Let’s Take a PBL Pause

December 13, 2016

Andrew Larson

Being immersed in a Project- Based Learning environment can be, um, taxing, sometimes. Asking kids to manage projects in every class is a lot to ask. Sometimes, we all just need… a little break.

The brilliant Veronica Buckler and I co- facilitate a Global Science Perspectives class, which is an integration of English 9 and Environmental Studies. We recently had such a break (well, sort of.)

Nearly every ninth grader at Columbus Signature Academy New Tech High School is also enrolled in World Civilizations, and we saw an opportunity to make a cross- curricular connection, while also taking a “PBL Pause.” The book Life of Pi struck us as a very appropriate book for our freshmen to read, both for the religious exploration on which Pi embarks and also for the immersive nature experience and adventure that he has. Given that it’s also a fairly challenging book, it seemed to us that we should focus on the literary elements, vocabulary, and reading comprehension of our students, while using the book as a learning tool for a project that was happening in their class next door.

In World Civilizations, students went on a “deep dive” into world religions where they explored and refuted misconceptions about a religion of their choice. All of the work culminated in a gallery of work that was an engaging collection of “museum pieces.” Additionally, students hosted an interfaith panel discussion, where persons of many faiths addressed student questions about how their religious beliefs impact their daily lives and how they impact society. It was a brilliant demonstration of civil discourse among persons whose beliefs about religion may differ, but not their belief that we all need to accept and respect one another.

Back to the point, though: even in an immersive, wall- to- wall PBL environment like ours, it is important to occasionally pause from project work and just get up to our elbows in traditional literacy work. Much has been discussed over the years about how best to incorporate literature into PBL. For many years, I was of the steadfast belief that any book selected needs to have a clear thematic tie to the project and should serve the role of helping students conceptualize the big “so what?” of the project. I do still believe this to be an important and valuable approach. Sometimes, though, the selection of books is contrived or forced into a project where it may not belong. It is a mistake to use a book in a place where it does not belong, don’t you think?

Other times, we just need to read a really good book, because it will open students’ eyes to The Classics, exemplary modern literature, or just a title that they might not normally choose for themselves. Especially if those titles are of a higher reading level or use complex literary devices, it may be of value to have, as a goal, to first and foremost, read the book to bolster literary skills.

In our recent project, we had the chance to use Life of Pi for both purposes. In GSP (the English 9/ Environmental Studies course) we read to comprehend and gain insight (how can Pi possibly be a Hindu, Christian, and Muslim???) as well as to explore the rich symbolism present throughout the book. In World Civilizations, students dug into religious tenets, history and societal impact, with that work culminating as described above.

New Tech Network Literacy coach Alix Horton, whom I’ve revered during my own PBL journey, has been studying how best to use literature in PBL for years. She offers a potentially broader definition of what PBL really is and asks the vital question, “What do people in the real world do when they read this type of literature?” In some cases, the answer is that they apply the lessons learned in the text to solve a problem, gain empathy, or apply the author’s techniques or insights to the creation of their own literary (or other) work. Other times, the answer is that they are strictly reading for pleasure or to become an informed participant in a larger dialogue. No matter the instructor’s goals for what students take away from a particular book, reading always has an authentic purpose. There are a lot of reasons to read.  All of them can be tied to the successful completion of a PBL project, albeit some more directly than others.

The directness of that connection may influence whether or not we choose to make it an integral part of a project. Sometimes, it is an excessive stretch to fit a particular title into a curriculum if the goal is to do it in a project- based mode. I think there are three potential takeaways from this fact. The first is to rethink the titles teachers use with students. It could be time to find alternatives that fit well into the context of a project. The second (and the one to use if you are inextricably “married” to a title) is to use the book in a more traditional approach, especially if students will need more support to understand the book. Finally, students can self- select books to read on their own. These might have a project connection. They might not. In the end, the teacher must decide if that matters or not.

I have to say that our recent Life of Pi experience was a good for me as it was for the students (most of whom really liked the book, by the way.) Students interacted with the book in many ways. We did a RAFT assignment (Role/ Audience/ Format/ Topic,) give students many options to demonstrate their understanding of Pi’s religious coming of age; later we did a “Bingo” assignment where students again had many options to demonstrate their interpretations of the symbolism in the book. Both had a certain “project feel” while still being somewhat more traditional in nature. This step- back into a more supporting role for the World Civilizations project was not only a welcome change of pace, it was also a pragmatic solution that met a need we had, and was a great opportunity for cross- curricular collaboration.

In previous blog posts I have emphasized the need for balance. Teachers who are new to PBL are apt to become overwhelmed with the amount of planning that a good project requires. Even seasoned PBL facilitators can run themselves into the ground if they try to make everything their students do tied to a project. Even worse, the mindset that all things must be PBL, all the time, can cause us to force material (like certain works of literature) into a space where it might not belong. Don’t feel like you are cheating if you give yourself and your students a “PBL Pause;” you might, in fact, be doing everyone a favor.

This blog originally appeared on Magnify Learning.

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