Back-to-School PBL Curriculum Map Checklist


Andrew Larson, High School Facilitator

Columbus Signature Academy New Tech High School 

Columbus, IN


My sister- in- law, a kindergarten teacher, posted this clever and oh- so- true quote several weeks ago…
"Teachers are solar powered. They recharge in the summer."

Summer can work wonders. We garden, ride bikes, sleep, hang out with our kids, and…. we work.

I think that the most important work that teachers do in the summer (especially late summer) is reflect. What were the successes? The failures? How can I get better? What do I want to try this year?

And now, alas, summer’s almost gone.

When it’s time to put that reflection into action, the document that I pull up first is always the curriculum map.

While curriculum maps are nothing new, they do have a different look and feel in Project-Based Learning. In short, a PBL Curriculum Map has a row for each project or unit and columns for topics, driving questions, standards, approximate duration, potential community partners, project deliverables, and benchmarks.

It’s important to note that many of the details (i.e. scaffolding activities, entry event format, assessment pieces) will be addressed along the way in the school year. Some, though, need preemptive attention to make sure that you don’t a) run out of time, b) go crazy or c) decide you hate your curriculum in the middle of the year.

Here’s a back-to-school curriculum checklist for the PBL educator.

1. Take a fresh look at your Driving Questions.

These are the bedrock of each project or unit that students complete. Driving Questions are, by definition, broad and holistic questions that can only be answered with deep inquiry; that is to say, they are not yes or no questions or ones that begin with “what,” “when,” or “where.” They are also not specific to any one scenario or situation but are instead adaptable and

As an example, my AP Biology students will do a project where they analyze the impact of invasive plant species on our watershed and propose solutions. The overall topics are ecology and evolution, and while I may or may not choose to do this project again or even every year, my driving question for this project is constructed in such a way that give me the flexibility to choose.

A non- example:

What are invasive species and why are they bad for ecosystems?

If this were a driving question for a project, that project might be over in 20 minutes. It’s not deep, requires no inquiry other than a Google search, and isn’t broad enough to encapsulate all of the topics of ecology and evolution.

A better, but still inadequate, example:

How do invasive plants impact the Haw Creek Watershed and what can be done about it?

This isn’t an awful driving question because it’s still fairly open- ended. It would require plenty of research and investigation. But it’s not a good driving question because it’s too context- specific. There are plenty of other facets of ecology and evolution that do not fall under the umbrella of this driving question. Therefore, it’s out.

The winner:

How do ecosystems exist in a state of balance, and how do disruptions to that balance affect species in the short and long term?

This broad stroke carries enough weight to drive a curriculum for an extended period of time (in my case, possibly a full quarter.)

The important thing here is that, from a planning perspective, having a set of good driving questions will help you budget your time spent on each topic, feel confident that you’re focusing on the right stuff, and give your course/ curriculum the year- to- year stability and consistency that it needs.

2. Reexamine the logic of your sequence.

A “perfect” curriculum map would have all of the topics and skills presented in such a sequence that each project belongs precisely where you have placed it in the year. That is, each topic or skill should serve as a building block for what comes next in such a way that your curriculum is constantly “spiraling up”; in essence, this means that because each topic is a building block for future topics, it is revisited throughout the course (albeit in different ways and probably not necessarily re- taught.)

Naturally there are other factors at play, too. We do ecology in the fall because it’s still warm out and it would be immensely disappointing to do ecology exclusively indoors. Maybe there’s a cultural event like Ethnic Expo in October that would be a great focal point, celebration or curricular connection and you’d like to build a project to fit in with that event. Those factors are important, but are secondary to the logical placement of topics in a sequence. We all have done projects where we realize, often too late, that there were skills or topics that needed to come earlier or later and think, “Wow… how much better would this have been if the students had already learned how to do scale factors going in to this?” More important than fall weather for doing ecology and evolution is the fact that these are topics that are both foundational and broad; they are implicit to the rest of the curriculum; therefore, they come first.

3. Check for round pegs being forced into square holes.

I had a conversation with a middle school science teacher earlier this summer who was implementing cross- curricular projects with her teaching team. The issue she was having was that there were some projects where her topic had to take a back seat to language arts and math (she had too little content), and others where she was super crunched for time to deliver a lot of science in too little time.

We looked at her standards next to her curriculum map and it seemed that not only was there an opportunity to take some of the pressure off of her time in the time- crunched project, but in fact, some of the content fit better into a different project (the one where she didn’t have enough to do with her kids.) A win- win resulted! She would have a better and more logical placement of content in her team’s curriculum.

Another peer had done a cool thematic project, also a cross- curricular one, where students designed and tested their own water filters while studying The Lost Boys of Sudan. She had included broad standards about global weather patterns and ocean currents in a project where all students really needed to know about water was a bit about its chemical makeup. While technically she had included “water standards,” they were non- essential and forced into a project (because, let’s be real… we’re expected to get them all in.) Nonetheless the conclusion we reached was that they needed to be taken out and given a more meaningful and authentic context (i.e. write a different driving question and design a different project.) It was indeed a good experience for the students and should stay… but it should be executed differently (in her case, social studies has more curricular ties to language arts than science did, it was decided that a proposal be made to her team to move it.)

When standards are forced into projects, things get weird. And with all things education, if it’s even remotely confusing to you, it will be downright baffling to students.

4. Evaluate the impact of community partners.

The inclusion of adults other than teachers has an immeasurably important effect on the engagement and authenticity of projects. The best projects involve a community partner at many points along the way. If you ask students doing PBL, they’ll state the tremendously positive impact of these authentic partnerships.

Except when it’s not. Sometimes we have grandiose plans for how to include these outsiders into our projects and it simply doesn’t pan out; we wanted to have them come five times in a month and they could only make it happen once, or we thought they would just love being with us and interacting, but actually they were bored (or worse, unimpressed.)

A curriculum map should have a column for community partner ideas, even if they’re just brainstormed ideas. Many times we encounter potential community partners after a project is done and gone. As a Cubs fan, I know the adage all too well: there’s always next year. Revisit the names in that column and decide who you will call back, which names should be scratched and perhaps how to use certain persons or organizations differently and better than before.

It may be obvious to state this, but I’ll do it anyway. When asking community partners to provide feedback or instruction to students, make sure that a) they are operating in their domain of expertise and b) students are given sufficient content preparation prior to their coming. I’ve made the mistake of asking museum officials to give feedback on the scientific content in displays, falsely assuming the officials had a science background. And I’ve had many a time where I felt embarrassment on the behalf of my students because I hadn’t prepared them well enough for the community partner’s visit (or I did not provide the community partner with enough detail about what their background was.)

Also be mindful of fatigue on the part of your community partners. Sure, there are a few people that I contact every single year and they come in with abundant gusto. Others I know I should probably only ask every couple of years. It naturally stands to reason that if a community partner got a thank you note from a student after last year’s project, you’re more likely to get their help again. For more on where to find and how to use community partners read through my blog, Adult Connections in Project-Based Learning.

5. Budget variety.

Think about the culminating products that your students might produce this year. If you do have past years on which to reflect, ask yourself whether or not they did enough different kinds of things as PBL experiences. If what they did at the end of each project was a PSA or a slide show presentation, it may be time to think about how to incorporate more variety into your planning. While I am of the strong belief that it’s more about the process than the product, there’s a lot to be said for asking students to create final products that stimulate their imagination, build a variety of skills from communication to technology to collaboration, and give them a challenging goal to work towards.

There are some PBL projects that are truly authentic, where the work they are doing replicates the work being done by the corresponding adults in those disciplines. Clearly a great thing. My students participated as student scientists in a Purdue yeast biodiversity survey for the past two years and it was truly authentic and truly engaging because they were doing real work (they discovered new species, even.) There are also projects that sacrifice some authenticity for the sake of engagement. I’ve created complete mock- up crime scenes of cookie recipe thievery that were 100% fictitious, but also highly engaging. Both of these approaches serve valuable roles in the curriculum.

Finally, budget variety in the duration of projects. Not every project needs to adhere to a formulaic, “perfect” project length. If there’s a project that will take five weeks, consider following it up with a two week mini- project. Students get worn out, too. There’s some dread that happens when, coming off a huge project, you jump right back into another huge project.

The greatest thing about each new school year is that it’s a fresh start. The greatest thing about a good curriculum map is that you don’t have to completely start over each year. Curriculum maps should always be considered living documents that will evolve over many years… but while there will be elements that are “one and done,” never again to be repeated, there will also be pieces that bear the original ink from the very first drafting of the map.

Taken together, a new school year and a fresh revision of your curriculum maps will ensure that there’s a least a few bars in the battery at all times this year.

If you need help creating a curriculum map, take a look at Magnify Learning’s PBL Resources and look into their summer Open PBL Workshops in 2020!

Andrew Larson 1.jpg

Andrew Larson is a science facilitator at the Columbus Signature Academy New Tech High School and an experienced Magnify Learning workshop facilitator. He manages our regularly updated blog about project based learning with contributions from other PBL facilitators and students. When he’s not doing awesome PBL work, you can find him mountain biking, spending time with his family, or digging around in the garden.


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