English in a Project-Based Learning Setting

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By: Veronica Buckler, High School PBL Facilitator

Columbus Signature Academy New Tech High School

Columbus, IN


The root of project-based learning is the authenticity of the content. This is true in any subject area and in any classroom. When a teacher finds a way to show the students that what they are learning directly ties to something in “real life” the students are that much more engaged and purposeful in their learning. When our classroom launches our garden and feast project, students know exactly why we are learning the content and how they may use it in the future. When it comes to an English classroom, authenticity and PBL fit naturally.

Even before I started at CSA, my teaching practices had started to move towards PBL practices like community partners, student-driven lessons, and a culminating event/product that served a purpose. However, it may seem daunting to fully shift a classroom from traditional means of language study to a project-based, student-driven classroom without any guidance. Some of the struggles may come from the need for basic grammar lessons or even the idea that classics need to be taught. Another challenge could possibly be finding the authenticity in the lessons a teacher already uses. Either way, once an authentic outcome is developed, all of the pieces fit in according to the students’ knows (what students already know about the subject/topic of study) and need to knows (the questions students have about the subject/topic of study). By letting the students drive the content, a teacher is better able to facilitate the necessary learning to accomplish real-world tasks. Through using specific structures in each project that reinforce the basic ELA standards, project-based learning brings an English Language Arts classroom to the next level in terms of engagement, application, and authenticity.

Each project in our integrated Global Science Perspectives (Environmental Studies and English 9) course follows a basic structure which ensures that English content is included. GSP, as it is known, is a combination of English 9 and Environmental Studies which focuses on topics that range from the environment to community involvement to city planning. In every project, students have either a choice of novels to read, or they are given nonfiction information and argumentative writings. A large written piece is assigned, along with daily writing assignments, which also prompt grammar lessons according to workshop requests. There are always discussions about the readings to work on reading comprehension and application of specific themes. Here are five projects we’ve done in GSP that incorporate English standards into an authentic product.

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The first project of the year for my classroom is a “get to know you” type, while also gently introducing the students to a project-based learning (PBL) format. Titled “A Walk in the Woods”, students are challenged to find a memory connected to nature that made an impact on their life. Using this memory, they will write a narrative story in the style of a memoir. To demonstrate what a nature memoir is like, we give them a choice of four different memoirs to read and explore. This past year we offered A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson, A Long Way Gone by Ishmael Beah, The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls, and Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer. Throughout the project, we have workshops focused on observation skills, storytelling, writing dialogue, plot, and character development. We hold a literature circle discussion every week, and quiz students on their reading comprehension weekly, too. Our goal for an authentic outcome is for the students to learn how to reflect on their lives, learn from previous experiences, and share their stories with an audience in a format similar to The Moth Radio Hour, a radio program that showcases storytelling through the life experiences of everyday people.

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Our next project of the year focuses on our school garden and World Food Day in coordination with National Farm to School Month. Each group is assigned a plot in the school garden to grow their choice of vegetable. They are then asked to research a piece of the larger topic of sustainable food, as well as the care and maintenance for their crop. In years past, their informative or argumentative essays have been published in Farm Indiana, a monthly insert in our local newspaper. Everyone reads Seedfolks by Paul Fleischman, a novel about how a community garden can bring a diverse group of people together, and some of our advanced readers will tackle The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan, which is a journalist tracing four meals from the farm to the table. Our fall harvest is then used to throw a feast for our community where students cook the food, provide demonstrations, or inform the audience on sustainable living.

During the second semester, we launch our Dystopian Masterpiece Theatre Project. We use this project as an introduction to theatre, as well as practice in verbal and nonverbal communication. Each group will write their own five-minute dystopian themed skit and perform it at a local theatre run by our community partner, Robert Hay-Smith. We review plot again, discuss character development, and introduce irony and the strange twist. Students get a choice between four different dystopian novels: The Circle by Dave Eggers, Anthem by Ayn Rand, The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood, and The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins. We also supplement with short stories by Ray Bradbury, Shirley Jackson, and Kurt Vonnegut. Through this project, students explore ways literature is used to criticize society and affect change, as well as how to be a more effective communicator.

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Our last project of the year is one of the most favorite freshmen projects at our school. The mock trial project focuses on a key legal, social, environmental, or moral issue that is relevant to that year. In the past, we have hosted mock trials over the use of Native American culture as mascots, the Dakota Access Pipeline, and sanctuary cities. Students audition for a role in the court case, such as the judge, the defense team, witnesses, or the jury. They then prepare for their part through research, persuasive writing, informative writing, or practice listening and note-taking skills. As with other projects, we offer novel choices that highlight similar themes with the case. For our sanctuary city project, we read Little Bee by Chris Cleave, A Long Way Gone by Ishmael Beah, The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini, and Zeitoun by Dave Eggers. All of these novels focus on characters that must escape violence and sometimes persecution, becoming refugees and immigrants. This project focuses on research and argumentative writing. Students are asked to not only understand their side of the argument but to be able to respond to the other side. Our judges work on taking on more authority during the project, while our witnesses get to work on improvisation and acting. The members of the jury have a chance to develop stronger observational skills, while also learning how hard it is to be unbiased and objective. The best part of this project is the fact that our county courthouse gives us the use of one of their courtrooms for the whole day.

Having PBL in an English classroom has really opened up my understanding of the application of language arts standards in the real world. We really have a chance to introduce a wide range of topics and skills to our students through the flexibility of our standards. When planning projects for the students, it’s really about engaging them in today’s world. It might take retiring some of the classics while digging for a different classic or a more modern novel. It might be rethinking the purpose of the assigned essay, but in the end, project-based learning (PBL) allows facilitators and students to find a more engaging and purposeful dive into English Language Arts. So start exploring your community and identify those authentic problems that your students can take charge of with excitement.

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Veronica Buckler is an English and social studies teacher at Columbus Signature Academy in Columbus, IN. She is a five year teacher, with three of those in PBL. Veronica's favorite part of facilitating in a PBL environment is the creativity and ingenuity displayed by her students as they work through and complete projects in multiple ways.