When Students Completed their First PBL…

“Picture a classroom...the first thing most of us think of is a square room with rows of desks….this traditional classroom space is the product of an industrial-era model education. Just like factories, schools were designed to categorize students by age and (supposedly) ability, then deliver curriculum in an assembly line format.” As a history teacher, this statement made by Kevin Brookhouser in his The 20time Project hit me in the gut.

While my classroom does not look as Brookhouser described, elements of my instruction still did. I was increasing rigor within my content, but I still had to teach my students in way for them to do well on our CST style benchmarks despite the recent inclusion of short responses. This had been weighing heavily on my mind so when I heard this quote at the Google Summit in Minarets, I felt guilty and ashamed that I was not making my students "future ready."

Thankfully, I was not alone in my concerns and convictions regarding the way to teach history, even prior to the Google Summit. My department head was also feeling the same way so we collaborated and came up with a PBL (Project Based Learning) lesson for our students to complete regarding the Civil Rights Movement, which was a modified version of one I found online. Rather than just lecturing and informing students in an engaging way about the Civil Rights Movement, we decided to have students explore various minority groups (African Americans, Hispanic Americans, LGBT, and Americans with disabilities--one group requested to do women, which I allowed) in literature, politics, movies, and working place. In their groups, students selected a specific area of a certain American group to do a research project on; for example, LGBT in movies or Hispanic Americans in the workplace (instructions here).

After students selected their topics, I explained that what they cover was up to them completely. For example, if they were research African American in movies, they could do actors, directors, representation in film, etc. The only set criteria I had was that two students in the group research from 1900 to 1975 and two from present day. Based on that criteria, I asked them what they expected to find/discuss and they came up with milestones, compare and contrast, progression of rights/equality, etc. I then set them free to do general research on their topic. We did a Pear Deck discussing how to evaluate resources, including discussion of Tree Octopus and the CA Velcro Crop and then after a day or two of information gathering, I had students complete (as a group) a Research Thesis; even though they weren't writing a paper, they still needed to come up with a guiding statement to help keep their slideshows, videos, or posters focused. The group leaders then share their document with another group, who evaluated their thesis on the rubric provided. We did two rounds of this officially and if a group did not receive at least a 3, then I met with them individually to help. As students began their presentations (all chose to do a Google Slideshow...there was some interest in Prezi, but their Chromebooks needed a Java update), we discussed expectations for presentations by brainstorming what make a good presentation:

Finally, their ten minute presentations began after about a week and half of work and students evaluated each group on a four point scale. By the end of the week, everyone in the class had a great deal of knowledge dropped on them.

As a teacher, this entire process was very strange to me. While they were researching and creating their presentations, I stood back and guided them when they asked for help instead of spewing information at them. When I did teach, it was regarding skills that they needed for the project rather than information and details. Yet I saw the students engage in the material in ways I hadn’t seen before. Almost all of my students were on task and excited about the project since they were given the freedom of what they could discuss and research. I heard them arguing over whether a site was a legitimate source and excitedly brainstorming ways to engage their audience.

One group discussing their thesis: Although more women are represented in the workforce, a wage gap still exists- impeding women from advancing in society- making it necessary for them to be paid the same amount as their male counterparts..

By the end of the project, I was surprised at how much they were getting out of the project that didn’t involve me directly teaching. As self-centered as that sounds, its true. I grew up with teachers that stood up and directly explained information. Even though I made my direct instruction engaging and thought provoking, I was still directly explaining information to them in an assembly line fashion. It was very strange to step aside and allow students to find their own way through a historical period. It was even more strange that I couldn’t give the students an assessment at the end of the unit since every students learned so many different things; it worried me that maybe the students didn’t learn anything from the research, but I know from their passionate conversations, presentations, and eagerness to complete the project that they did get something meaningful out of it.

While this project was not a 20time project that Kevin Brookhouser discussed, I felt as though I had taken a step in the right direction, away from the assembly line classroom.


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