Building Blocks for Effective, Personalized, Project-Based Learning

Sandwiches might be the most versatile food on the planet—easy to personalize. Start with the bread, for example. Do you want white bread, wheat bread, sourdough, focaccia, flatbread, pita bread, rye bread, or even a nice wrap? Maybe you’ve decided on the no-bread version. There are endless combinations of breads, veggies, meats, cheeses, and condiments. Each sandwich can be exactly tailored to the person eating it.

Projects are like sandwiches—easily customized. What are some other benefits of project-based learning? Besides personalization, projects allow for inclusion. I’ve seen students who normally struggle in school but who can thrive when a project is part of the equation. Projects increase engagement and foster collaboration and teamwork, creativity, critical thinking, and other essential 21st-century workplace skills, all while building student self-efficacy.

I’ve heard of several stumbling blocks or misconceptions connected with projects, and I’d like to address a few. First is that everyone completes the same type of project or creates the same type of product. If everyone ends up with the same or similar results at the end, that’s a recipe, not a project. Second—projects must be done individually. While projects can be done individually, they offer excellent opportunities for teamwork and collaboration. Teachers can grade individually as teams of students complete their work. Some worry that projects are difficult to grade, especially when each completed project or product may be different. Projects are not so hard to grade when there is a strong and clear rubric in place. Let students know exactly what elements you are looking for. You will be able to see those elements in a successful project no matter what form the final product takes. That might mean a mindset shift if you are used to grading with points—2 points for a solid introduction and thesis, 2 points for correct spelling and grammar, 2 points for turning in everything on time, etc. Most likely, the points aren’t really telling you what you want to know. Does the project meet the standards? Set basic criteria and let the students choose how to meet those criteria. Finally, I hear teachers say, “I teach a unit, and then we do a project at the end.” I find that my projects are far more successful and engaging when they are tightly woven into the unit. Projects may occur at the end (although they don’t have to), but the final product can’t really be separated from the whole, and all along, I’m letting students know how their product is connected to what we are doing and what we are learning.

What are the building blocks of effective, personalized, project-based learning? First, start with objectives connected to standards, and think about this carefully. You can get the most bang for your buck if you can incorporate multiple standards and objectives into one project. That should become clear as we look at the other building blocks, and it might be helpful to go back to our sandwich analogy. Think of your standards and objectives as the bun or the bread, and don’t go keto on this one! Knowing what standards you’re including is essential for you and for your students.

The other building blocks have no prescribed order. You can include them as you feel best and in the order that makes the most sense to you. I find it helpful to come up with a driving question or a big problem. Compare your problem to the onions on the sandwich. Does slicing those onions make you cry? That’s a sensation you notice. Be aware when something bothers you in your community or society at large. Usually, the ideas for the problems come to me while I’m away from school, maybe watching news, but more often just talking to friends or family, taking a walk, reading a book, or visiting a museum or local business. Students get more engaged in a project when it is connected to a real-world problem.    

Next, you’ll want to include skill-building activities into the project or unit. This is where you bring in your standards and objectives. Compare skill-building activities to the lettuce. You can have as many lettuce leaves on your sandwich as you want. What skills do students need to have to be able to meet State or district standards and complete their project? Those skills can be incorporated at different times and on different days over the course of an 8-12-day project.

Offer students an opportunity for a “dry run.” I think of this one as the cheese on the sandwich. You could probably get by without it, but just as cheese adds unique flavor, a dry run is helpful in showing you whether the students have the skills they need to complete their project. For example, if their project is related to using the foods lab, it’s helpful to have them do a simple foods lab before completing their larger project so that I know that they know how to find their equipment, follow procedures, etc. If their project is more academic, or traditionally academic, an activity like a storyboard makes an excellent dry run. Be specific about using the same elements in the storyboard that they will use in their final project. Tell them exactly what you are looking for. You could even use a similar rubric to the project. Have them draw pictures and write text on a storyboard matching the content they will include in their project. You can see very quickly whether they have the elements you are looking for, and you can give feedback that will allow them to adjust for their final project before they spend too much time on it.

Projects are the meat of the sandwich, the heart of the unit. For full-strength project-based learning, every student or team will choose their own way to show proficiency with the standards and objectives. You might offer suggestions such as creating a video/commercial, marketing campaign, podcast, song, Power Point, children’s picture book or board game, Minecraft world, or formal letters to business leaders or legislators, etc. Then let students choose their product. Set parameters so that the product will meet the standards and be accessible to you. For example, I tell my students that if they build a Minecraft world, they must also walk me through their Minecraft world and show me all their signposts along the way. I don’t live in that world and won’t find the information on my own. Often when I offer suggestions, students will come to me with their own idea. If their idea meets the parameters, I know it will work, and that’s when things get exciting, because I know the students are taking ownership of their learning.

Presentation to an authentic audience: This is your tomatoes, and there are no rotten tomatoes here! Sometimes presenting to peers is enough. Sometimes you can bring in other classes, school leaders, or community members who could make decisions based on the project. Students are more engaged when they know that an authentic audience will view their work. They should also know that it’s ok if the project doesn’t turn out exactly as planned. I think it’s helpful to talk to students about engineering design, so that they recognize that having to readjust, revise, and sometimes start over is a part of the process.

Student self-reflection builds growth. If you’ve ever had a sandwich without any condiments, you know how bland that can be. You’ll eat the sandwich, but you don’t enjoy it. Giving students a chance to self-reflect adds flavor and improves the texture. Students benefit from meaningful opportunities to reflect on their growth and discuss what they would improve in the future.

How do I use these building blocks in a real classroom setting? I’ll give two examples from my CTE classes and then I want to share an example from Mr. Coray’s classroom (yes, my husband is also a teacher). CTE classes are made for project-based learning, but projects may seem less intuitive in traditionally academic settings, which is why I will include the third example.

“The Big Event” is a 7-day unit or project I do with my college and career awareness classes in 7th grade. If you teach CCA, you can find this unit on the Canvas commons, because I shared it as part of our FCS State Conference a few years back. Day 1 of the project is called “medical mysteries.” I give each of 8 teams a list of symptoms for a fictional family member. Teams research the symptoms (one of our standards is using relevant and credible sources) to try to find a diagnosis. We talk about using relevant and credible websites for research, and the students start searching. I give them feedback, letting them know if they are off track, and they can ask me questions to get back on track. By the end of the class period, teams have found 8 different diagnoses and learned about the various medical professionals who would diagnose and treat those diagnoses. As they compare what they have learned, they are able to identify what each of these 8 diagnoses have in common—they are all connected to diet.

That sets us up for the next class period when students learn about the role of a dietician, MyPlate standards, and research what their fictional family member could eat and what that family member should avoid. Over the next several days, students learn about food safety, foods lab procedures and expectations, and they make a healthy snack (the “dry run” for this project). Then I give them the “problem,” which is that 4 of our fictional family members will be attending a big family event. Each team needs to plan a menu that would accommodate for each of those 4 family members’ dietary needs. The menus must fit within budget constraints, and the time constraints for 1 class period. Teams present their menus to the class. The class votes on a menu for our “Big Event.” The winning team(s) send me their recipes. I go shopping, and the students get to make the menu they voted on. I never know for sure what they are going to come up with, and it’s exciting to see how many different ways my classes have been able to solve this problem. Often, students who are slow to complete traditional work are able to shine and even take leadership for their teams with this type of collaborative project.

“The Sustainability Project” is another CCA project or unit. Students learn about fast fashion and about how the way we create and consume fashion is not sustainable. They learn a little about textile science and why we don’t/can’t simply recycle used clothing. They learn about textile waste and how the ultimate end for any piece of textile is the landfill. Students participate in skill-building activities to learn to properly use the sewing equipment and follow safety standards. Then they bring in used clothing that would otherwise go to thrift stores and ultimately find its way to the landfill. Students take their used clothing items apart and turn those items into something else. I don’t give them any patterns. They figure it out. Many of my students make basic square pillows, but some of my students blow me away with the complexity of their designs. I often find this true for students who are typically not engaged in the classroom, but they wake up when they are allowed the creativity of a project.  

One example of a great 7th-grade design that required some challenging engineering.

Mr. Coray took on a challenging project this year. After many years of having taught other classes, he went back to teaching junior English, and he wanted to include Huck Finn, in spite of political conditions that struck fear into many teachers when it came to teaching this particular novel. Rather than narrowing the focus of the novel to one specific issue, Mr. Coray’s class looked at Twain’s theme of social conditioning vs. natural morality. In other words, what does society expect, vs. what do you believe? The project included a variety of skill-building activities, all required for junior English students, but when it came time to choose a project, they had already shown their skill with writing and mechanics in a variety of ways. Each student chose their own way in which social conditioning was at odds with their natural morality. And each student completed a 2-step project, meaning that they had to both research facts about their topic and then either collect data on a survey, through interviews, etc., or write letters or start some type of awareness campaign. Students could choose how to complete their two steps and how to show they had completed their two steps, whether with a poster, pamphlet, flyers, letters, annotated art portfolio, charts showing survey data, etc. The finished products he got were as varied as his students. Students researched numerous problems—many Mr. Coray would never have thought of. One of his favorite examples was from a student who spent most of the semester just trying to pass the class. When it came to this project, the student took charge. He researched the need of high schoolers to fit in with their clothing and then interviewed his mom about whether she still feels that she needs to fit in with clothing. She told him honestly how difficult and uncomfortable it is for her always to feel like she has to fit in, even in middle age. Her son, who rarely turned in assignments, was able to complete a successful project and improve his grade at the same time.

My husband and I presented our steps of personalized, project-based learning last week at our district summer conference. I was asked how we can make project-based learning not seem like “just one more thing” for teachers. With not a lot of time to think, I answered what I honestly feel, and that is this:

I must be joyful at work. Project-based learning helps my students be engaged and happy with learning, but it also gives me a lot of room for creativity, and it helps me be joyful. Because it helps me be joyful as a teacher, project-based learning is what I naturally want to do.

I recognize that my answer does not meet the needs of all teachers. So next time I post, I’ll try to share some other ways that we can make project-based learning not seem like “just one more thing.”

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It’s Not About the Sewing

I’ve spent the last 3 days at state Career and Technical Education conferences. These are always some of my favorite teacher trainings of the year. The conferences are a chance to network, spend time with old friends, meet new friends, and participate in engaging, hands-on activities we can replicate in our own classrooms. Not surprisingly, we heard a lot this year about PCBL—Personalized, Competency-Based Learning, which is one of my favorite teaching topics. I’m happy that more teachers are getting involved in personalizing, which I truly believe helps all students succeed.

Probably my favorite workshop this year was “Sewing is Not About Sewing,” taught by Kayla DeCoursey. This was a fabulous, engaging, hands-on, personalized, project-based workshop that highlighted many vital, 21st-Century workplace skills. Kayla described how she designed this workshop as a rebuttal to a fellow teacher who said that teaching sewing was no longer valuable or relevant. She pointed out the skills students learn from sewing, such as visual-spatial awareness and reasoning, small-motor skills, measurement, and creativity. I would add to those skills the skills of problem-solving, grit, endurance, critical thinking, engineering design, and proper use of tools and care of materials, as well as the potential for collaboration on projects with others.

Collaboration, communication, dependability, responsibility, respect, empathy, cultural awareness and acceptance, creativity, resilience, grit, problem-solving, and critical thinking could arguably be skills that are needed in the workplace and in life more than any of the other content we teach. Information is abundant. Students can find it anywhere. What they do with that information will make the difference between solving difficult world problems and sinking under unsustainable practices of our society.

How does Kayla foster these skills in her classroom, and how did she engage teachers in using these skills? She set out 32 half-size dress forms and let us go to work. We had each brought a yard of fabric and our own creativity. We had 3 hours to draw, drape, and construct a dress from scratch. Every teacher met this challenge from a different skill level, just as every student would in the classroom. There were teachers who didn’t want to accept the full challenge, and that was ok for a teacher workshop, but Kayla doesn’t let her young students off the hook. She shows them some drawing and draping techniques, and they keep going until they figure it out.

I found the challenge instantly engaging and wanted to put my best into it. That’s the magic of personalization with project-based learning. It wakes up students’ imaginations and tells them it’s ok to play, to get creative, and to push themselves at the same time. I drew a sleeveless dress with contrasting waistband, circle skirt, and high-low hem. Yes, the bodice is lined. Yes, the seams are finished. And yes, I had the dress sewn and hemmed before the three hours were up. But just before.

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