PBL & ELA: Using Lit to Tackle Big Issues

When I first heard about project-based learning, I was excited.  It just made so much sense: students active and engaged, working on skills with real world application to complete a collaborative project.  Most importantly, the project would be integrated into the course, and not an add-on at the end that asked them to paint a picture or do a video.  However, the add-on project was precisely the way I had been doing projects.  Students would finish a novel or a play then do a project, usually a painting or a video.  Guilty as charged.

I knew that PBL was something I wanted to dive into, but I was having trouble deciding how I could do PBL and still cover all of the curriculum in my lit classes.  It was the age-old conundrum: how do I do something that will lead to real learning when I have so much stuff to cover?

Armed with a handbook on PBL put out by the Buck Institute for Education (check out Bie.org) , I started trying to figure out how I could make this work in an English class.  BIE suggests that “at its core, the project is focused on teaching students important knowledge and skills, derived from standards and key concepts at the heart of academic subjects”, and that the inquiry process would have students “engaged in a rigorous, extended process of asking questions, using resources, and developing answers.”   So, I looked to the heart of my course, the texts.  When I did so, I discovered that the novels and play had a common theme: intolerance.  Within each text were lessons about why intolerance happens and shining examples of humans who make a bridge to tolerance.  Looking further, I realized that many of the short stories and non-fiction texts that I used could be easily tweaked to fit under this theme.  

intolerance posterSo I had my starting point.  I gave my students this handout at the beginning of the course, and told them they had a mission: to figure out why human beings treat each other badly and to figure out a way that they could make the world a more tolerant place.  During the course, students would work in groups to create a blog that explored what they were learning during our study of the texts, and to plan a project that would have them doing something to promote greater tolerance in their world.  After we completed each unit, students would reflect in their journals about what they had learned from the text.  Then, they get to work on their blogs, posting about the lessons they have learned and making suggestions about how we can promote understanding among people.  For the blogging component of the project, they had to use a variety of writing techniques, and find links to other texts, as well as interesting images that would enhance their messages.

Once we get further into the course, usually about half way through, students will start to plan their project.  TKAM Inquiry taskThey need to find a real-world way to promote tolerance, using multi-media to spread their message.   In order to keep them on task, I have them fill in a form that tells me who is responsible for what, along with due dates for the completion of tasks.  Once we finish all of our texts, class is dedicated to the final stages of their projects; I send them out into the “real world” to stand up for a group that often faces some form of discrimination.  They took on things like bullying and racism, poverty and ageism.  The greatest part about all projects was that they stepped outside of their teenage comfort zone and helped another group of people.

TKAM Inquiry ex

My students have completed some amazing projects, and their blogs show great insight and creativity.    Overall they are far more involved in the learning process than they used to be when I used a more traditional approach.   Project-based learning has proven to be a far more engaging way to study literature, as it makes it real; students are more easily able to see the connections to their own lives, and to readily make use of the lessons that the authors have attempted to teach.    PBL leads them to ask important questions and to try to find some answers.  Now, it is not a panacea; there are glitches that need to be worked out, students who need nudges and reminders, homework that TKAM Inquiry ex 2does not get completed.  However, in the long run, it is worth it to see the amazing work your students do, and the pride and smiles on their faces as they present their projects.

Dive in.  You won’t regret it.


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


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