My First PBL: The Good, The Bad, The Data

I’ve been promising an explanation of my first PBL all over the place – in the About section of this blog, in my first post, and in my second post. More accurately, I have promised an explanation of my first PBL in literally every single entry I’ve posted. It seems like it’s time to end the suspense – and we can all breathe a collective sigh of relief.

After the PBL workshop I attended in September, I decided that my first PBL would be based on an assignment I’ve used in the past, with a modified assessment that added both authenticity, and audience. (This, by the way, is a strategy I seriously recommend – it’s much easier to modify an existing assignment the first time out than it would be to start from scratch. More on recommendations later!)

In addition to teaching seniors, I also teach honors-level sophomores, who study American literature. In an attempt to add diversity to a very white, male dominated curriculum, I offer an independent reading assignment that allows students to choose one of three texts: The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan, The Bean Trees by Barbara Kingsolver, and The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison. Two years ago I added an additional element to the independent reading experience; because students in my school can take AP Language and Composition in their junior year, I infuse the study of rhetoric into our conversation about their chosen novels. Up until this year, the culminating assignment has asked students to write a letter to me in which they either recommend the novel for next year’s curriculum, or suggest that it not be included, as determined by criteria I provide. Afterwards, they were required to analyze the strength of their own arguments, using their knowledge and understanding of the rhetorical devices we studied.

While the letter worked well enough, I knew that applying the PBL model would make things even better. So, I enlisted help (a definite do when thinking about planning your first PBL!). I got administrators and fellow English teachers on board, and shifted the final assessment from a letter to a panel discussion hosted by students and then we invited all the stakeholders: teachers, administrators – pretty much anyone in the building who was interested in coming was invited.

We worked with three essential questions:

  1. What constitutes appropriateness in curricular choices?
  2. What are the unifying themes of American Literature, and therefore, this class?
  3. How can good rhetoric be used to persuade an audience?

We did loads of interesting stuff – we brought in administrators and teachers and students got to ask them any question they wanted about how curriculum is designed and who designs it. We used the Common Core Standards to create a rubric together. Students met in book groups to have discussions about their texts, as well as to plan their projects. When the day of the panel finally arrived, they were ready and, equally importantly, they were psyched.

Students who read The Bluest Eye advocated on its behalf, claiming it was an essential text in the quest to promote social justice. Another group, who also read The Bluest Eye, suggested that it was overly graphic, and could easily be replaced by The Help. Asian-American students who read The Joy Luck Club talked about how it felt to read an American text featuring people like them, representing a culture with which they were familiar. Young men who read The Bean Trees talked about how important it was to read a female author and female narrator, both of whom opened their eyes to struggles they didn’t previously understand.

Given that it was my first venture into learning that was so student-led, it was important to me to collect data that would help me to understand how well the experience went for them. SurveyMonkey is a great tool for data collection – students can be surveyed anonymously, you can ask all sorts of different questions, and the data will be aggregated and analyzed for you (for free!). Here’s what I learned:

Students actually read!who read

Any English teacher who has assigned independent reading to high school students will tell you that the big fear is that the kids are phoning it in – that they’re reading SparkNotes (or something like it) and skipping the real work of reading. Of 50 students, 47 responded and 36 reported having read the entire text. Only 1 student reported not reading at all, and while I’m not thrilled by that, I can live with it.

enjoymentStudents enjoyed their reading!

This graphic was the one that MOST made me wish I’d been surveying the kids all year long. I can’t say with any degree of certainty that students liked these books more than others, because I don’t have earlier data, but I do think that the opportunity to choose what they were reading (out of three options) at least helped them to go into the experience with an open mind.


Students LEARNED well!

From the second the first response came in, I’ve been kicking myself about the phrasing of their options. I associated “difficulty” with an inability to learn well, and it undoubtedly skewed my results. High school students struggle with having to struggle – it’s uncomfortable, and they don’t like it. That doesn’t mean, however, that meaningful learning isn’t taking place. That said, the vast majority of students reported learning just as well in this model as in a more traditional model, and very few reported learning less.

measure of learning

The takeaway…

Lots of things went well – kids were engaged, they were excited, they read, and they learned. Of course, however, there are always improvements to be made. I’ll frame this for myself the same way that I frame reflection for my students; we break things down into two categories: “what I did well” and “what I need to work on”

What I did well:

  1. Getting the right people involved early – I got support from administrators and colleagues from day one. I built the authentic audience that my students were going to need to really feel that they had agency. At the end of the day, they were able to make real curricular changes because people were listening.
  2. Staying organized – Oh my goodness, there is nothing more important than organization when you’re working with approximately one million moving parts. I had fifty students reading three different texts, in addition to all of our whole-class non fiction readings, plus the study of rhetoric. WOAH! Keeping a journal of the process was immensely helpful. I made calendars, set due dates, reflected daily and next year, it’s going to be a breeze because of it.
  3. Soliciting feedback from everyone all the time – I must have asked the kids every single day how this experience was going for them. I got people in my room all the time to watch what was happening. I took surveys and analyzed data. I now know the exact tweaks I need to make next year to make sure students are learning even better.

What I need to work on:

  1. Rubric building – I struggle with making rubrics on my own because I always feel like I’m leaving something out and then, I grade the first paper, and I realized right away what it was. Making a rubric collaboratively with students is TOUGH. The process is tricky, there’s loads of required background knowledge, and collaborating in large groups (one of my classes has twenty one kids in it) is messy. This is definitely an area where I need to improve.
  2. Being flexibleI got a lot of feedback, but sometimes I just didn’t know what to do with it. I wish now that I had encouraged some of the larger groups of students to break up when I saw that their dynamic wasn’t working. But, because I was a little too married to the product, it just seemed too difficult at the time.
  3. Avoiding burnout – This project was exhausting. The day of our panel discussions, I was in bed by 8 PM. In those final few days, I was so ready to move forward that I just couldn’t enjoy it the way I did at the beginning. I tend to work in fits and starts, but this was a six week marathon that I went into with the energy of a sprinter. If I’m going to shift more of our study in this direction, I’m going to have to build some endurance.

So there it is! The big, long story of my first PBL. This is all of the “stuff” that has informed the formation of The Story Project, and I’m hoping that, in writing it down, I hold myself accountable for truly working on making it an even better experience.

I’d love to get some feedback and advice from those of you out there who are also engaged in this type of teaching. What are YOUR tips and tricks?

Until next time,

Mrs. K


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