared purpose?


How to throw culminating events — online!

It is spring. I know, snow has fallen and it has been cold lately, but it’s officially May. And while school might not look like every other bustling year with our end of the year celebrations, showcases, exhibitions, and events, we can still find ways to celebrate and share student learning. You might find yourself having to PIVOT your passion projects, project-based or service learning units celebrations online.

In this moment, we can still find connection, audience and purpose. It’s just (like everything else right now) going to take a bit of planning and pivoting.

So, rewind!

What are culminating events?

culminating events for project-based learningThey’re the lovely finish line of a project-based learning unit. They celebrate the projects and the learning in an authentic, community based forum. And they’ve been a key motivating factor for the project. Generally, they’re in-person events, like school exhibitions, community nights, or guided tours.

I think you see where we’re going with this.


But all is not lost: culminating events can still happen in meaningful ways online.

The essential elements of culminating events are exactly the same online

A culminating event should be:

  • an authentic way to share projects to a wider community
  • the audience is one that is important to the students– they are stake-holders on the issue
  • students see and feel how their work is connected to a wider community
  • students present their work publicly and feel the value in this

Make it work!

Learning fairs & exhibitions

In learning fairs and exhibitions, students present to parents, the school community, and other interested groups. These usually take place in gymnasiums, courtyards, and classroom spaces. Now? We need to consider how to bring folks together online.

There could be various formats for this, both asynchronous and synchronous. A quick review!

  • Synchronous is when students are learning at the same time, in real time. This allows for instant personal communication and connection. Examples of this include video conferencing, live chats, and live streamed videos.
  • Asynchronous is when students are learning at their own pace, at different times. Communication is pre-recorded in some way. This is sometimes more convenient and flexible for learners. This includes emails, screencasts, messages on Google Classrooom, Flipgrids, and blog posts or comments.

Next, consider what might work best for your students and families. And right now? Many folks are understanding how important education is (um, yeah!) and are able to support students with feedback and celebration.

Synchronous options:

  • A live Zoom/Google Meets presentation. This could be a time when students do a short video presentation live. They could share their screens to show their digital work. Survey caregivers to see what time might work best for them, and provide different options. If students were unable to be present live, or if a bandwidth / tech issue prevents successful synchronous meeting, the student could record a screencast presenting the work, then submit their videos to their teachers before hand, who could show it.

Asynchronous options:

  • A shared padlet. Students could publish their work to a padlet. What is a padlet, you say? It’s like a virtual bulleting board, where you can pin up work and links. You can set them so that anyone with the link could comment; then grandparents, neighbors, other invested community members (and even the general public if you desire!) could comment.
  • A shared Flipgrid. Students could post their presentations to a Flipgrid for your class. A new topic, called our community celebration/demonstration of learning, could be set up and students could post their presentations. Again, students and families could post comments and reactions. They could even record their own videos responding and giving praise.
  • A YouTube video. Decide what level of audience you want: an unlisted video, or one linked to your school’s account. I would leave comments off for this, but you could encourage folks to give feedback in another format.



  • A published website of a gallery of images. This could be shared with various audiences via email or social media. Other ideas include online maps, blog posts, or online magazines and websites.
  • E-book creation. Book Creator is a great tool for this! Students can work on part of a book and demonstrate their learning that way, and the teacher can publish the e-book for any audience. For example, see this recently released e-book from the researchers at Ottauquechee School.
  • Seesaw Journal or Blog entries. If your students are regularly sharing their learning on their Seesaw digital portfolios, or in a public Seesaw blog, this is a perfect venue for them to share their presentations with teachers and families.

These provide a great way to assess students use of the transferable skills of communication as well!

Student-to-student presentations

Students can present their work to younger students in this moment too. Sometimes the most valuable audience is peers. Especially younger ones that motivated older students to engage, be role models, be friendly, and connect. Can two classes connect for a presentation of learning via videoconferencing? Or can your students sent a video or photo of a project to younger students for feedback? This is a great option for this moment of prolonged remote learning.

Digital showcases

With so many digital sharing tools, students can create something of value in their PBL projects to share with the wider world. The culminating event can include the act of sharing that creation.

These can include educational YouTube videos, online maps, blog posts, or online magazines and websites. Take a look at this YouTube video from the historians and newscasters at Proctor Elementary School, in Proctor VT.

Targeted shares

Did your students do projects based on a favorite book? Maybe they could share their work directly with the author! So, one collective padlet or gallery of projects could be shared directly with the author on Twitter, and imagine the excitement of a response, if not by the author, then by lots of fellow readers. This could work for scientists, writers, performers, politicians, CEOs, and other leaders of their fields!

Or reenactments of a scene from your favorite books could get noticed by the author…


Reflection and practice makes progress

When finishing a project, take a few moments to help students get ready to present by reflecting on their experience. Ask questions like:

  • What did you learn?
  • How did you work through challenges
  • Describe new skills did you gain?
  • How do you feel about your work?

In addition, students will still need to practice a lot to get ready to present, no matter what format! Students have different levels of comfort with presenting and will need practice time, scaffolding, and some feedback about how to improve. Family members, siblings, or even stuffed animals can make good practice partners.

Lastly, don’t forget to have students reflect at the end of the culminating event, too. This is a great time to capture student thinking after sharing their work to an audience. Here are some ways to facilitate these reflections. 

Share your Learning has fabulous resources for ways to share your learning remotely, with step by step guides! 

How might you help students share their learning with an audience this spring?

Pivoting! to remote PBL

Oh, remember back when we had our project-based learning culminating events all mapped out? Students presenting at Dynamic Landscapes! A school wide community celebration of Cabot Leads! Presentations at Cultivating Sustainable Pathways.. and the Vermont Rural Education Collaborative conference. So many plans, spring days, joining together to celebrate and witness each other’s efforts!

Full. stop. Enter, school cancellation until the end of the year.

First, we can mourn for that loss. The spring celebrations and culminating events for me are one of the most fulfilling and inspiring parts of the school year, when students proudly present what they have created, in their own voices, and how it has changed them, and often positively impacted the world. It is moving, important, purposeful.

*Sigh* After we have mourned this loss, we can pivot. Project-based learning can still happen remotely, and students can still find meaning, purpose, collaboration, joy and share their work with their communities. It’s just going to look different now. We can still feature:

  • relevance
  • purpose
  • collaboration
  • hands on work
  • community partnerships
  • culminating events

We can still use this PBL template, but consider how we can do each part virtually and remotely. So, let’s go! Pivoting to remote/distance PBL. We got this.

Exciting Virtual Launches

Often one of the first, most exciting and important parts of PBL is launching the entry event. These are critical to engage students in the learning, by tapping into relevance, motivation, and excitement. They are something novel, high-interest, that can give students a reason to dive into a driving question for inquiry. Luckily, many organizations see this opportunity to engage students and are giving us resources to do so.

Here are some examples of high interest virtual launches:

The idea is experience something new and exciting… then ask students to generate questions or to pondering a driving question you have created, and launch all sorts of inquiry and thinking.

Moments of Collaboration

It is easy to think that the shift to remote PBL means that students will be working on projects by themselves. But this is not true! Student can work collaboratively on projects with many of the same supports you designed at the beginning. Collaborating on Google Docs and slides? Yep. Creating a timeline and due dates? Yep. Giving each other feedback on work? Indeed. Students will need support with how to do this, as in schedules, dates, expectations and times. This could look like a weekly post describing how they worked as a team that week, or daily exit tickets with this check in.

Here are a few tools that support collaboration in remote project-based learning:

Scaffolding and support

PBL requires lots of support and scaffolding from the teacher, and in the remote environment, this is even more important. What might this look like? It might be providing one slide show of the entire project, step be step, that students can follow, and the announcements that day can say what step your class is working on. It could also be creating a Google Site for the project, with weekly plans and task listed on docs embedded in the site, like this one from Learning Lab participant and 3/4 teacher from Burke Town School, Chrissy Park!

Or it could be clear instructions on Google Classroom in an announcement: “Hey class! Today, use this research note catcher to document your research using the Padlet of sources for your team. Add your main takeaway as a comment to this post sometime this week.”

Remote PBL could take the form of a playlist as well, guiding students through a series of steps to complete the project. Here, you will see Burke teachers Amelia Wurzberg and Courtney Murray continued their year long focus on the United Nations Global Goals with a choice board to pivot their PBL to a remote environment, and provide flexibility to the project.

In thinking about UDL, offer all students support like you might in the classroom: graphic organizers, note catchers, clear instructions and steps, and ways to get more support. Here are the principles of UDL as they apply to remote learning environments.


Regular reflection is a key part of project-based and service learning. Schedule weekly reflection opportunities digitally or on paper, just as online journals such as Seesaw or create digital books such as Book Creator. Or, have students post reflections on Flipgrid. The key is regular reflection with multiple modalities for doing so. Students can reflect on their learning of the transferable skills or other learning targets. All of the strategies in this post are doable remotely with some minor tweaks!

Community Partnerships

These are still possible and important! Many community partners want to be available to support students. Creating a community partner contact list is a good first step, either with students, in your teaching team, or on your own. Then, coordinate ways teams of students can meet with community partners online or get feedback on their working drafts. Check out how folks at People’s Academic Middle Level have partnered with their communities in project-based learning. 

Culminating Events

While these will certainly be different, they can still provide an authentic audience. Any of these ideas could be remote as well.

Students can:

  • send a video presentation to legislators or interested in community groups
  • curate and present a slideshow of work via video or audio to a school and community audience at a virtual event
  • livestream a presentation to a wider audience (with family approval, of course)
  • create and share YouTube video presentations
  • create an Adobe Spark and share online
  • other ideas!

Another example

One example of remote PBL that I recently saw was this one, created by over 100 educators, PBL about this moment in time. A caution, however, that this might be too overwhelming and scary for students who are experiencing loss and anxiety right now. They could focus on other aspects of the project, such as building community, self-care, or other issues related but not directly exploring the virus and its impacts.

Another word of caution

We need to make sure that the design of remote PBL is  equitable and trauma informed. First, any PBL that requires any fancy materials, or any materials actually, that are not usually readily available in the home environment. And before a student uses any home materials, have them check with caregivers at home. Resources right now are challenging to find and manage.

To be trauma informed, the plans need to be flexible and open ended. Plan in student choice, asynchronous opportunities, and adjusted timelines to allow for students who are experiencing difficulties at home. Provide, as Alex Shevrin-Venet shared during a recent webinar, make sure to let “flexibility and empowerment to guide you: offer choices, differentiating, and one choice might be to opt out.”

PBL can be remote, with some planning, and shifting mindsets. How are you moving toward with purpose, motivation and relevance with project-based learning? The keys are flexibility and relevance. We’d love to hear about it!

A critical lens on project-based learning

When we talk about a student in an intervention meeting, we often start with what is amazing about that student. Teachers and caregivers who know the students deeply rattle off talents, skills, and strengths. These are personal and often show up outside of school. There are so many ways to be smart, creative, and self-directed. We start with the positives, with the assets, then move on to what a student might need that they are not getting. This is called an assets or strengths-based approach, where we are seeing students through an appreciative lens. It is a beautiful and affirming way to start a meeting about a student’s needs.

Imagine you are giving feedback on a friend or student’s writing piece. Would you start with everything that is wrong with it? Or would you start with what was strong about the piece?

Most of us respond better to critical feedback once we’ve heard some warm feedback on our work.

Now, imagine how we start project-based or service-learning projects.

Do we start with establishing who knows what about a community, concept or issue, or do we go straight to the “problem”?

One problem I have with problem based learning is how it focuses on, well, deficits or problems.

Perhaps we might begin by learning what is good, right, and positive.

Assets based pedagogies are certainly not new. They have their roots in several curricular and scholarly movements.

  • Critical race methodology “provides a tool to “counter” deficit storytelling” (Solórzano and Yosso 2002, 131). These researchers focus on telling stories that challenge the dominant narratives and seek to fight racism, sexism, and classism. Kim Morrision, in her article, Informed Asset-Based Pedagogy: Coming Correct, Counter-stories from an Information Literacy Classroom, shares that the foundation of assets-based pedagogy are rooted in the work of W. E. B. DuBois, Carter G. Woodson, Zora Neale Hurston, Geneva Gay, and Gloria Ladson-Billings. These authors and researchers used critical race theory to explore people’s lived experiences, especially those that had been pushed to the margins and silenced. 
  • Hip hop pedagogy, summarized in this Edutopia post by Joquetta Johnson, is another approach that has foregrounded and validated the experiences of youth in historically marginalized and underserved communities. This approach is rooted in what Gloria Ladson-Billings introduced as Culturally Responsive Pedagogy, which helps students accept, validate and affirm their cultural identities.

An assets-based approach is not new, but it can be easy to forget in the work of designing service and project-based learning experiences.

As educators, we want to engage students in genuine problems and help them solve them.

In our excitement, we may fail to consider background knowledge, the local context, and an exploration of what is going RIGHT.

Coupled with the negativity bias that can plague humans of any age, but sometimes more specifically early adolescent students, the results can be… dare I say it.. problematic.

Students can confirm negative stereotypes, develop biases, and “other” those they are seeking to help.

I’m reminded of the quote by Hazel Edwards: “nothing about us without us is for us.” These concerns drove me to take another look at our project-based learning and service learning templates. I wondered, what might be missing? And while in my earlier writings about service learning, I encouraged teachers to look for local knowledge, and to connect with the deep well of community when planning service learning, there was no equivalent of that in the project-based learning templates and work.

Updated project-based learning template

So the template needed a spot for students and teachers to explore the assets and knowledge of the issues, community, and context before seeking solutions or improvements before diving into looking to improve conditions or solve problems. You can now see that here in the PBL 3.0 (Strength-based PBL) template.

In addition, there is an asset mapping activity linked here, in the service-learning toolkit.

Planning for justice-oriented action

Two students sit behind a desk in a well-lit classroom, speaking to an adult in front of them. A WCAX news camera is also trained on them. From a critical lens on project-based learning.
Photo credit: Burlington School District

But asset-mapping and approaches aren’t enough.

We need to fully work toward equitable learning environments. Environments where our students’ voices are valued, amplified, and listened to. Environments that include them in decision-making, and project-based learning plans. And these should include a step where students work to find a way to disrupt inequities, challenge dominant narratives, and amplify often unheard voices.

Sharing work with authentic audiences is important, and can increase purpose, motivation, and engagement in students. But if we stop there, are we really working to create more inclusive, equitable policies, procedures, and practices in our schools, communities, country, and world?

Helping students move from authentic sharing to justice-oriented action can help them see their own civic power and agency.

It can support the disruption of inequitable systems, practices and policies. Teaching Tolerance standards include identity, diversity, justice and action and urge meeting these standards across grade levels, including saying, “Students will plan and carry out collective action against bias and injustice in the world and will evaluate what strategies are most effective.”

You’ll see a step in the updated project-based learning template for this here. This provides another opportunity for students to deeply reflect on their actions and plans as well.

"Justice/Democracy Oriented Action: What actions might students take to increase democratic and civic engagement? What actions might be planned that can disrupt or expose misinformation, systems of oppression or damaging narratives, practices, or policies/procedures?" from a critical lens on project-based learning

It’s easy to rush through projects, lessons, and curriculum, without interrogating potential blind spots and falling into harmful equity traps.

I am thankful to scholars of color who have shown me the importance of grounding any meaningful project work in an assets-based approach, and to work toward creating more equitable communities through our work with students. While this often happens in practice, being intentional in the design phase of powerful pedagogies ensures that students will have a more meaningful opportunities to make significant changes for good in their schools, communities and world.

What does this look like in practice?

Thankfully, Vermont teachers and students are showing us how to make this work.

How to make sure their projects take direct action, for instance. How to make projects work toward justice, equity, and/or shared goals. Like the United Nations Global Goals.

Jeremy DeMink’s middle school students at Edmunds Middle School in Burlington have participated in a Hands-Joined Learning project about social inequities and worked to take direct action to change them. These projects were in partnership with Jessica DeMink-Carthew, an assistant professor at the University of Vermont. Students demonstrated humanities learning targets through their social action projects, written about here  by WCAX here. You can read more about the Hands-Joined Learning process in this recently published academic article, or in AMLE magazine for more information.

Check out what teacher Christie Nold and her sixth grade students did to work to disrupt bias and stereotypes and build opportunities for students and teachers to explore their identities. These students designed experiences to make their voices heard. Heard by both teachers at a professional conference *and* by their local school board. This demonstrates not only growth in transferable skills and english language arts standards, but in amplifying student voice in decision-making and educational conferences.

Lastly, the Global Goals inspired service and project-based learning at Burke Town School.

The school launched this project with an asset-based, integrated project called Humans of Burke. In this project, students thought of a local community member they admired. They read up on the person’s work. Then they interviewed them, and created an art block print portraits. A local coffee shop hosted a gallery of the portraits for the community. Affirming, positive, community-based. Quite a place to launch service and project-based learning from!

What do you think?

How can we move our service and project-based learning into a more intentional strength-based and justice oriented experiences?


Real World: Cabot

Rural life and project-based learning

real world project-based learning

You might find students on the skating rink in front of the school, helping out on a goat farm, dirt bike racing, heading to dance class, or fixing broken snowmobiles. All of these life experiences are important to students — and are valid learning experiences in and of themselves! We know that learning and value development doesn’t happen only in schools, so students dug into what makes them tick through looking at what they DO.

How do you get adolescent students to think about their values and beliefs? To ponder what motivates them? And to boldly share this with their families instead of hiding under a desk?

We know that the middle grades are a time of rapid social and emotional development. Middle grade students often form values and perspectives that can last a lifetime! (No big deal, right?). As part of a project-based learning experience led by fifth and sixth grade teacher Sarah Adelman, students in fifth and sixth grade at The Cabot School pondered how their life experiences informed their values and beliefs, and while doing so, they validated their experiences and lives in rural Vermont.

After reading about heroes and listening to podcasts and NPR’s This I Believe essays, students learned that they can discover and demonstrate their beliefs/values while plowing snow, hunting, racing a dirt bike, or fixing broken snowmobiles. They learned to closely examine their life experiences, and use those experiences to illustrate who they are, and what they believe.

The value of plowing snow

Cabot sixth grader Sean chose to reflect on how plowing snow allows him to live his values of perseverance and confidence:

sean rural life project-based learning


Three-thirty in the morning, plowing snow? Sounds like perseverance to me! Just think: if he never reflected on the value of this experience, or knew his teacher cared about it, would he think of himself in this way?

“If I start something, I finish it.”

Sounds like a valuable lesson to me, one that could inform his learning and life for years, and one that could be easily missed if we only value certain experiences over others! As part of this unit, Sean recorded an audio version of his above reflection.

The value of hunting

Sixth grader Mariah found inspiration in hunting for her first deer with her grandfather. She describes her ability to not give up, and her perseverance as factors that helped her shoot her first deer.

rural life project-based learning

This is not an experience every student has. But this is, in fact, an experience dear to many students in rural settings. And it’s an experience that could be easily missed by educators. We have an opportunity with personalized learning plans and project-based learning to validate students’ life experiences and to celebrate their in and out of school learning and selves. And in doing so, they become more fully human, to educators, families and communities.

The value of driving a snowmobile

One Cabot student reflected on the lessons he learned from driving a snowmobile. Just check out the descriptive details that place us right in the middle of the Vermont winter:

One day I was driving my snowmobile. There was white powdery snow on the ground, steam above the river, and birds chirping in my backyard. I was packing down my trails with my snowmobile. My hands were warm inside blue gloves as my my heated handle bars warmed up.

He finally describes how his snowmobile got stuck in an icy bank, and he had to use his problem solving skills, perseverance and strength to get it out. Sounds like a metaphor for life to me!

How we did it:

We wanted the unit to integrate art, social studies and literacy. And to structure this unit, we sat down with a project-based learning planning template and determined how best to execute each step:

  1. Start with an exciting entry event
  2. Create a driving question
  3. The Research and Creation Phase
  4. Finish with an authentic community sharing opportunity.

The entry event? Listening to NPR’s This I Believe audio pieces.

Next, students collaborated on individual and collective driving questions. They moved from What are my values? Through to the collective What are our shared values?

After that, students used multi-media to express their beliefs and values on this art piece and added those elements. And then they incorporated beliefs and values of their hero into the artwork.
What surfaced was a beautiful visual presentation of their essays, values, and beliefs– in the shape of each student.

And finally, the authentic community sharing opportunity: an exhibition for families — as well as themselves.

The many facets of authentic audience

The students shared their projects with families and the school community in an exhibition night. They shared their recordings, essays, art and the whole process of exploration and creation. 

Think about what it means to a student to make a powerful reflection celebrating the value of their life experiences. Students need these self-created reminders of their worth. Pieces that celebrate them. Pieces that remind them they are loved and valued. Don’t overlook the power of a student being their own authentic audience.

In the many times I have been to Cabot this year, these pieces have been hanging near the library. Folks often stop and ponder them. These students feel seen and known, forging connections of life experiences between students, staff and the community that come into the school for events.

How could you see using PBL to help your students explore the value of their life experiences?

PBL or PB&J?

How can you tell the difference between projects and project-based learning?

Turns out, even though they both might involve snazzy projects, they are quite different. Let’s take a look at how. This post is based on research of PBL resources (listed below) and classroom experience. Okay, PBL? PBJ? Let’s dig in.

Here are some guiding questions to consider when pondering if you have a project, or project-based learning approach.

Project-based learning final product at Cabot School: evidence of learning, research, reflection, growth, creativity during the project.

Is the project at the end of the unit, after all the “real learning” as happened?

Those at the Buck Institute, now known as PBLWorks, have coined this “dessert” learning. As in, after the main course, enjoy a delightful and fun dessert! It doesn’t really mean anything, you’ve done the hard work of memorizing content. But with project-based learning, the project is the main course. Students themselves are co-constructing learning while they are researching, collaborating and creating their projects. It is this experience that matters, and reflecting upon it, that is where the learning is.

This isn’t meaning to say that you might need to do some pre-teaching to get students ready for the inquiry involved in project-based learning. That is often something that needs to be done. But projects can often be a teacher led and created hands-on activity at the end of the unit that is very much content and lecture driven.

Is the project student-led, or teacher led?

This is a continuum of course, with varying levels of student and teacher directed experiences. Hopefully, project-based learning should be moving toward the student centered end of the continuum, with scaffolding, support and guidance from the teacher.

Even if the teacher came up with the guiding or essential question based on standards or proficiencies, the how and what parts can be led by students.

Check out this newly created PBL continuum and ponder, how can I move toward more the student centered end to increase motivation, engagement, and self-direction?

Are all of the end projects the same?

One way to tell a project from PBL is that in projects, the end projects are all the same. There is a checklist, and a predetermined product, and all students are doing just that. These can be incredible fun and meaningful for students, but they aren’t project-based learning.

Project-based learning creates more student choice, and likely more motivation, because of that. Students can often decide the end product, and if not, they are having student choice in the content and design of the project. Students will find more meaning and purpose if they are in charge of large aspects of the project. That doesn’t mean you can’t meet proficiencies, or assessment goals. It means that students need to be in the driver’s seat for a large part of the project and that needs to be designed into it from the beginning. And the more teachers do this, the more choice they usually end up trusting their students with.

Who is the project for?

Student designed (on the 3D printer) coaster from Cabot School as part of the oceans PBL unit. Sold to families and profits sent to an ocean non-profit.

Another way to know the difference between PBL and projects is the audience. Is the project for an audience of one, the teacher? Or is it for a community group, parents and school board members, who can give feedback and support and lend purpose to the work? This is critical. Students need to feel that their work matters. Authentic audiences throughout PBL experiences, and at the end in a culminating event, prepare our students for civic engagement and connect them deeply with communities, while providing motivation and purpose in their work.

Is the experience individual and on a computer screen?

There are some very exciting new technologies out there that help students create and craft projects (can you say book creator?). But PBL is a collaborative effort between students, teachers, and community partners. Learning should happen in dialogue, planning, creating, getting feedback and reflection. These activities simply can’t take place entirely in a 1:1 computing situation. Students can use technology to extend and enrich aspects of PBL, but it can’t be a solitary endeavor.

Is the experience is the same for all students, or can students stretch and grow from where they are?

We know that students come to use at varying levels of readiness, skills and learning preferences. How can we value each students’ strengths and help them learn and grow in PBL?

It is not same-ness, as in, all students reading the same thing at the same time and completing the same tasks in the same way. PBL experiences allow for students to gather materials and resources that work for them, to engage in material in a way that uses their strengths but also stretches their learning and skills. This might mean your introvert plans out a call to a community partner by writing a script, and works up to making the call herself. Or, she is the emailer for the group instead. It might mean that some students need direct instruction in the budget process for the school when crafting a proposal for a new playground. Students will present needs that the teacher can then fill with the many tools teachers have. And this is different for all kids.

Is the teacher close in, or sitting back?

It is a common misconception that when you do PBL, teachers can go grade papers at their desk and relax a little, thinking, the hard work is over! The truth is with PBL teachers get a little closer to students in their groups and depending on their needs. Teachers are often facilitating, modeling, direct teaching, giving feedback, and helping kids coordinate with community partners. This is true PBL, when the teacher is a co-learning and facilitator, and project management assistant. In projects, since it is mostly laid out for students, teachers might be able to feel more removed.

If you are wondering about what this PBL business is, please visit our PBL toolkit. Or, if you are ready to jump into planning, please see our PBL planning template, make a copy, and go for it!

Check out this list of the PBL work we’re super impressed with at Vermont schools.

How do you differentiate between PBL and projects?


Introducing: asset mapping

Starting with strengths

Imagine you’re reading a written reflection from a student. This particular student writes so beautifully of the lines on his grandfather’s face, and of the time they spent out on the porch together, enjoying a warm spring night. You can almost see the sun setting and feel the wooden bench they sat on. You can hear the golden retriever’s tail thudding on the worn wooden boards.

When considering the quality of this student’s writing, would you focus on their grammar errors first?

I don’t think so.

You’d start with what’s wonderful about the writing. You’re build a relationship with this writer so you focus on the positive. You celebrate their hard work and bravery. To do otherwise could damage this student as a writer and a person. And while you’re not ignoring the errors, maybe you circle back to them. Let them guide your instruction, but they’re not the initial focus of your conversation and feedback.

So then why do we start service, project, and problem-based learning with a problem?

Avoiding the “Deficit Perspective”

Many of us have heard about the deficit perspective of our students: seeing only what is “wrong” with them, and not their strengths and assets. Education has historically looked for perceived deficits in students, not at the deficits of the very systems they are in.

This perspective is rooted in a set of myths about groups of people living at or near poverty.  This post on Educational Leadership by Paul Gorski brakes down the myths about a “culture of poverty” with the research to dismantle these ideas which are based primarily on stereotypes, biases and the thinking that folks in poverty share a “culture.”

The post goes on to explore how a deficit perspective can lead to a deficit theory, which is very troubling indeed:

The most destructive tool of the culture of classism is deficit theory. In education, we often talk about the deficit perspective—defining students by their weaknesses rather than their strengths. Deficit theory takes this attitude a step further, suggesting that poor people are poor because of their own moral and intellectual deficiencies (Collins, 1988). Deficit theorists use two strategies for propagating this world view: (1) drawing on well-established stereotypes, and (2) ignoring systemic conditions, such as inequitable access to high-quality schooling, that support the cycle of poverty.

Well, we certainly don’t want to do that, or replicate that line of thinking in our work with students. So why does it make sense always begin our explorations in project with what is wrong with our communities? Doesn’t that just perpetuate a deficit view of where we live and our school communities?

Know places deeply


Just as we wouldn’t want someone coming into our schools and telling us what to do without any knowledge of the community or the context, it is important for our students to learn about their communities before embarking on improvements. They need to consider what is special about this community? What are our physical, social, structural, natural and business strengths?

Once we connect kids with this kind of thinking — their understanding of their own community blossoms, and they might see it from a more appreciative lens. We know this lens can be challenging for early adolescents! Learning from experience by talking with community members who make a difference from across a variety of backgrounds, careers, and lifestyles can go a long way in showing kids possible pathways for themselves and building social capital and pathways of opportunity. Not to mention a potential project partner!

So just how to do it? Here is one way.

Start project work with strengths

In our service learning toolkit, we’ve included an asset process doc that’s a good starting point and can be copied and used in your setting. Essentially, give students time to brainstorm the assets of where they live and go to school. They might need some help considering what asset means (a valuable thing, person, person or quality) and expanding that definition to include:

  • natural assets (mountains, rivers, pond, fields, wetlands)
  • structural assets (playgrounds, local monuments, libraries, public buildings)
  • business assets (local businesses)
  • infrastructure assets (public transportation, ice rinks, good roads, sidewalks, gardens)
  • social/community/cultural assets (churches, clubs, community activities, community organizations, ceremonies)
  • more!

With those ideas, have students list as many assets as they can in 5 minutes and share these out with each other. Then, create a chart of all of these assets, possibly grouping them by type. Students will hopefully see the many good things already happening and feel pride in their community.

If possible, have students interview community members, read local news, and explore their own experiences. What are the assets of this place, and what work still needs to be done?

One example of this is the Humans of Burke project, where students interviewed local community heroes and created block print portraits of them to be displayed at a local cafe.

Then, brainstorm challenges. List every single one.

Now add the #GlobalGoals

It is helpful for students to know they are not facing these challenges alone. In fact, millions of people are working on improving living conditions across the globe, and many are using the Global Goals to connect, make progress, raise awareness, and celebrate the work. After brainstorming challenges, teach the students about the United Nation’s Sustainability Goals. There are many great lessons about the goals right here in their many resources. Once they have a good sense of what the goals are and why they were created, students can take their local challenges, and use the Global Goals to prioritize them, from 1-5.

During this process kids are usually thinking of projects right away that help with a local challenge but connect deeply to Global Goals. After this process, you are ready to brainstorm potential project ideas with students, and then, have them pick their top 3 they want to work on with dot-storming or another democratic process.

Students did just this at Burke with a dot-storming process to highlight their interests in potential project work based on their community assets and the Global Goals.

Then students are ready to launch into project-based and service learning, but grounded in the assets of their community and global challenges as well.

What are some other ways you could use asset mapping with your students?

5 lessons learned from an integrated middle school PBL unit

Reflections from the Burke Town School

Real World PBLAt Burke Town School, in West Burke VT, students and teachers dove into integrated project based learning (PBL) last year. Here’s what we learned.

Building our PBL unit

This work started with an eighth grade unit, based on the United Nations Global Goals for Sustainable Development. After hearing about this work, teachers knew it would be an excellent organizer for a PBL project. They decided to build time into the school day for students to explore these Sustainable Development Goals, and build their own community service projects.

UN Sustainable Global Goals

Extended planning time allowed educators to creatively deconstruct their traditional school day and work toward building student engagement.

Students showed their passion and creativity, as they dove into creating community gardens, energy committees, water wheels, community dinners, habitat restoration crews, education task forces and wilderness first aid courses.

Here’s how it worked.

In December, students participated in a community fair and several field trips to hear about what was already happening in their community. Then, they researched different goals: What did hunger look like in Burke, VT? How could students in Vermont help fight climate change?

[huge_it_slider id=”25″]


Once students found goals they would like to work on they were put into task forces (3-4 students) with classmates who had similar goals. The groups then worked together to propose projects and wrote grants to the Vermont Rural Partnership Council for funding. It was powerful for students to fund their own projects, and reach out to community members for help as they implemented projects all spring.

But what did Burke’s students think of the project?

When asked what was engaging about the project, students said:

“I liked how we were able to choose our own project, it wasn’t something assigned to you.  It was completely our own idea. It was something bigger.”

“It’s really good practice presenting, because that’s a high school skill we’ll need to work on.”

“It was very engaging because you thought of your own project, that was important to the town and to you.  We were really focused.”

“Hands on, you were controlling how you were learning, and what you were learning.”

“I don’t think there was any question that was asked of me that I didn’t know the answer to.”

“I feel like this project really helped me understand my school and town b/c I had to research a lot.”

“It really does help you learn how to fail, then restart.  We failed the first time, and then we got it back up, then we failed again.  We realized we couldn’t overreact, and that helps make a project much better.”

“Being outside, being able to choose what we’re going to work on, being able to work with community members.  Understanding our community through our goals.”

“We were able to create our own schedules, we could decide what and when to do, we made our own goals. It was more interesting”

“I liked being my own boss, we could schedule our work time.”

“It was a lot of work, with calendars and dates of field trips, our workload was more complicated because we had to problem solve with other adults, more than just our teachers.”

As this work blossomed, there was interest in extending it to the younger grades.

Teachers wondered if we could build a continuum of transferable skills in grades 5-8, to help students build up to such a large, culminating eighth grade project. As with any good teaching, there was a need to reflect on what had gone well, and what could be improved in this PBL unit, and work to make future units better.

Teachers questioned how to better prepare students for self direction and also how to better structure time within a PBL unit, to ensure standards were addressed, students were assessed regularly, and challenged appropriately.

With these questions in mind, teachers designed a 6/7 Inquiry Unit to try out new structures in PBL learning.

Sixth and seventh grade students learned about forest ecology and also human impact on the environment. Then, they began an invention convention challenge, to build an invention that would lessen human impact. Students again worked in task forces (3-4 students) to research, build, test and improve their invention.

Here are 5 lessons learned from implementing these units.

1. Connect with the community.

A huge success of the 8th grade Projects for Hope happened at the launch of the unit. Read here about how teachers implemented a community fair to help students brainstorm project topics. The importance of community connections stayed an important part of both units. Students embraced learning from a variety of adults in their lives, and teachers leaned on community members to present content information (such as how to teach yoga or remove honeysuckle) that emerged from student projects.

Students spent a lot of time emailing and calling community partners.

This was important work, and just-in-time teaching was provided for students on how to draft professional emails, or make phone calls. Students grew in speaking and listening skills throughout this work. It was also important for teachers to design learning experiences by inviting partners in to teach lessons or lead events that the whole class could benefit from. For both units we also partnered with the local libraries (at Lyndon State College and the town library) to borrow books. Bringing in boxes of new books (fiction, nonfiction, picture books, field guides, and how to manuals) livened up the research portion of the unit. We also utilized the local Fairbanks Museum to teach field trips related to project topics.

2. Structure learning time.

One common misconception is that PBL time is free time. There is a fine balance to encouraging self direction and teaching it. Middle schoolers need structure and teachers need to ensure that there are checkpoints for learning.

A few things that helped Burke teachers ensure this time was structured:

  • Common planning time for teachers
  • Daily agendas
  • Conferencing notes, and
  • Learning scales.

Burke teachers have common planning time each day, and it was extended for half a day, once a month. This time was crucial, since teachers were integrating the unit they needed to be on the same page.

Teachers rotated who supervised what project, and therefore needed to know what had happened before, and what the end goal was. Common planning time was used to create common assessments and calendars of daily plans. These shared Google Docs allowed everyone to stay in touch, even when they were working with different groups.

For both projects, teachers were assigned small groups of students to work with. So while one teacher might supervise a whole room of eighth graders on Mondays and Wednesdays, they had one or two small groups they were working with, within that big group. While the teacher would manage the whole room and sometimes provide whole class instruction, they also had a small group to advise (ensuring that during the week each group was regularly checked in with, and had an adult point person). Advisors kept notes after meeting with their groups on a common doc, which allowed all teachers to know what was happening in each group.

Because teachers were integrating instruction, it became important to have a structure to each day.

Teachers found that opening with a mini lesson, inspirational video, or reflection set the tone of the day. After a few minutes of independent reflection, there was time for announcements and any special plans for the day/week. Then students set a daily goal (on their PLP) and work time began. Work time often looked messy (structurally and physically) but advisors checked in with their groups. At the end of the time students were responsible for uploading evidence of their work to their PLP.

Teachers often found that a closing circle was a nice way to end the day. Students shared one word of the day, or a small group taking more time to share out what they’d done.

It is important to allow for reflection and evidence collection in PBL work, and teachers soon learned that ample time needed to be built into the schedule for this. Reflection can’t be done while students are packing up, it needs to be intentional. However, it can happen in varied ways, and as the unit went on students fluctuated between teacher created reflection templates to platforms such as FlipGrid, photo evidence, Instagram posts, written reflection, etc.

3. Team-building is key

This type of PBL work requires students to communicate in small groups often. While students received individual assessments on project standards, they needed to work with others, often for extend periods of time, to make this happen. Teachers addressed this by beginning both units with ample team building (both within the middle school, the eighth grade, and the 6/7 group).

We pre-taught communication strategies and the stages groups go through (forming, storming, norming) through games and simulations.

Then, as students began their project work, advisors pointed out to students when they thought they were in a certain stage (and helped them communicate through difficult times). It became important for team-building work to happen within the small task forces (as well as the larger middle school) so that students could work together well. As with any group work there were challenges. But teachers saw students have great outcomes, many times among peers they wouldn’t have usually worked with, which is hopefully working toward a stronger school community.

4. Use best teaching practices you already know!

An important learning for our team was that PBL does not mean you have to learn a new way of teaching.

You can use many of the best practices already present in your classroom to encourage student learning in PBL. For example, teachers integrated Lucy Calkins Writing Units of Study into the PBL project by changing the topic of the 8th grade argument writing unit. Instead of writing about the same topic, students researched their representatives and wrote letters (that they actually mailed) arguing for support of their global goal. Here is a letter received back by and eighth grade student:

In addition to integrating existing curriculums, teachers also realized it was possible to find authenticity in other everyday teaching practices. Advisors conferenced with students much as you would in a reading workshop (looking over the PLP, noting celebrations, and giving students a concrete next step). We also used common assessments and kept students accountable to their learning through common learning scales.

Teachers also used community partners and their own expertise to teach.

To start the 6/7 unit students went through stations for the first few weeks – STEM teachers taught forest ecology, Humanities teachers led research and population lessons and others led team building. In this way, we covered content standards, while allowing students to investigate choice topics and build hands-on, outdoor projects!

5. Authentic audiences increase learning.

A surprising celebration that came from these units was the amount of authentic sharing students were able to engage in. A huge celebration for teachers, parents, and students was seeing the community learn from students. Everyone (teachers and students) saw a huge improvement in student speaking skills, as they presented in front of large crowds, wrote emails, called community partners, etc.

Students shared their work with other young people in the NEK at the Vermont Rural Partnerships Spring Conference. They also shared at the Shelburne Farms Sustainable Development Conference. They encouraged teachers to try project based learning through presentations to school boards, administration teams, and at Dynamic Landscapes.

Students also shared with parents/community members at Burke’s Student Showcase Night.The evening included musical performances and a student-led community dinner as well as project showcases.

As a measure of how successful this year’s even was, it was the first year we ran out of food because so many people attended!



This project was made possible by a grant from Teaching Tolerance.

Evolving student roles in a big (BIG) PBL project

As Dorset’s coop dreams became a reality, students gathered new skills

real world project-based learningWhat does it look like to break one enormous project into several project-based learning units?

For Dorset students to go from dreaming about fresh eggs to actually building a chicken coop required two strategies: breaking the PBL into phases, and asking students to assume different roles along the way.

Let’s break down just how Dorset’s chicken coop project stayed true to its PBL roots and manageable for students and educators.

Continue reading Evolving student roles in a big (BIG) PBL project

How to build up STEAM

Making time for making at Ottauquechee

makerspaces and project-based learningSTEAM — Science, Technology, Engineering, Art and Mathematics — gives students the opportunity to create. To make. Maybe to fail. To try again! And to make something that improves a condition, solves a problem, or makes the world a better place. But if your school currently doesn’t offer a STEAM time, it can be daunting to figure out where to begin. And that’s where we pick up our story of Ottauquechee School, in Quechee VT, where we used Design Thinking, a portable makerspace and one amazing library space to figure out how STEAM Time could work at this school.

Welcome to Ottauquechee STEAM Time.

Continue reading How to build up STEAM

Developing empathy for your community

Meet the Humans of Burke

community-based learning the humans of burkeSo many schools operate in isolation from the very communities they are situated in. Do your students know community members? Does your community see your students as young community members?

One small school in Vermont’s remote Northeast Kingdom interpreted the popular “Humans of New York” project to foster connection between their 8th graders and the town’s community. Meet the Humans of Burke.

Continue reading Developing empathy for your community

Using student TED Talks to showcase learning

why digital composition mattersTED Talks are short, personal powerful storytelling. Now: how can students use this medium as motivation to learn, to explore their purpose, extend their perspectives and understandings, and develop strong storytelling and presentation skills?

Let’s find out.

Continue reading Using student TED Talks to showcase learning

Should Vermont host the next Olympics?

Manchester’s 6th graders weigh in… to their Selectboard.

Real World PBLTeams of 6th-grade students from Manchester Elementary Middle School researched this question and put their arguments to the town.

Should Manchester VT put in a bid to host a future Winter Olympics?

Continue reading Should Vermont host the next Olympics?

4 times to connect students with an authentic audience

How soon is now?

take project-based learning to the next levelLooking for opportunities to make real-world connections or bring an authentic audience to your students? Typically, a public presentation at the end of a project or unit provides this space for students to share with a wider audience.

But authentic audiences can be found at any stage of the work.

Continue reading 4 times to connect students with an authentic audience

How to build a better (student-made) chicken coop

Applying NGSS to… chickens?

Real World PBLAt the Dorset School, in Dorset VT, the 8th graders know that fresh, farm-raised eggs taste amazing. The problem: their cafeteria cannot afford local, free-range eggs. So they asked: “What would it take to raise chickens at the school?”

And they used a combination of design engineering, technology and community partners to find out.

Continue reading How to build a better (student-made) chicken coop

6 ways teachers are using Padlet

Virtual bulletin boards to go!

Tarrant Institute tool tutoriallsStaying organized as a teacher can be a major challenge. Between student work, teacher plans, sticky notes, school supplies it’s easy to get buried and overwhelmed! This can especially be hard in a personalized learning environment, where students are often working at different paces, with different resources.
But whether you’re leading project-based learning, genius hours, or makerspaces, Padlet is a great online tool for teachers. Think: organized digital sticky notes in a colorful, shareable fashion.

Continue reading 6 ways teachers are using Padlet

Kick off project-based learning with a community event

Hope launches in the Northeast Kingdom

real world project-based learningAs part of participating in the UN’s Global Goals, students at Burke Town School, in West Burke VT, kicked off their service learning projects by inviting their community’s leaders to come to the school and ask for what they needed. What would make West Burke a better place to live? And how could these students help?

Introducing “Project Hope”.

Continue reading Kick off project-based learning with a community event

Are you a “Learning Maximizer”?

How do you maximize student learning? What are the ways we can do this, and how might our roles and labels get in the way of helping all students?

Words matter. Job titles, given labels, justly or not, can affect how we feel about ourselves and our jobs. They can affect our we are perceived by our students, and how our students perceive themselves.

Meet Erika (aka Learning Maximizer)

Erika Saunders, of the Science Leadership Academy Middle School (SLA-MS) in Philadelphia, knows this. She’s a founding teacher at SLAMS, which is in its second year. She renamed her special educator position as a Learning Maximizer, and heads that department.

She even has this title on her classroom door, and well, also has her own Learning Maximizer official uniform. I’m pretty certain that Erika can save the world.


Erika Saunders, Learning Maximizer
The official Learning Maximizer uniform!

Meet Science Leadership Academy Middle School

SLA-MS is a project based learning focused middle school in its second year. Currently, it hosts fifth and sixth grade students, and will bring on a new grade each year, up until eighth grade.

Learning Maximizers

The Core values of the school are:

  • Inquiry
  • Research
  • Presentation
  • Reflection
  • Collaboration

This is rooted in relevant project-based work with community partners. Students sign up for mini-courses, often working with parents, community organizations, both on campus, and in the surrounding neighborhood.

SLA-MS learning maximizers.
Group work in progress at SLA-MS.

At SLA-MS, they “unprivilege grades” and “privilege” community-based, relevant projects. All students DO. They collaborate, create on the computer, and work side-by-side with teachers.

All students are “OUR” students

Okay, back to the resident Learning Maximizer at SLA-MS.

According to Erika, every student at SLA-MS should have a Learning Maximizer. Erika shared her mindset for being a Learning Maximizer at SLA-MS, and it seemed especially powerful and inspiring.

Erika doesn’t view a certain set of students with learning disabilities as “her” students. All students at SLAMS are “her” students. She said:

“There are simply kids that have official paperwork, and students who don’t.”

When working with students, she teaches them learning strategies, and describes their reading, for example, at different levels, not “low.” These words matter. Just like her title. She asks students:

“What are you not good at yet?”

“You know how to do so many things. Let’s start with that, and figure out what don’t you know yet.”

Then she works with students to help them maximize their learning, by learning about themselves, their strengths and challenges, and how to work with those challenges.

Erika collaborates with teachers, meets with teams, and works toward being proactive instead of reactive in planning, teaching, and supporting students. Project-based learning provides her with many opportunities to promote relevance, engagement, and self-direction as she guides her students.

Philosophies at work

In her role as learning maximizer, we can see a combination of educational philosophies at work:

  • Growth Mindset: Erika believes that all students have the ability to understand how they learn, and they can work together to make a plan to learn at optimal levels in a way that works for each students. How can we carry this message into our work? How can all teachers think about each student’s needs, backgrounds, and experiences and help them plan for their educations with growth mindset?
  • Knowing students deeply: In order to help students learn at high levels, teachers need to know students well and have a trusting, strong relationship with them.

Street-level view of students

One way to know students deeply is to gather information about them in a way an ethnographic researcher would, according to this post in Edutopia. We can gather data about students at different levels to help us connect to students and to plan the best strengths based education plans as possible.

Just how do we do this? By asking questions such as these:

  • Tell me one way you’re feeling successful in my class.
  • Tell me one area in which you’re struggling.
  • How do you learn best?
  • What feedback do you have for me?
  • How could I support you to feel successful?

Do these questions sound familiar? This is just the approach Erika is taking in how she speaks with students about their learning.


Culturally responsive learning environments maximize student learning. This can come about through student interviews and focus groups, and by tracking class participation and academic language.

These learnings can become part of a student’s learning profile, and can be featured and reflected upon in students’ personalized learning plans. That way, students have a place to regularly reflect on their own learning, their growth, and their goals for the future.

What’s your tagline?

In her work to maximize learning, Erika is trying to level the playing field, and create a culturally responsive learning environment rooted in strengths and growth mindset.

Erika shared her tagline that she shares with adults, that guides her work and focus:

“Righting the things that were once wrong.”

Erika inspires me. Special educators and education is often left out, or not deliberately included in, discussions, professional development, plans and reading about personalization. But most of the time, these are the very people that have experience personalizing for students, crafting activities, lessons and assessments to meet individual needs.

Personalization and true student engagement is rooted in knowing our students well, and helping them understand how they best learn. Special educators are key partners in this journey, and can help lead the way.

What would happen if we thought of special educators (or learning maximizers) as personalization specialists, and resources for all students and teachers?

What if every single teacher (and person who works in schools) thought of all students as “their” students, and helped to create a learning environment where all students are known and we are all learning maximizers?

How can you be a learning maximizer?


Introducing “Cabot Leads”

Use service learning to grow your community

a model for service learning

What do you do when you’re a 5th-through-8th middle school housed in two separate buildings?

If your 7th-and-8th graders are with the high school, and 5th and 6th graders are off on their own, how can you provide an opportunity all middle graders to feel involved in the middle school? How do you promote leadership and engagement, and connect students to their communities?

For the Cabot School, service learning is the answer.

Continue reading Introducing “Cabot Leads”

Go global with your PBL

Tech tools, tips & inspiration

take project-based learning to the next levelThe world is BIG. And overwhelming at times. Especially for our students, who hear bits and pieces of what is happening across the globe, and have questions, worries, and thoughts.

It makes sense that we move students beyond their geography, perspectives, and comfort zones. That way we can expand their world, and grow empathy, compassion, knowledge, and perspective.

But… how exactly do we do that?

Continue reading Go global with your PBL

Race Against Racism VT

It all starts with an idea. Races Against Racism have taken place around the country, and last spring, a community member and organizer Henry Harris suggested that 15-year-old Hope Petraro organize an event in her community. He said she might be interested in having this event in Montpelier. That was just the spark she needed.

Since then, Hope, with the support of her teachers and community mentor, has created an important event to fight back against racism during a time when our country is seeing a resurgence of racial conflict.

Continue reading Race Against Racism VT

How to tell your PBL story

Cornwall students think global, build local, share both

real world project-based learningLast year the most amazing thing happened: my students at the Cornwall School designed and built a playground. They dreamed, planned, proposed, revised, fundraised — deep breath — organized, built and managed.

But then they taught themselves how to share their story: with social media, and with a whole world of educators, so that other students might have the same experience.

Continue reading How to tell your PBL story

4 ways students are tackling the UN’s Global Goals in Vermont

The United Nations has kicked off a movement for the future. They’ve identified 17 goals for sustainability world-wide, and they’ve given those goals to students around the world.

Here in Vermont, a cadre of passionate educators are scaffolding project-based learning around those goals. And #vted students are hard at work, changing the world, one community at a time.

Continue reading 4 ways students are tackling the UN’s Global Goals in Vermont

3 strategies to create supportive structures during project time

Why structure?

One of the most intimidating things about starting to do service and project based learning in the classroom is how to structure the time. One thing I have learned from direct experience in the classroom and from working with teachers is that this is structuring the time a key part of developing your plans and approach to project work.

A shift in culture

Many teachers come with an idea that you do all the teaching up front, then let students have their fairly unstructured project time, where you take a hands off approach and just “let them work on the project.” This is what we call a “dessert” approach– as in, the project is the dessert at the end of all the “real” learning.

One problem with this is that the approach makes the assumption that students are independent and filled with self-direction and motivation– they have all the skills they need to dive in. The reality is often that students have become very used to teachers telling them what to do, when to do it, and  how to do it. This personalized approach is so very different that if often takes a lot of support to help students transition to it and to build the stamina and culture necessary for the deeper, rigorous, engaging and challenging learning that these environments call for.

Project Block Structures

In an effort to bridge that gap, I wanted to offer some structures for project time that might be helpful in your classrooms as you plan and led a dynamic project based or service learning environment with students.

60 minute block plan:

Review the Essential Question and/or Learning Targets: Start with some grounding in the essential question and/or the learning targets. Read and discuss the question quickly, rooting everyone in the grander purpose of the work. (3 minutes)
Resources and phases of learning: Show what phase most groups are in and any essential tools for this project periods.  This could be the research phase, and could include some teaching about tools to use or a small group schedule for direct instruction during this time. The teacher can refer students to a timeline or other graphic organizer for the project (3 minutes).
How to get help: Review a process for if a group or individual needs help: Where are the resources? Do students write their names on the board if they want to check in with a teacher, or will the teacher have a schedule for visiting each group? (2 minutes)
Norms/expectations: Ask a student to describe what the work time should look like and sound like, or quickly review your class norms and procedures for productive learning time. (2 minutes)
Project work time: Rotate to each group, asking questions, providing resources, keeping notes, teaching direct instruction in small groups as needed or planned. (40 minutes)
Reflection/Evidence Gathering/Goal Setting for Continued Work: Ask students to stop and take the next 10 minutes to record their thinking (possibly from a reflection menu) on a platform of choice or other procedure for PLPs and reflections for the project. This could be using Flipgrid, sketchnotes, and reflection questions to probe what is going well, what are the challenges, and what are your next steps? (10 minutes)

45 minute block

Start with Sharing: Where is your group on the project? What do you need? How can our learning community help you? (10 minutes)
Resources and Focus: Teacher shares new resources, information, and/or a guiding focus or learning target of the day. (2 minutes)
Project Work Time/Teacher Rotation: Rotate to each group, asking questions, providing resources, keeping notes, teaching direct instruction in small groups as needed or planned. (20 minutes)
Formative Assessment and Reflection: As a whole group or individuals, ask students to respond to a prompt about their learning and process today. Dig for deeper understanding and uncovering misunderstandings for tomorrow’s lessons and project time. Add these if possible to a PLP or portfolio of student learning in project time. (13 minutes).

Tools to help build structure and organize project time

Use digital tool to organize the time:

Create a padlet or slideshow for each project time with the essential question; needed resources; schedules for check ins; curated research links; and other tools to support the work and share the link with your students.

Like Courtney Elliot does here on her project padlet. 

Use public timers: Project a countdown clock for each section of time during the project block so students understand how much time they have and feel a sense of urgency.

Reflection/Evidence Gathering/Goal Setting for Continued Work: Ask students to stop and take the next 10 minutes to record their thinking (possibly from a reflection menu) on a platform of choice or other procedure for PLPs and reflections for the project.

This could be using Flipgrid, sketchnotes, and reflection questions to probe what is going well, what are the challenges, and what are your next steps? (10 minutes). In this tool you can create your project based learning experience on tiles that can be linked to resources, such as google docs, websites, or images.



By projecting a tile, the teacher can discuss what the learning artifact is for that time period, or what phase the project is in, and guide students with this tool. See this example. Students can also use this tool to organize their own learning time.

Practitioners of the personalized learning strategies of project and service learning often find the right structures to support their learners through experience– and it is always changing as are our students. If we create intentional supports for project time, while allowing for student voice, choice and creativity, we can support students in being purposeful and self-directed during this time.

What structures work in your classrooms and contexts?

The student architects of Shelburne VT

Making math real-world relevant

real world project-based learningWould you tell the school board how to redesign your school? Students at Shelburne Community School, in Shelburne VT, did just that.

They were tasked with redesigning the school’s outdated “kiva” space. Using Google Sketch-Up, they created three different designs for renovating the space, and presented those designs to a panel of local architects, and their school board.

Continue reading The student architects of Shelburne VT

4 ways to make math more relevant

Banish the stigma: you are not bad at math. Math is bad at you.

real world project-based learningWe can move math beyond worksheets and imaginary word problems. Let’s quit making math about sharing made-up apples, fishes or shoes.

Let’s tie math to the real world: real problems for students to solve, what’s going on around them, and how students learn. If you’re trying to save the world, you’re not gonna let a little math get in the way, are you?

Here’s 4 ways to make math more relevant for students and for teachers.

Continue reading 4 ways to make math more relevant

Sharing STEAM projects with families

Proctor’s STEAM Family Night

STEAM projects with familiesThe sleepy little town of Proctor VT, is making some big waves when it comes to showcasing their students’ STEAM achievements. STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts & Math) is a hot topic in school innovation right now, and rural towns like Proctor are primed and ready to show their communities just why STEAM matters so much to students.

Continue reading Sharing STEAM projects with families

Take project-based learning to the next level

3 ways to plan for PBL 2.0

take project-based learning to the next levelYou’ve dipped your toe into project based learning. You’ve planned an entry event, shared  a high quality driving question, managed student teamwork, created scaffolds, and helped students finish a meaningful project to present to an authentic, engaged audience!

Whew! Well done.

But we know you. We know you’re a total rockstar and you and your students are already looking ahead to your next PBL cycle. So many problems to solve! So many ideas to toss around, and so much excitement from the feedback your community gave students on their work.

While your next PBL idea’s a-percolatin’, take time to reflect on these three key areas, and take project-based learning to the next level.

Continue reading Take project-based learning to the next level

4 ideas for using a makerspace to support PBL

How do project-based learning and makerspaces fit together?

makerspaces and project-based learningMaking and PBL may look like two completely different educational movements, but in reality they work well together and each strengthens the other.

That’s because they share a common fundamental underpinning: they honor students’ innate curiosity about the world.

Continue reading 4 ideas for using a makerspace to support PBL

4 Project-Based Learning resources for parents

How do you explain PBL to families?

project-based learning resources for parentsThe popularity of Project-Based Learning (PBL) has grown significantly with teachers and students, but what about parents? When students walk out of school, do they communicate their excitement about PBL to their families?

Let’s look at some resources for helping parents understand why PBL is so engaging for students.

Continue reading 4 Project-Based Learning resources for parents

Restorative Justice at Randolph Union

A student-centered approach to school discipline

Real World PBLEditor’s note: The students in Randolph Union’s PBL class have created a restorative justice system for their school. The students wrote this post as a way to share their story and encourage other schools to give restorative justice a try.

A lot of people are afraid to start implementing restorative justice in schools because of how intensive the work is. Although it certainly has been difficult to do it at Randolph Union High School (RUHS), we have found that it is well worth our efforts. Students have found that the working in setting up and running Restorative Justice has made subtle but important changes in their learning.
Continue reading Restorative Justice at Randolph Union

4 ways to use Virtual Reality in project-based learning

VR’s real world impact on students

Virtual reality is exciting and many of our students are already using this technology in gaming (as some were quick to tell me). So why aren’t we using it more in education? Why aren’t we using it in project-based learning?

Maybe we just need some ideas on how to use VR in education. So let’s start by looking at virtual reality in project-based learning (PBL).

Continue reading 4 ways to use Virtual Reality in project-based learning

The great Brian Eno-powered STEAM PBL caper

Wondering how to blend project-based learning with STEAM?

Real World PBLYes, STEAM: Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Math. Earlier this year we profiled The Cabot School’s amazing public exhibition of sound sculptures highlighting water conservation. They were a big hit with the Cabot community, the students who made them and, it turns out, a fair number of you guys, too: our readers.

In this episode of The 21st Century Classroom, we talk with Cabot School educator Michael Hendrix. We hear about what it takes to pull off STEAM-powered PBL and why Hendrix feels you can’t ever really teach science without art.

Continue reading The great Brian Eno-powered STEAM PBL caper

Adventures in #realworldPBL: The Field Trip

What could possibly go wrong?

what could possibly go wrong Remember when teaching was simply planning a lecture, shutting the door, and delivering it to students? This may have been easy for the teacher, but it certainly didn’t make for deep and relevant learning for the students. The work of developing project-based, engaging, and personalized learning is much more complex.

It’s also full of uncertainty. Let me tell you about a recent field trip I took with students.

Continue reading Adventures in #realworldPBL: The Field Trip

Student TED Talks, sound sculptures and a funk band

Student exhibitions of project-based learning

student TED talksAt this point we all know how important it is for students to share project-based learning with an authentic audience. It shows students they have power in the world, and that their research really makes a difference. But how best to design an exhibition that empowers students and provides a compelling, informative experience for the community?

Cabot High School did it by hosting an evening that combined student TED Talks, interactive sound sculptures and a high school funk band.

It. Was. Glorious.

In this episode of our podcast, we take you to Cabot High School’s FLOW event, where you’ll hear what it was like to connect with their community around water conservation PBL.

Continue reading Student TED Talks, sound sculptures and a funk band

Project-based learning: Extreme weather PBL unit

 This is Real World PBL

Real World PBLNow we’ve been down the PBL highway, looking at PBL planning, entry events, supports for PBL, culminating events, and technology tools. It’s time to examine at what PBL looks like when educators stop being polite and start getting real: this is PBL in real classrooms.

Let’s start with Courtney Elliott’s fourth and fifth grade class at Proctor Elementary School in Proctor, Vermont. Elliott’s first PBL unit was designed to teach students how to do PBL, while also addressing Next Generation Science Standards. She tiered her approach to build responsibility in the project and to provide supports on the way.

Continue reading Project-based learning: Extreme weather PBL unit

Culminating Events for Project-Based Learning

Honor scholars with an authentic audience for their work

culminating events for project-based learningThe culminating event! It’s the lovely finish line of a Project-Based learning unit. The big event. You’ve been planning for months for this event that celebrates the projects and the learning in an authentic, community based forum. All along, it’s been a strong motivator for scholars, grounding the relevant work they’ve been doing.

So. What does it look like to pull off a memorable and meaningful culminating event for project-based learning?

Continue reading Culminating Events for Project-Based Learning

Assessment in Project-Based Learning

Signs along the way

assessment in project-based learningAssessments can be hard to create and manage, but they are a necessary part of PBL. You can do it!

Assessments are often done with the elements of Understanding by Design : beginning with the end in mind.

Here are some ideas for how to use assessment — both formative and summative — to report to families, inform your practice, and improve student learning.

Continue reading Assessment in Project-Based Learning

8 methods for reflection in project-based learning

It’s where the learning is

reflection in project-based learningIt is easy to not plan time for reflection in project-based learning (PBL) because there is just so much DOING! The students are engaged, and it’s fun and hands-on, and everything moves pretty quickly. But for PBL to connect to learning targets and goals and transferable skills, frequent reflection needs to happen, and as we all know, this has to be deliberately built into the schedule.

So, what can this look like? Here are 8 methods for reflection in project-based learning.

Continue reading 8 methods for reflection in project-based learning

Scaffolds to support PBL learners

Ways to support project-based learning

scaffolds to support PBL learnersSome people have the mistaken idea that PBL is just when you point students in the direction of a project and say, “Go for it!”

Um, no.

If your students have a culture of doing project-based learning and are very independent, it makes sense to give them a lot of freedom — but that’s just not the case for many of our students.

If you have students who are younger, or need more support and structure here are some ideas and examples. It always makes sense to err on the side of having too many supports rather than too few.

Continue reading Scaffolds to support PBL learners

Brainstorming and Research in PBL

brainstorming and research in PBLYou’ve done an engaging entry event. You have a plan for your PBL unit with a focused driving question. Sweet! Now it’s time for the students to embark on research. But the world of information is a vast wilderness fraught with danger: the danger of misinformation!

Before we can research, we need to brainstorm: What do kids want to do about the driving question and about the entry event? What do they want to see happen?

Continue reading Brainstorming and Research in PBL

Entry events for project-based learning

Start with the dramatic, unexpected & memorable

entry events for project-based learningQ: What do we really want from project-based learning?

A: We want students to care about this subject. To really, truly care about it from their own student perspectives. To engage the active learning parts of their brains and the moral imperative for the work.

Entry events are usually dreamed up during the planning stages of project-based learning. They’re just as much a part of PBL as the research, rubrics, and community connections.

So what can an entry event look like?

Continue reading Entry events for project-based learning

Planning a PBL unit

Resources to tackle project-based learning

project-based learningWelcome to the PBL Highway, my new series aimed at helping you on the road to project-based learning!  Setting up a student-driven, rigorous, community-focused project-based learning (PBL) unit can feel daunting, so the best way to tackle anything this huge (it’s yuge!) is to break it down into manageable steps.

A little forward planning — some templates, checklists and rubrics — and you got this.

Continue reading Planning a PBL unit

Project-Based Learning in the primary grades

8 great ways to approach PBL in the primary grades

real-world problems and project-based learningPicture this: you have a class of primary-grade students. Say grades K-3. They are learning their letters, and how to tie their shoes, how to go to the bathroom independently and write their names. This list of what to learn is long!

But we also know that students at this age also need to be developing their ability to collaborate, problem-solve, and communicate. And believe it or not, PBL is a great way to do this.

The key is to start small and make it manageable. Let’s break it down.

Continue reading Project-Based Learning in the primary grades

Creating a PBL culture from Day One

Build a community to support project-based learning

PBLI bet you have big dreams of creative, innovative projects and engaged students in your classroom. Students who are busy researching, collaborating, creating, and solving authentic problems they are interested in.

But this doesn’t happen without a strong community of learners.

Continue reading Creating a PBL culture from Day One

Learn Like a Pirate: Key takeaways

Katy’s 2016 Summer Reading

reflection for educatorsSomething about this book title and summer reading fits perfectly. The open ocean, pirates, and fierce independence. I’m hoping you have a bit of time to settle into some reading for fun and some that inspires you in the classroom to have students take on more leadership and develop their own independence.

Continue reading Learn Like a Pirate: Key takeaways


An experiment in student-directed, open-ended project-based learning

real-world problems and project-based learningWhat if an entire school set out to maximize student engagement?

What if there were a school-wide commitment to loosening control and trusting students to do great things?

What if students were told that they could work for an hour a week on whatever they want with one simple rule: you must share something?

Continue reading Brainado!

Project-based learning and math

How much do you want to change the world?

real-world problems and project-based learningAs project-based learning gives students a way to tackle authentic problems in the world and accomplish tangible change while learning, let’s not forget that math can and does sneak in everywhere. So if you have students who think math doesn’t add up, let them explore their passion for problem-solving and don’t mention how much math you see them doing.

Continue reading Project-based learning and math

Real-world problems and project-based learning

Adapting big science for a middle school classroom

real-world problems and project-based learningOne of the keys of the Project-Based Learning approach is to engage students in solving real-world problems. Ideally, students are involved in exploring relevant and authentic challenges in their community, state, nation, or world. Sometimes teachers and students have to search hard for a need or an opportunity.

But other times it falls into our laps.

Continue reading Real-world problems and project-based learning

Robotics, PBL, and collaboration

Science Saturday, with Tarrant Institute research fellow Mark Olofson

At TechJam this past autumn I was fortunate to run into a number of student groups who were there to show off projects. That forum, and others like it, gives learners a space to share, interact, and learn from each other. One group I met was from Big Picture South Burlington (@BigPictureSB), a community of learners working in the Big Picture model within South Burlington High School. Big Picture is all about authentic real-world learning, and this group of students had chosen to enter the ChampBot Challenge at the Champlain Mini Maker Faire. Talking with the students and their advisor Jim Shields during and after got me thinking about a number of issues related to collaboration, constructivism, and student choice in STEM education. Continue reading Robotics, PBL, and collaboration

Project-based learning at Essex Middle School: algebra and songwriting

Making math and music at The Edge

algebra and songwritingWe were lucky enough to get to sit down with three groups of students at Essex Middle School’s Edge Academy just before the break and hear how their year-long project-based learning (PBL) projects are going.

In the final installment of the series, we talk with three students making math and music in equal measures.

Continue reading Project-based learning at Essex Middle School: algebra and songwriting

“See America”: Cabot students share their PBL research

Project-based learning is alive and well in rural Vermont

real world project-based learningAs part of The Cabot School‘s Exhibition of Learning earlier this spring, middle school students had a chance to share out some PBL research. Themed around the cultural landscape of the United States, the “See America” exhibit boasted a number of amazing students who showed off outstanding examples of how project-based learning can be applied to history and social sciences. Check out some of the highlights from the exhibition, below.

Continue reading “See America”: Cabot students share their PBL research