PBL: Let’s Start at the Very Beginning


Chart Source: BIE.org

I’ve been teaching high school English for five years now. As a Lateral Entry teacher here in NC, I began my career without having much of a background in education. I learned the job while on the job, earning my license in the process.

My first couple of years were definitely bumpy. I went from a low-performing rural school to a high-performing suburban one. Within two years, I’d taught all four high school grade levels and spent so much time learning new curriculum, creating and re-creating lessons that I never quite felt like I knew what I was doing. It was all new all the time.

At the end of last year, though, it finally felt like I had a good thing going. I’d been teaching long enough by then to know what I was doing, but not long enough to become jaded in the profession like so many of my colleagues. I’d been teaching freshmen long enough that I knew my texts cold and didn’t have to reread them before every teaching. I knew how to switch up plans to reteach, assess on the spot, grade an essay in minutes, and that scheduling a curriculum-related film study once a month is a godsend for catching up on grading.

Enter the issuance of a challenge from my English department for this school year: implement Project-Based Learning (PBL). The premise behind PBL is simple: begin with a real-world question, problem, or challenge, and have students explore it. By delving into real-world concepts and generating questions of their own, students are engaged in something meaningful, as well as liberated to choose their paths to find answers. At the end, students present their created product to an authentic audience that goes beyond the classroom. Good PBL units challenge students, connect them to their community, and engage them in critical thinking the entire time (The Buck Institute, 2016).

As I examined my existing curriculum in light of PBL, it became clear that some things would have to change. While I wouldn’t call what I was doing bad, I realized how very teacher-centered it was. My students’ understanding of works of literature or concepts largely depended upon my expertise, and not their own investigation. Further, I didn’t allow my students much choice in what they read, or even, really, in how they read it. I expected them to use the annotation skills I’d taught them, read for specific ideas, and in general understand the works in the way in which I understand them. Clearly, in order to implement PBL, I’d have to change my approach.

I turned to The Buck Institute for guidance on PBL teaching practices, and spent the summer generating ideas, revising, and planning my PBL units. It was not without difficulty. But, shifting my mindset has been eye opening. And, as I began this school year with two solid PBL units and a 3rd in development, I began to realize how much this approach not only changes things for my student, but changes my entire approach to teaching. I’m learning to ask questions and let go. And, by controlling less, my students are (hopefully) learning more.

Steps 1 and 2 (Design and Plan, Align to Standards) of my first PBL unit were actually pretty easy. The idea for this unit comes from a question that at least one of my students asks me every semester: “Mrs. B, why do we have to read this?” It can be difficult to convey the value of a 500+ year old text like Romeo & Juliet to students whose predominant form of reading comes in 140 or fewer characters. But, as I considered this question, it turned into a broader one: Why do we read this? Why do we read and write at all?

The title of the unit, “Problems of the Human Heart,” comes from a line in William Faulkner’s famous Nobel Prize acceptance speech, in which he emphasizes the idea that good literature explores human emotion and that, without it, literature is no good.

As I began searching for resources (linked below) to further this idea, my unit started to take shape. Like Faulkner opines, the emotional connections we have to literature are both important and universal. As Robin Williams’s character, John Keating, says in the feel-good teacher film Dead Poets Society, “We don’t read and write poetry because it’s cute. We read and write poetry because we are members of the human race. And, the human race is filled with passion.” My goal for the unit became to convey this idea to my students. We read to feel. We read to be inspired. We read because it helps us to create, to connect, and to care.

Since student choice is an important component of PBL, I decided to let my students choose an independent reading novel for the unit, on the condition that it contained themes based on human emotions. I then aligned my instruction to standards by incorporating nonfiction and some traditional English I fiction for our in-class studies. So far this first unit we have been working on identifying universal themes in literature (RL 9.2), creating claims about these themes (W 9.1), exploring how the authors develop them (RI 10.5), and identifying author’s purpose (RI 10.6).

The ultimate project for the unit is for students to create a work of art that explores the dominant emotion in their book. We will display these works in a class art gallery that is open to the school and to the public. In our pre-project conferences, my kids have come up with some great ideas: sculptures, dances, original music, paintings, photography, digital artwork, and mosaics. One student even intends to create a short film about her text. Obviously, I don’t yet know how this is all going to play out, but I’m excited about the possibilities.

Already I’m noticing that students are eager to tell me about how much they loved their book, or to share their project ideas with me. Those moments when the lightbulbs go off are exciting, and I’m already noticing that more with this unit than I have with the literary analysis paper I’ve traditionally assigned during my first unit.

Along with the good, though, comes the challenges, and already, I’ve hit a few bumps. Class time is often at a premium the first couple weeks of school with things like required baseline testing, class meetings, fire drills, and other assorted administrative duties. So, some planned activities have had to be tabled. My plans to include a film study of Dead Poets Society in my unit were squashed when the school counseling department decided that the film was inappropriate for 9th graders due to its depiction of suicide. Some of my kids are having a bit of difficulty getting out of the “book report” phase of middle school, so I’m having difficulty conveying that the art should be inspired by the book, not actually depicting a scene from it.

In the coming weeks, I will continue to guide my students through the process, push them out of their comfort zones, and watch them present their products to their first authentic audience. As I work to build the culture of collaboration, inquiry, and creativity in my classroom, I hope that my students will engage deeply not only in the literary content, but in their community and their world.

Unit Readings

My Mother Pieced Quilts – Teresa Paloma Acosta

Classic Works of LIterature Still Have A Place in Today’s Classroom – Sally Law, The Guardian UK

Teach the Books, Touch the Heart – Claire Needell Hollander, The New York Times

Nobel Prize Acceptance Speech – William Faulkner

Shakespeare in the Bush – Laura Bohannon

O Me! O Life! – Walt Whitman

The Gift of the Magi – O. Henry

Forgive My Guilt – Robert P. Tristram Coffin

The Scarlet Ibis – William Hurst

A Poison Tree – William Blake

The Cask of Amontillado – Edgar Allan Poe

Why I Write – Amy Tan

TED Talk: “My Wish: Use Art to Turn the World Inside Out” by JR (**Note, he uses the “f-word” right at the beginning)


3 thoughts on “PBL: Let’s Start at the Very Beginning

  1. thomasunc September 18, 2016 / 1:02 pm

    In class you often speak tentatively, as if you are unsure about what you are doing. This is clear. In fact I am excited. It shows a strong understanding of Project Based Learning. I appreciate that your students have choice in the work of literature and in the way they express it. I would love to see your art show.

    I am wondering about the text and the art work. When I look at a piece of art cold, without any background knowledge of art or context or time period, I often don’t understand it. When I learn the context or some element of the work, it helps open up my understanding. Do you plan to have the students write a thumb nail of the book to go with the piece of art? Maybe you should show them without title or summaries, and then view them with information.

    Also, I wonder if the art will inspire students to read other’s books. ex. I see your painting, it intrigues me, and I read your book.

    I know you only have them for a semester, but I wonder about having two art shows. When I have my kids, “create something” I try to give them a similar follow up assignment. Often the second piece is full of growth and much more refined, especially if you have time for reflection after the initial piece is displayed.

    Good luck


  2. Jen September 18, 2016 / 6:08 pm

    Thanks for the awesome suggestions! I love hearing the feedback from other teachers because I’m very much finding my feet as I go with this, but sometimes when you are in the middle of something it becomes hard to view it from every angle!

    My students are going to be present at the gallery standing next to their works of art and answering questions. So gallery patrons will be able to have conversations with each artist. I want to have them create talking points (as some of them are nervous about the idea of public speaking) that include summaries of the book.

    I like your idea of having them create a second work of art — I wonder if I can incorporate that idea somewhere into the rest of the semester, perhaps as a way to tie all of the PBL units together…like a visual reflection.

    Thanks for the inspiration!


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