‘Project: Me’ is Born

I have myself a project! I have called it “Project: Me.” I have also created a website that highlights various components of this PBL unit.

Project: Me will take students on an exploratory journey both close to home and far away. Initially, students will be asked to consider the characteristics, cultural background, language, social issues, family traditions, holidays, and history that make them unique. They will also explore various ways they use technology and how technology has an impact on the way they interact with the world. They can do this through interviews, writing prompts, group discussions, and other ways. Students will work collaboratively with another classroom in a different geographic location that is implementing the same unit, and they will communicate about similarities and differences. Both classes will participate in a one-day photo essay where each student takes several photos throughout the day that represent various aspects of his/her life. Some data can be integrated into charts and diagrams for comparison. Students will develop a multimedia presentation or website that showcases their findings, including elements such as art, photos, music, recipes, poetry, writings, and a timeline.

This week I researched what makes a good driving question. As I first started reading, I wondered about the word choice of “driving,” not quite sure of its meaning. Did driving mean “energetic, vigorously active” geared to keep the students engaged, or more of the “vroom vroom” driving that gets students where we want them to go. It probably means both, though I like the idea of a class of students sitting in a car driving to a destination. This project will certainly be a journey, one full of discovery and exploration. Students will need to dig deep within themselves, their families, and their sense of community and culture. I hope they will emerge with a better appreciation of who they are and how they fit into the world around them. One of my fellow classmates commented that this type of soul-searching project is perfect for this age group (grades 6-8) who are still sorting out their identity. I hope they enjoy the ride.

I particularly liked an article about the importance of teachers using essential questions as a powerful tool to focus student efforts toward a meaningful goal (TLC, Using Essential Questions to Focus Teaching and Learning section, para 2).

Driving Question: What makes me and the life I lead unique?

I left it purposefully open and simple. I think it sums up the whole of what the project is about: uniqueness. Looking at the criteria of a good driving question, it has the main elements: it is challenging, relevant, and interesting (who doesn’t like talking about themselves?); it is open-ended, complex, and requires higher-level thinking; and it is linked to the core standards of what the students will learn (Buck Institute for Education, Writing A Driving Question section, para 3). Ten subquestions will help students get thinking about the various aspects of this project and tie in well to the overall question.

I explored various technology tools and started a list on my PBL website. Part of our assignment this week is to create a visual organization of our project using a web-based tool. I experimented with Gliffy, Bubble.us, Inspiration, and xtimeline, but in the end I used Google Docs drawing tool for its ease of creating and sharing.

I have a long way to go on this project, but at least now I have a focus and a direction that I’m pleased with.


Buck Institute for Education. (n.d.) Writing A Driving Question. Retrieved from www.bie.org/diy/getting_started/writing_a_driving_question/

Technology for Learning Consortium. (n.d.). Using Essential Questions to Focus Teaching and Learning. TLC. Retrieved from www.techforlearning.org/essquest.html

Reflections on using Project Based Learning in a diverse classroom

Every classroom is diverse. Granted, some may be more diverse than others, but all classrooms are filled with individual students who need individualized instructional strategies. Diverse classrooms may include EFL/ESL students, students with a disability, students who are gifted, and students who come from various nationalities–making it impossible for a teacher to meet all student needs all the time. Problem Based Learning (PBL), when implemented well, has great potential to reach diverse students.

I am currently attending a conference with my 10-year-old son at the University of Nevada in Reno for profoundly gifted students and their parents. I have watched, learned, and listened, and I am in awe of the wide variety of interests and talents all around me. These students have been given wings to fly, to achieve, to pursue their passions. Many face struggles fitting in to the public school system. Others are in private schools or are homeschooled. Many have been exposed repeatedly to PBL and some have become young ambassadors who have created non-profit organizations, websites, and products. I have seen first-hand the power and potential of PBL.

For my assignment this week, I explored dozens of PBL projects. The types of things teachers and students are accomplishing is very exciting. The ones that most intrigued me were the ones centered on culture, identity, and community. One ePals project I really liked is called “The Way We Are.” It is a National Geographic collaborative learning effort that has students explore how they are similar and different with students in their partnered classroom, how does the natural environment affect their lives, and what part the region’s culture plays. The project connects classrooms by grade level or region and has students email back and forth through ePals to explore various questions. Some of the objectives include helping students describe their lives in concrete details, use maps to analyze places, identify similarities and differences, give specific examples of different cultures, and build a relationship with someone from another part of the world. As a culminating project, students will create a digital presentation on what they have learned.

I love this project and would like to do something very similar. Because I have had the unique opportunity to live with my children in various parts of the world, I really believe in exposing students to global opportunity and awareness. There is something very powerful in helping a child form a real connection with someone far away. Somehow it makes the world smaller, more real, and more human. My own children have friends in many countries, and they have a real connection when they hear about world events and when we travel. In the Fall, I start as the technology integration specialist at my children’s international school in Kathmandu, Nepal. The students are in a perfect position to do something like this because they come from many backgrounds and nationalities. Our school is about one-third American, one-third Nepali, and one-third others. There are many factors that make each student unique in their culture and community, and I think it would be valuable to share these things with another classroom. I’m struggling a little with what age group to do it with because I am not a classroom teacher, and the project’s success will depend largely on what teacher I choose and his/her teaching style. The project incorporates national geography standards, but it could easily be adapted to include 8th grade U.S. History or really almost anything else. There are also many social issues in Nepal that could be looked at, so I’m considering some sort of pollution, water, or ecotourism option as well.

An interesting study highlights how PBL has helped diverse 8th grade U.S. History classrooms. The study examines history learning among three groups of learners: students with disabilities, students without disabilities, and students enrolled in an honors class. “Special education researchers demonstrated that inquiry-based activities, such as project-based learning enhance students’ achievement and motivation in social studies classes” (Okolo, Englert, Bouck, Heutsche, & Wang, 2011, p. 418). While this article focuses mostly on Web-based history learning environments like the Virtual History Museum, its observations reach further. Students from all three groups grew in factual knowledge and reasoning about the unit’s key concepts, and efforts made to help students with mild disabilities also improved the learning for all students as well (Okolo et al., 2011).

Truly, PBL allows for great flexibility and encompasses more students. It can help students who are struggling and students who are gifted. There is something for everyone in a well-designed PBL unit that can really make a difference.

I’m excited to move forward from here.


Okolo, C., Englert, C., Bouck, E., Heutsche, A., & Wang, H. (2011). The virtual history museum: Learning U.S. History in diverse eighth grade classrooms. Remedial and Special Education, 32(5), 417–428.

What is Project-Based Learning?

Used under Flickr Creative Commons Brandi Jordan http://www.flickr.com/photos/brandijordan/5616745279/sizes/n/in/photostream/


I had a hard time recalling most of the projects I completed during my schooling. A few things came to me, like the 3D panorama of Salem, MA, or the puppet of Franz Kafka. I recall shopping for markers, poster boards, and glue sticks. The point that I don’t really remember the content behind these projects is, well, the point. They lacked meaning and relevance. While some allowed me to express creativity, they had little redeeming or lasting value.

Today, project based learning is the antithesis of what I experienced during school.  When designed well, a project based learning unit gives students an opportunity to actively participate in an authentic learning experience. Because of the level of effort, leadership, and collaboration required, students generally remember the content indefinitely. They are more motivated because they see meaning and relevancy to the world around them. They gain critical higher order 21st Century skills that will benefit them for years to come. Some projects have led to changes in the community or school environment. In short, projects “build vital workplace skills and lifelong habits of learning” (Buck Institute for Education, What is PBL? section, para 1). Isn’t that ultimately an educator’s goal?

What is Project Based Learning?

The Buck Institute for Education states that in PBL students explore a question (often called a driving question), problem, or challenge through inquiry, which helps students learn content standards and develop 21st Century skills. It is a constructivist approach to learning, where the students play an active role during the process and the teacher is more of a facilitator. Students try to answer a question, something that is relevant or has some sort of meaning for them, that is greater than the actual assignment (Curtis, 2011). PBL shares many similarities to problem based learning with a few noted exceptions. In problem based learning, students are generally given a problem, often in the form of a case study, in which to explore and solve. In project based learning, students form the question or problem and create a project to share outside of their classroom in a real-world environment. EducationWorld (2011) lists several components of both approaches to learning, noting their similarities and differences. It notes that the main difference is in their application, with project based learning focusing on the product and problem based learning focusing on the problem and the process.

Why should teachers consider incorporating PBL in their classroom?

Compelling research shows that project based learning is highly motivating for students because of its real-world scenarios and relevancy. If students feel like what they are doing matters, they are more likely to engage and enjoy. Engaging students by solving real-world problems is a great motivator (Curtis, 2011). Project based learning has been shown to cut absenteeism, engage students, boost cooperative learning skills, improve test scores and analytic abilities, and increase the likelihood of applying higher-order thinking skills (Edutopia, 2001). Students like a good challenge, especially if it is one that is authentic and will reach outside of the assignment and classroom.  Ultimately, students remember more when they are more engaged and when the content is meaningful to them.

What are the essential components of a PBL approach to instruction?

The Buck Institute for Education lists the following components to project based learning, noting that PBL is the main course, not the dessert:

  • significant content (aligns with specific curricular standards)
  • critical thinking, problem solving, collaboration, and various forms of communication (essential 21st Century skills)
  • requires inquiry as part of the process of learning and creating something new (students ask the questions)
  • organized around an open-ended driving question
  • creates a need to know essential content and skills (begins with the end product and thus creates a context and reason to learn the concepts)
  • allows some degree of student voice and choice (students make choices and express their own voice)
  • includes processes for revision and reflection (often through a journal)
  • involves a public audience (reaches outside of the classroom to the community or online)

These components are all generally found in a good problem based learning unit. I especially liked the idea of reaching outside of the classroom environment. Students perform higher quality work when they know they have a real audience.

Problem based learning is an exciting approach to education that can greatly benefit students, teachers, schools, and the community as a whole.

Additional Resources:


Buck Institute for Education. (n.d.) What is PBL?. Retrieved from http://www.bie.org/about/what_is_pbl

Curtis, D. (2011). Project-based learning: Real-world issues motivate students. Retrieved from http://www.edutopia.org/project-based-learning-student-motivation

EducationWorld. (2011). Project-based and problem-based learning. Retrieved from http://www.educationworld.com/a_curr/virtualwkshp/virtualwkshp002.shtml

Edutopia. (2001). PBL research summary: Studies validate project-based learning. Retrieved from  http://www.edutopia.org/project-based-learning-research

(The photo above is used under Flickr Creative Commons Brandi Jordan)