Planning for Successful Project-Based Learning

Whether you are a veteran teacher or this is your first year, one of the best strategies to engage students is project-based learning. PBL is an inquiry-based teaching model where students are in the driver’s seat, attempting to answer a “burning question” they may have or their class has decided to pursue. This model usually includes collaboration, public presentation and a tiny—albeit necessary—bit of chaos. As a true Type A personality, I’ve found ways to organize PBL so that it remains organic and meaningful but is also “doable” enough for me to continue without losing my mind. Here are three tips that will help you organize for project-based learning.

Begin with the end in mind

Just as you teach your students to begin with the end in mind, this Stephen Covey principle is a prerequisite for PBL. First, set the dates when your students will share their projects in a performance of some type. This could be a demonstration, debate, presentation or other way to “show what they know.” If you’ve never had students do presentations before, you should keep it simple, but soon you’ll want to invite families, former teachers, students and administrators. It’s always best to give parents the dates as far ahead of time as possible, so they can make arrangements to be there. Students should also have these target dates written down, as well as several mini check-in dates. The primary purpose of the check-in dates is to make sure that all students are participating and pulling their own weight. If someone is falling behind, you’ll be sure to catch it before it’s too late for him or her to catch up.

In addition to giving students a good big picture of timing, it is also important for you to estimate how many days the performances will take. I always give myself a flex day at the end to make sure that I can accommodate any students who may have been absent or weren’t prepared. If all runs smoothly and you don’t end up needing that day, you can use it to debrief all of the performances and let students reflect on the experience. Usually the reflection would be done individually, but when time permits, it can be very valuable as a classroom activity.

Recruit co-conspirators

I like to tell my students that their teachers aren’t nagging them, we are conspiring to make them successful. Over the years, I’ve developed relationships with likeminded teachers who are enthusiastic about helping our students with their projects. If you are running a PBL classroom, you’ll find that other thoughtful adults in the building can be powerful allies. Last year, the music teacher let some of my students rehearse a skit in her room that they were planning for my class; when she showed up for the girls’ skit on performance day, they were beaming. The art teacher allowed several of my students to come by and work on artwork they were including in their projects. And I certainly couldn’t facilitate my students’ projects without my library media specialist. One important note: Be sure to remind students that when they leave your room, they are ambassadors, representing you and the class.

Another great relationship-building opportunity is to invite family members in to offer their expertise. One student’s grandmother, who was a professional clown, came in and talked about body language. Another student asked her uncle from a theater group to talk to the class about memorization tricks. I’m looking forward to sending out my “talent search” to parents and families. It’s always incredible to see adults take part in their child’s education in middle school. In fact, the number one comment I get about PBL is that allowing other caring adults to get involved is a gift, since such opportunities are usually limited in middle school when “room parents” and volunteers are no longer a part of the classroom culture.

Become a hoarder … sort of

We all know teachers who still have mimeographed worksheets in their storage cabinet. I’m not suggesting you go that far, but if you are a careful shopper, you can find all kinds of clearance items that could help your students, particularly if you are encouraging them to tinker in the spirit of the Makerspace movement. The drugstore by my house puts all of its seasonal items on sale up to 80 percent off. According to Forbes, teachers spend upward of $500 of their own money on school supplies, so why not stretch your dollar?

I also make a point of sending out an email a few times a year to teachers and students’ families requesting old magazines and odds and ends—anything that might help students with their projects. Potentially useful items include small hot glue guns, buttons, duct tape, scraps of wood, safety pins, twine, batteries, all sorts of paper and decorative items. Check out these
Makerspaces for kids. Many times the product for the PBL experience does not require any of these supplies, but when an idea does strike, you don’t want to spend time trying to locate resources for your students. The fun part is when the students start contributing to your collection of odds and ends. This is also a good opportunity for a conversation on recycling and upcycling.

Of course, the most important aspect of your PBL unit is the quality of the projects you and your students pursue. If you are just getting started, there are amazing, ready-to-use projects on the
Buck Institute for Education website, searchable by topic and aligned to the Common Core standards. Or, if you are ready to create your own project, the website offers one of the best planning tools around, here. This planning template asks all the right questions and is great to hand in as a part of your lesson plans.

Project-based learning is not without its challenges, but your students’ engagement—and your own excitement—will change the way you view your students. PBL allows students autonomy and independence, as well as an opportunity to showcase their talents. Now that you’ve got the planning down, give it a try.