Community Partners and Project-Based Learning

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By: Trisha Burns, Middle School PBL Facilitator

CSA Central-Columbus Signature Academy Middle School

Columbus, IN


At any given time, students at CSA Central could have four different projects happening at the same time, two for 7th grade and two for 8th grade.  Our goal is to create authentic projects that benefit the community.  We have taken on the project based learning philosophy in our classrooms and are developing a culture where students understand that they are part of a community, both at school and at home.  Along with the content that we teach, we spend time helping our students develop agency and take ownership of their own learning. Part of healthy agency is impacting yourself and your community.  Through our projects, we hope the students understand, that whether big or small, their impact on the community can create positive change...even if it is for just one family or person.  Another goal of adding community partners into our projects is to see how professionals use content in their actual jobs.  Involving community partners helps students get ideas on careers or volunteer opportunities that they didn’t realize were available.

Fairy Tale Project

About a month ago the local newspaper came to our school looking for positive stories to share about local schools.  As I started writing about the different projects happening in our school, I realized how well we were meeting our goal of impacting our community.

In  the 7th grade Fairy Tale project, our students were rewriting famous fairy tales with a different cultural perspective for students who are at a first or second grade reading level.  After several rounds of feedback, students went to two local elementary schools to read their books in small groups of lower elementary students. This project focused on different cultural standards from social studies as well as the English standards of fiction and editing and revision.  Seventh graders enjoyed getting to go share their stories with the elementary students.  The elementary students loved that the seventh graders used some of their favorite stories and redid them.  Some of the elementary students were even excited about getting to write their own book!

Festival of Lights

In the other 7th grade project, Festival of Lights, students were analyzing costs and electricity usage to design a scale model and decorate a homeless shelter for the holidays.  The school corporation’s energy manager came in and talked about energy consumption and ways to reduce energy usage, specifically light bulbs. While he was presenting, he also talked about the aspects of his job to encourage career exploration for the students. Toward the end of their research, the students had to present their ideas to the people who run the homeless shelter to choose which group’s ideas actually got to be used to decorate the house.  The seventh graders felt awesome about getting to go decorate the Horizon House.  It made them feel good that the people who live in the house would know that they hadn’t been forgotten over the holiday season.  It helped their temporary home to blend in with the rest of the community.  One seventh grader said, “You just never know.  Maybe we decorated the house for people that we know!”

Life & Conflict

In 8th grade social studies and science, students did a project called Life and Conflict. In this project students were connecting the lives of veterans and active military members of today to the lives of veterans from wars of the past (Revolutionary through Civil). Student groups created veteran initiatives that in some way supported the veterans in our community. Two examples of these were a Veterans Thanks Day of Service and a Military Family Carnival. During the Veterans Thanks Day of Service students traveled around Columbus helping do fall yard clean-up for veterans and active military members. The Military Family Carnival night in December was an event where military families were invited to come play games and socialize at Central Middle School. The students loved being able to raise awareness for local veterans and active military.

Literacy 4 Life Project

While the 8th graders were working on that project, they also raised money to purchase new books for the children of our community in the Literacy 4 Life Project. Students chose organizations in our community to donate books to, planned and ran fundraisers, and picked books to purchase with their money that would help their chosen organization.  Inside each book, the students created a bookmark or brochure that had statistics about the importance of childhood literacy and strategies to help parents at home.  They also included inferencing questions for the parents to ask while they read the book to help their children better understand the book. The math that was used in this project was slope and y-intercept interpretations as they were planning their daily goal for their fundraising efforts. They also used the surface area of the books so they could tell me how much wrapping paper they were going to need to individually wrap their groups' books. Overall the students raised $1650 and delivered 402 books to 9 different local charities and organizations for them to deliver as Christmas gifts to individual families that they serve.

It was a very successful quarter here at CSA Central, and it was based on finding authentic problems that our community needed help solving.  Finding authentic projects and community partners can be a barrier as you begin to plan your projects. Here are some tips to keep in mind to help overcome those obstacles.

1. Know your content. This seems obvious, but the more you understand your content the more you will see how you can use it to solve real world problems.

2. Know your community. Find out about different organizations and charities in your community and how they currently serve the community.

3. Know your community needs. Don’t be so focused on what you need to cover that you forget to ask what they can really use.  If you find out that their need can’t be solved using your content, share the project idea with other teachers or peer leader groups in your school to see if there is still a way to meet their need.

4. Know and empower your students. Allow students to contact community partners.  We use this method often when students have a choice on community partners.  We create a script and questionnaire together, and then allow students to contact people. We also keep a list of who has been contacted so the groups don’t repeat phone calls or contacts.

5. Think outside the box.  Be flexible.  Work with other subject areas rather than just sticking with what you know.  Find a group of teachers to brainstorm ideas with and to identify what community partners could connect with your content area. 

Community partnerships add so much to a PBL classroom, and to the students who get to work with adults outside the school.  I love it when the students get the satisfaction that comes with doing something amazing for someone who needed it!

How do you use community partners in your classroom? How could your students use the content from your class to impact their community? If you’re interested in learning more about community partners and how to incorporate them in project based learning check out our Project-Based Learning Resources on Community Partnerships.

*Blog originally posted January 25, 2018.

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Trisha Burns is an 8th grade math facilitator at CSA Central Campus in Columbus, Indiana. She is a certified teacher and trainer through the New Tech Network and certified through Magnify Learning to teach project-based learning in Indiana. She has taught in the classroom since 2009 and facilitates for Magnify Learning in the summer. When she is not developing and implementing projects in her class room she loves to hang out with her family and scrapbook their memories!