When is a PBL “Pause” Not a Pause? More on Literature and PBL

September 1, 2016
Alix Horton

Alix Horton

I’ve heard English teachers advocate for a literature “pause” from Project Based Learning. This might happen in a variety of ways- teachers might advocate that the school use a portion of the day or a particular class for book clubs for students or they might argue for a “Drop Everything and Read” program.  They might stop the work of projects in an integrated class and do Readers Workshop for a while, perhaps having students read self-chosen texts and write in response. Often they pause because they’re worried that students aren’t developing the critical reading and thoughtful writing skills they’ll need for college and career readiness, but teachers may also simply want students to enjoy reading and feel that there isn’t space in the regular curriculum to foster a love of books. Either way, they’re often apologetic about that “pause”: they value PBL and don’t want to take time away from it.

I argued last time that an authentic literature reading experiences involve things like reading to learn about another worldview or perspective, reading for pleasure, reading to participate in a community, and reading to take an informed stance about some aspect of society or culture. A so-called “pause” could be a great opportunity to do some or all of the above.

If kids get a chance to participate in a social community that values reading, read a book for the joy of it or to gain a window into another world, write a thought-piece for the New York Times, get in an argument, or just excitedly recommend the book to someone, I’d argue that the so-called “pause” from PBL might not be a pause at all. In fact, the “pause” might be more authentic than a contrived project that forcibly integrates literature. To me, such a pause is more meaningful than a project where students create travel guides for characters in The Tempest or read The Great Gatsby because they’re pretending to be time travelers headed back to the Roaring Twenties. Of course, I could imagine a “pause” that doesn’t do any of those things- where students simply read something because a teacher has told them to (or more likely, fake read something) and write, but without any meaning. That’s not the kind of experience I would want for students, and I wouldn’t call it authentic.

There are things we value about PBL beyond authenticity, of course. “What about voice and choice, and student-driven learning?” you might ask. Let students choose what they read, or choose from a set of books, or let them choose their community and then pick something to read that’s meaningful to that community. (Choice in reading is something I believe in anyway- more on that here.) To make the work more student-centered, teach them to drive their own learning as they tackle a long text.

“But don’t we want students to build deeper learning skills, like oral communication and collaboration?” you might also ask. “Aren’t we missing those skills in a “literature pause”? Not necessarily. You could challenge students to develop their abilities to discuss a book intelligently, building from each other’s ideas.

“But shouldn’t they be driving towards a final product or problem solution?” you might say. This is a little trickier. I could imagine a final product where students create a podcast, or review the book for a class blog, or write an OpEd. But I’m not sure that’s necessary, honestly. Perhaps students publish the literary criticism they write, or maybe the final product simply involves providing some evidence that they have created a social community that values reading and that they can have meaningful, collaborative conversations about texts.

Done well, emphasis on “done well,” I think a so-called “break” from PBL to read might actually be better PBL than many projects that integrate literature.

Read more from Alix at Literacy for Living.

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