Regaining a Student’s Perspective on Project-based Learning

After playing the role of teacher for several years, I picked up the role of student again in the Fall of 2009 in pursuit of a Masters degree. After paying a grand for my first course, I fully expected lengthy lectures and a series of unit-based tests. When there were no lectures at all and large projects instead of tests dotted the landscape of the course syllabus, I was taken aback. Being the recipient of another teacher’s choices also gave me new insight on how my students may view my class. Here’s my take-away:

Impact of Inflated Project GradesFake A’s
There were projects into which I poured blood, sweat, and tears and received, of course, an A. Then there were projects that I slapped together because of life demands, and those projects received …. an A. PgradeA Wow, fake A’s are so deflating. I had to decide that my personal investment into a project was not to earn a grade but to learn. One professor handled this differently. She used a rubric that totaled to 100 points that she then divided by ten to generate a project score out of 10. This allowed her to show one area was less than perfect (she noticed!), yet the score in the end represented success.

Impact of Project Feedback
Even small amounts of personal teacher feedback powerfully impacted me. A project, unlike a written test, involved a personal investment. As a student, I scoured the graded project for any teacher-given feedback. An authentic, related comment to my work would go a long ways. As a teacher– I have to confess — I tend to become overwhelmed when grading projects and tend to skimp on the feedback portion in an effort to be finished. What am I doing to my students’ motivation levels in the long run when I do? Some student projects stand out to the teacher for awhile. I’ll see former students, and often a great project that they completed comes to mind. (Am I alone in this?) In compensation for the lack of feedback I gave at the time, I’m quick to tell them, “I still think about that great project you did on ________.”

Impact of group work
No shocker here: Group work is challenging. A bad group combination actually produces less than can be done individually. One project comes to mind; the randomly-chosen group spent more time fighting on direction. On the other hand, the power of good group can produce a better product than could be produced on my own. (Shout-out to my Virtual Mentoring Project Group! For this group, our professor required us to build our own groups by marketing our ideas to others in attempt to draw teammates to our project.)

Now a graduate of a project-based program, I have an overall sense of accomplishment and learning, but I also feel empowered that I CAN still accomplish and learn more on my own. Project-based learning — powerful stuff.

AlgebraSimplifiedIconDawn is a secondary Algebra teacher in Maryland with a B.S. in Secondary Mathematics Education and a Masters in Information Science and Learning Technologies.

Sunday Panel: Biggest challenge in implementing project based learning

Sunday Panel StickyWhat’s the biggest challenge in implementing project based learning, and what do you do to deal with that problem?

profile pic2Tara, Science in the City: In my mind, there are two challenges in implementing project-based learning. (1) how to ensure that the project leads to the desired objectives. I think this be best be dealt with by a carefully designed, scaffolded project. There has to be a lot of forethought about what responses students may give, and how to lead/direct them. (2) How to differentiate, or to address the facts that students finish at different times. I best address this by adding in chances for some students to excel, and to build in steps that can take differing amounts of time. For example, allowing students to make a poster or presentation of their work, or to go back and add more details, find out an extension question, etc.

Square image1Christina, The Daring English Teacher: The biggest problem I face when implementing project based learning in my classroom is a lack of outside student involvement. Many students will not even read outside of school, let alone work on a project. Also, many of my students do not have access to a computer and the Internet at home. In order to really have the students gain all of the benefits from project based learning, I plan all of the activities to take place within our class time. While this makes things take longer than I would like them to, I am making sure that all of my students have access to the technology needed to make projects.

Ok, Old Man Winter, Enough is Enough!

march 26For many of us it has been a long, cold, snowy winter, the likes of which we haven’t seen in years.  I live on the east coast of Canada, where we are no stranger to snow and long winters, but this one is crazy!  Usually about this time of year, winter is in retreat.  The tulips are not out yet, but the promise is there, and we know that there will be no more snow days to let us get caught up on that never-ending pile of marking.  But not this year.  In fact, I have just had three days off from school in a row–that hasn’t happened in seventeen years (the year my middle son was born early, just days before a blizzard shut the province down for days).


These are pictures I took on Wednesday and Thursday, when we were in the middle of getting a 50 cm dump of snow, snow that took all five of us hours to remove from the driveway.  The forecast, alas, is calling for another possible 50 cm by Wednesday.  They shut down school today, not because it was still storming, but because they couldn’t get the roads cleared in time.
IMG_8458My husband and I just took a walk around the neighborhood, and many of our neighbor’s houses are obscured behind banks of snow.   Sigh…spring seems like a long, long time away.  But, I know, like every winter past, it will melt and it will melt soon.  Before I know it I’ll be trying to keep the attention of a bunch of teenagers who can only think about prom and going to the beach, tough competition for Shakespeare!

sandys view

What will get me through til the snow melts?  I’ll be dreaming of the beach too.  I’m lucky enough to live in one of the most beautiful places on earth and get to spend my summers at this beach.  My kids are teens and they love to ignore me.  So, I’ll be lying on the beach, reading the stack of books I never get to read all winter.  Until then, I’ll keep my shovel close by.

I hope the tulips are blooming where you are!

new logo 3Jackie Cutcliffe (Room 213) teaches high school English in Prince Edward Island, Canada. You can follow her at Real Learning in Room 213

Whole School Project Based Learning Experiment

I teach in a small school….a very small school. We have 62 students ranging from 7th-12th grade. This can cause some problems with availability and elective classes, but it also allows us to create some pretty fun cross-curricular projects.

The teachers sat down before Christmas break to decide on a topic for our Project Based Learning cross-curricular experiment. We wanted to choose something that we could work on in our fourth period classes that would be unique, personal, and could be applied to each subject. Since we live in Southern California, we chose the Drought because it is a real-life issue that is impacting our daily lives in multiple ways.
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Each teacher discussed ideas with their classes, trying to find a topic to work on in a way that would highlight their subject and their student’s strengths. Since I am an English teacher, we decided that we would create a newspaper with different articles about the drought and its impact. Each student chose two topics to write about and I asked one student to edit and another to create the layout on a newspaper website I found. The students researched their topics and we even had two students who had parents involved in Groundwater Preservation and on the Los Angeles Water Board. These students interviewed their parents and came back with some useful information about how our water is used and how the drought will continue to affect Los Angeles County for years to come.

Blog PostThe layout was created using and we had a great time choosing the fonts, working out the layout issues, modeling after real newspapers, and finding interesting pictures to include in each article. The students worked together, only asking for my help when they wanted suggestions with word choices or a layout decision that they couldn’t resolve themselves. This experience was a perfect way to see how students could collaborate, compromise, and use their strengths, skills, and creativity to create a final product.

Blog 1The result was spectacular and I am so pleased with how the newspaper came out. It looked professional and the
newsprint was high quality. It did take some time for our newspaper to print, but we were able to decide how many copies we wanted, the size of the newspaper, and if we wanted color or just black and white. We were able to purchase 10 copies and each student took home their own copy to show their parents. When we presented our newspaper to the rest of the classes, they were impressed and read through our articles with interest and appreciation.

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This was our first comprehensive experience with a school-wide Project Based Learning experiment, but I think it worked out beautifully. Each student was able to participate and learn more about the impact of the drought in California, while utilizing skills they were learning in their classes to create different approaches and new ways of looking at all of the elements of the drought.

Different Drummer LogoDifferent Drummer teaches English to learning-challenged students from 9th-12th grade. She tries to keep their attention using visually dynamic graphics and topics while including high-level questions that are aligned with the Common Core. 

Interdisciplinary Literacy and PBL: The New York Times Learning Network

Do you often hear students moaning that they never learn anything in school that matters? Well, here is a great resource to quiet their complaints! The New York Times Learning Network provides lessons on various real-world topics for language arts, social studies, science, art, and math with connections to New York Times articles, videos, and other resources. Recently, the Learning Network posted a Text to Text Lesson for one of my favorite plays to teach, A Raisin in the Sun by Lorraine Hansberry.

Team with a social studies teacher for this lesson in which students read articles and research issues of housing discrimination, race relations, and school segregation in America. Aligned with Common Core Standards, the lesson provides a link to a video with Phylicia Rashad and downloadable graphic organizers, including a double-entry chart for close reading.


In another current lesson, Turn Down the Volume: Researching the Science of Sound and Noise-Induced Hearing Loss, students learn about hearing and hearing loss through a variety of projects and activities. Whether they measure and study the physics of sound, coordinate with the school nurse, survey their classmates’ listening habits, or read and debate the use of headphones, there are numerous possibilities to engage them in their learning.

bloglogoKim is a National Board Certified teacher who is currently teaching American Literature and AP English Literature and Composition.  She shares classroom ideas and tips on her OCBeachTeacher Facebook Page.

Sunday Panel: Best Advice for Grading Projects

profile pic2Tara, Science in the City

I think in grading projects it is very important to have clear criteria ahead of time, and to communicate that to the students. It could be in the form of a rubric, checklist, etc, but should allow for clarity regarding what is being evaluated, and how the various things are weighted. Ideally, a student could use it to evaluate his or her own work before submitting it, and use it to improve his or her own work..Sunday Panel Sticky



Reduce the amount of projects to grade from the get-go by having students complete projects in collaborative pairs or groups.  Would you rather 28 projects or 7 projects to grade?  I also like to build in check points into my projects for two purposes: to ensure students are progressing through the project and also to get a little pre-grading in.
Grading projects became more fun and functional when I negotiated assessment criteria with students. One student described it this way: “It’s  a bit like we grade our own work.” We first articulate a common learning target that must be met.  Typically student tasks draw on several intelligences and mandated rubric criteria might include: 1).  Accurate research 2). Real life application; 3). Key problem addressed; 4). Intelligences engaged; 5). Umbrella question posed 6). Due date completion. Students then add their one or two criteria to our list.  Once agreed upon, these criteria double as student action guides. The results? With assessment tools aligned to learning guides and negotiated in advance, projects seem to assess themselves. My work is made easier – and the students rarely question their grades after. My advice? Keep it simple, negotiate in advance and engage students.
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It’s all about rubrics.  I put it right on the student instruction sheet, often in lieu of writing out “student” requirements.  It’s clear, from the start, column 1, here is what I’m expected of you.  Here is the deduction in points if you miss the requirements in these increments.  Some of my students use it to determine what minimum effort they have to put forth, but they would try that anyway– at least this way they are not missing key requirements (gambling) nor are they at my desk arguing about “what if I just did this or that?”  I can color the rubric to grade, but add notes.  Depending on the rubric, I can often recycle core parts of it for the next project, replacing project-specific verbage in one or two rows of the rubric table, saving myself more work.  When I discovered rubrics, it made things so much better for ease of grading and for communicating to students what was expected.

Shift your Time — Make Life Easier!

I like to cook. And even more so, I like to eat. However, at the end of a long day of teaching, being on my feet all day, and making hundreds of decisions, the last thing I want to do at the end of the day is to cook, and decide what I want to cook.

Over the last few years I have gradually done more and more “freezer cooking” or cooking ahead. If you have never tried it, I highly suggest it, and would like to share some strategies and resources with you. It will enable you to come home and have dishes like Chicken Kiev (by putting something in the oven, and maybe making a vegetable), or beef stroganoff (just make the pasta).

Method 1:
Complete once a month cooking. This method involves making “all” your family’s meals for the month, including lunches and breakfasts. It makes life very easy, but didn’t work for me. I’ve only done this once or twice. For me, it was a lot of work, and, honestly, I’m fine to take leftovers, or a sandwich for lunch and a bagel or cereal for breakfast.

If you want to go that route, however, a great website is or pinterest (look for once a month cooking), or the library. (disclaimer: once a month meals is a pay subscription site, if its what you are looking for, it can be worth it. You pick the recipes from their database, or choose from a set menu, and they create the shopping list, labels, directions, etc.).

Method 2:
readyforthefreezer1-1024x593-600x347Make a few dishes, in bigger quantities, and freeze them. This is an easy way to start with things like chili, spaghetti sauce, soups, etc. Again, you can look up recipes for freezer cooking, go on pinterest, or go on

Method 3:
Several nights during the week, or on the weekend for a couple of weeks, make recipes that freeze for dinner, and make double. Or even make trips. If you are making dinner, its not really much harder to make 2 or 3 dinners, and then stick the others in the freezer.

Method 4:
Do a “mini menu” as they are called from Once a Month Meals, or create your own. A mini menu might be approximately 4-5 dinners, that you double and freeze. In that case, you end up with 8-10 meals in your freezer. This usually takes a few hours, or half a day.

There are multitudes of websites, pinterest sites, and library books on freezer cooking, or once a month cooking, in addition those few I mentioned.

I highly recommend that you give it a try. Then deciding what to have for dinner turns into choosing of a list. You come home, pop something healthy in the oven, and put your feet up while it heats up. Or come home to dinner already cooking in the crockpot. For our family, it has saved us recently!

profile pic2Tara is a science teacher from upstate NY. She has taught General Science, Biology, Environmental Science, and Earth Science.


lifesavePS  I loved this post, Tara, and had to add a method of my own because it changed my life when it comes to packing lunches.  It’s another Pinterest find.  On Sunday, you gather two containers and all of the snacks for the week–carrot sticks, granola bars, etc.  In one container you put all of the items that need to go in the fridge; in the other you put ones that don’t.  Then, your kids can collect all of their snacks in the morning and put them in their lunch bags. I LOVE IT!