Project-Based Service Learning


This post originally appeared on The Whole Child blog, an ASCD initiative to call on educators, policymakers, business leaders, families, and community members to work together on a whole child approach to education. View Original >


Project-based learning (PBL) by nature lends itself to authenticity and real-world relevancy. All well-designed projects connect learning to an authentic task, but some can really run with it. This is where project-based service learning comes in, where PBL is used to not only create authenticity, but fulfill a community service and need.

I have a long term partnership with EagleRidge High School in Klamath Falls, Ore. PBL is becoming one of its core identities as the school moves forward. On a recent visit, teachers were collaborating to build a PBL project for a Community Studies course.

Project Rationale and Summary:

As they were coming to the close of the year, the team of teachers planning the project wanted to do something that would continue to build knowledge, but also give back to the community. Math teachers wanted students to feel confident in the skills they learned, English teachers wanted students to write, and the Community Studies teacher wanted the students out in the community. The school itself had always wanted a tutoring program, but no one had implemented one. The team decided, therefore, that they wanted to students to apply and work in a math tutoring program, in order to provide intervention and support mechanisms for future years. Students needed community service hours to graduate, and this could also fulfill that need, while fulfilling a need for the school community.

Culminating Products:

Although the major component of the project was the actual tutoring program itself, students were also required to create major writing components. All students were required to create a cover letter and resume in order to apply for the tutoring job—yes, all students. The team wanted students to realize that they ALL could be math tutors, reflecting a culture of excellence. The students also created sample lesson plans and teaching philosophies in order to show applicant reviewers that they would have the skills to teach, as well as the heart.

Learning Targets:

Although students were math tutors, they were not going be graded in math. This is because the learning of the math skills by the tutors had already been learned, and would not be driving the instruction. Instead the team decided to grade students on technical writing, as they wanted to improve writing scores. They wanted to focus on conventions and organization, which would be the students’ primary grade and apply to the current English course. In addition, students would be assessed on the 21st century skills articulated below. This grade would be part of the Community Studies course, but could easily fit into any course assessment.

21st Century Skills:

During the planning stages, the team identified aligned CTE standards to 21st century skills normally taught and assessed in other projects. Because they wanted to align this project to CTE standards, they wanted to make sure the connection was there and that they were justified in targeted the 21st century skills of communication and collaboration. The specific state standards are “demonstrate professional behavior and etiquette in all business management and administration teams, work units, departments and organizations in order to enhance the work environment” and “exhibit ethical and professional behavior.” Both are clearly aligned to the 21st century skill of collaboration and communication. During this project, students would have to remain professional as they taught, and collaborate with fellow tutors to meet student needs.

Next Steps:

I’m very excited to see the long term effects of this PBL Project. While the project itself where students are assessed may not occur next year, the teachers and students have built a structure that will last at the school and provide a real need for the community. I could see this spreading like wild-fire to other schools, where they start to see the success of the program as it becomes a part of the ongoing culture at EagleRidge High School. I am inspired by the drive of teachers to create projects that provide community service. I encourage all teachers to explore ways to meet community needs through PBL, no matter how small that impact might be. It builds relevancy for learning and builds a nurturing school culture.

Professional Learning Communities Can Build School Culture from the Ground Up


This post originally appeared on ASCD Express, a regular ASCD Publication focused on critical topics in education. This article appeared in Vol 6. Number 12, the focus topic being effective school turnaround models and practices. View Original >


Turnaround schools have a unique situation and potential. Because of their mandate to overhaul a school and depart from business as usual, turnaround schools have the ability to create an appropriate culture from the ground up. Professional learning communities (PLCs) can be an ideal way to build that culture.

A PLC refers to a group of educators purposefully collaborating to focus on learning for all students and holding themselves accountable to the results, explains Richard DuFour. DuFour worries that PLCs are at a “critical juncture” where both effective and ineffective implementation has occurred.

A PLC, done well, can be a great tool to build and sustain an effective culture for all members of the school, especially if the staff drives it. However, I have often seen PLCs that aren’t really PLCs. This happens when the administration imposes it from the top down. There’s a lack of buy-in among staff members, who see it as just “another thing to do.”

The following tips can help a turnaround school take advantage of the opportunity to build an effective PLC from scratch.

Have Everyone Create the Norms of the PLC
When first starting your PLC, norms and operating procedures need to be established. It is imperative that these come organically from the entire staff.

These should be a set of four to six norms that are continually referred to throughout the year. They should also be short and pithy. As new staff members are integrated, these should be refined and revisited. It will help foster authentic communication, organization, and trust.

Separate Meetings on School Logistics from Professional Development Time

When it comes down to the week-to-week, there needs to be a separation between professional development and staff meetings about school logistics. These logistical or nuts-and-bolts conversations might be about signing out textbooks, a new disciplinary procedure or protocol in communications with students or parents, announcements from student groups, and even technical support accessing the learning management system. All are necessary discussions, but they need to be separated from PLC conversations. For example, professional development about the integration of technology into the classroom is different from training in the technology tool that will be used.

Schools should consider using technology to disseminate logistical information. Can you use an online forum to change problem wording on a schoolwide document? Can you use e-mail effectively to disseminate critical information? Can you record jings or webinars to train teachers in your school’s technology? The answer to all these is yes! Differentiate between the two uses of valuable staff time so that you can guarantee that the professional development time is sacred and reserved for critical reflection and growth as a professional.

Create Opportunities for Staff to Evaluate and Be Evaluated

All too often, there is one evaluator of a teacher. However, we all know the collective wisdom that is in the room: everyone in the school community and on teaching staff has strengths and weaknesses. Present evaluation protocols and criteria clearly and openly. Have staff members and administrators practice using them in a variety of classroom visits. Build in reflection time and goal setting. When evaluation becomes ongoing and done through a lens of trust and community, it becomes less stressful.

Keep a Focus on Mission, Vision, and Identity
Often, turnaround schools get an influx of funds, and the temptation is to spend it on a variety of resources and training programs. If you have multiple curricula, tools, and structures, it can often be just as burdensome to the new teacher as to the new PLC. A school might try to be a standards-based STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics), PBL (problem-based learning), or RTI (response to intervention) school that uses a variety of technologies and hybrid learning. Once you start doing everything, it becomes daunting and teachers can easily burn out. Educators recognize the common experience of doing too much and trying to meet the needs of everyone. Whether a school calls itself a problem-based learning STEM school, a hybrid career tech academy, or a standards-based RTI school, keep your focus.

Find the few things that really align to your mission, vision, and identity. It will keep professional development relevant and focused and increase morale for the entire PLC. If you feel that you can’t lose a piece, find how it might fit under the umbrella of a larger component.

Just like in a good PLC, use these selected tips and strategies to build a culture-shifting PLC from the ground up so that it will be sustainable. Do it the right way—or don’t do it at all.

Tips for Using Project-Based Learning to Teach Math Standards


This post originally appeared on Edutopia, a site created by the George Lucas Educational Foundation, dedicated to improving the K-12 learning process by using digital media to document, disseminate, and advocate for innovative, replicable strategies that prepare students. View Original >



Let’s be honest. Designing PBL for Math can be a different beast. With the pressure of high-stakes testing and a packed curriculum, I often coach teachers who are nervous about giving time to a robust PBL project. In addition, because of the plethora of math standards, it can be difficult to choose the right learning target(s) for the project. Here are some tips for teachers designing individual Math PBL projects.


Reframe the term “Real Life” Math

Many standards include the idea of applying math to real life. We all want this as teachers. We want our students to not only see the connection in math to real life, but also to explore them. Below is an example from the Math Common Core Standards.

Solve real-life and mathematical problems using numerical and algebraic expressions and equations.
3. Solve multi-step real-life and mathematical problems posed with positive and negative rational numbers in any form (whole numbers, fractions and decimals) using tools strategically. Apply properties of operations to calculate with numbers in any form; fonvert between forms as appropriate; and assess the reasonableness of answers using mental computation and estimation strategies. For example: If a woman making $25 an hour gets a 10% raise, she will make an additional 1/10 of her salary an hour, or $2.50, for a new salary of $27.50. If you want to place a towel bar 9 3/4 inches in the center of a door that is 27 1/2 inches wide, you will need to place the bar about 9 inches from each edge; this estimate can be used as a check on the exact computation.

4. Use variables to represent quantities in a real-world or mathematical proble, and construct simple equations and inequalities to solve problems by reasoning about the quantities

There are many more standards like this throughout the Common Core that related to “real life” math. This is a great place to start, but we can do better.  I think the real potential lies in the redefining the word “problem.” I think this term has been sampled over the years. When you say “math problem” we often envision an equation, whether that be word or simple calculation to solve. Couldn’t it be more? What if the problem was that we need to find the most cost effective design for a classroom, given materials and certain parameters? What if the problem were to predict what would happen if the oil spill in the Gulf had not been stopped, and using this information to convince policy makers to make changes in environmental protections? What if the problem was to create a salary schedule for the student store to reward hard workers while still keeping a profit? These are the types of ideas teachers need to be having when thinking about the word “problem” in math. The old definition of the word “problem” is not rigorous. Redefining the word “problem” within the frame of Project-Based Learning is rigorous, and still demands real world connections in an authentic way.


Pick or Make the Appropriate Time

I know the structures in place for Math teachers. Sometimes there is not enough time for a project. Sometimes, it’s just not the best use of time. If a standard needs to be covered in a short week unit, then it isn’t the best place for a project. However, if there is a 3-week unit coming up around a specific math learning target, this would be a great opportunity to create a project. There is time and space for you the teacher to get your “feet wet” in implementing the project. In addition, you might be able to combine the learning targets in a project that seem to fit together. Your allow time increases and you can have students create products that demonstrate learning of both targets or standards. As a teacher, be creative with the time you have, either in looking for the best opportunity or creating an opportunity.


Pick a Standard with Easy Real-Life Application

“Don’t try to fit a square peg through a round hole.” Sometimes you can try too hard to make a PBL project align to a math standard. Some are easier than others to align. Pick standards that you know or have seen used in real life. If you are unsure, ask you colleagues. I like to say, “The Wisdom is in the room.” I’m sure your colleagues, whether it be math teachers or CTE teachers have some great ideas. Pick standards that clearly can have a practical purpose in analyzing a problem and/or design a solution to that problem. It is much easier to teach Right angle triangles, number sense, or graphing in a PBL project that it is factoring. (PS: I would love to hear from any teachers who have managed to create a PBL project from a seemingly difficult math standard. You rock!)

As teachers, we always have structure and forces as work, from the federal to the school level. Curriculum and Instruction can be a challenging place to navigate in these structures, especially where the curriculum and pedagogy is counter-paradigm to the traditional. I encourage teachers Math teachers specifically to give PBL a shot, regardless of the structures. Hopefully, these tips give you some strategies and comfort you enough to implement Math PBL projects in their classroom. Feel free to steal ideas from the Buck Institute for Education’s Project Search, but make it your own. Remember, if we want our students to really wrestle with rigorous math concepts, then we must create space and environment for this work to happen.

Upcoming iNACOL Webinar: Project Based Learning Online – Essential Elements and Example

I have an upcoming webinar next week titled “Project Based Learning Online – Essential Elements and Examples”, part of iNACOL Teacher Talk series. Next week Thursday, May 19, 2011 at 6:00 PM (Eastern). It should be a good one.

Register Now!



For teachers, project-based learning (PBL) is a “front-loaded” experience. That means considerable planning happens on the front end, before students ever enter the picture. Participants will explore the essentials elements of PBL design as well as look at example student projects from various courses, including English and Game Design. Andrew Miller will walk participants through the PBL projects of his and students’ design, looking at student products and learning management design in Moodle. Andrew will focus on what PBL looks like in a completely online environment. Suzie Boss will describe how an online PBL Camp that uses a variety of Web 2.0 tools to support professional learning, helps teachers find collaborators, invest in planning time, and gain familiarity with project-based learning strategies.


Andrew Miller is currently an online teacher for Giant Campus in a variety of project-based courses. He is a regular blogger, writer and presenter on various topics including PBL, Culturally Responsive teaching and online education. He also serves on the National Faculty for the Buck Institute for Education, traveling the country conducting workshops for numerous schools, districts and states.

Suzie Boss is co-author of Reinventing Project-Based Learning: Your Field Guide to Real-World Projects in the Digital Age. She contributes regularly to Edutopia and is on the National Faculty of the Buck Institute for Education.