There is a new initiative revitalizing teaching and learning in D-E’s Middle School—Project-Based Learning (PBL). In each discipline, students learn through projects that they themselves create with the guidance of their teachers, who provide broad questions as a starting point for inquiry. Each project evolves as students home in on what interests them most, learn through various kinds of research, and develop a project for which they will ultimately make a presentation for public sharing—such as a video, website, public service announcement, or maybe even a rap or a dance—about what they’ve learned.
PBL began in the spring of 2015 with that year’s crop of seventh graders. Now it is being implemented throughout the Middle School and creating a great number of memorable learning experiences. “If you talk to older people, particularly alumni of our school, they don’t remember so much what they’re taught—they remember a field trip, or that they did a cool project beyond memorizing information for a test—but they won’t remember what they memorized,” notes Head of School Dr. Rodney De Jarnett. “Doing the hands-on component of a project allows you to remember what you’re learning that much better, and this is where PBL [comes in].”
PBL represents a special kind of engagement and ownership as well. Middle School Principal Kathy Christoph notes, “We’re saying to the students: Be able to represent and have an opinion on a topic. Develop a point of view on this topic, be able to research the topic, and explain what you did to do research on the topic. This is key to what we are working to achieve in the Middle School years: students are learning how to learn, not just learning [pieces of information].”
Each PBL starts with a driving question developed by the teacher, who becomes not a source of knowledge but a facilitator of the research process. The questions are designed to appeal to the Middle School mind. As seventh grade math teacher Paul Jung ’94 explains, “The driving question has to be somewhat catchy and spark interest in the students about the PBL. It should also describe what the PBL might be about.” The question his students pursued was, “Is going green worth the extra green?”
Seventh grade science teachers Maria Kaufman and Courtney Marro posed the guiding question of “Why should we care about conservation?” Kaufman notes, “The idea was to get beyond students learning about trophic levels, biomes, food chains, and energy distribution within food chains, how those energy levels vary as you go ‘up the chain’ and why. The Conservation Conversation PBL is about using persuasive skills to get people to actually care about an animal at risk and do some soul searching [following from] research on specific biomes and individual impact on those biomes.” The students were further challenged to consider the after-effects of a certain animal totally disappearing from a habitat, what that would mean for the flora and fauna of that ecosystem, and how it would affect people.
“The main benefit of PBL vs. a traditional classroom curriculum is that it allows students to investigate real-world issues by working and collaborating with their fellow classmates in small groups. PBL really puts the responsibility on the students to research and find out the information, rather than the teacher just giving a lecture to the students,” says physical education teacher Jaclyn Wood.
Wood describes how the driving question of “How has technology taken us far from fitness?” ultimately evolved into new games ideas for the D-E Health and Wellness Department to use with all students. In partnership with fellow faculty member Rich Muller, Wood created a survey that gauged how much exercise students thought they were getting each week and then measured how much exercise they actually were getting.
While the core intent was to teach the students about the key components of fitness, the students in the end had a reality check about how “screen time” eats into fitness time; they devised lesson plans in which they were able to use any D-E equipment, field, or court space desired; and they created original cooperative games that measured increased physical activity. The students then each took on the job of teaching their new games to each other, and designed and published blogs to track and share their fitness findings.
Linda Segar, Math Department faculty member, explains how her sixth grade students took on these driving questions—“How can I relate to (the number of) one million? How can I relate to a billion (of anything)?”—to understand large numbers. The Millions & Billions PBL initially prompted the students to do creative writing that related personal experiences to big numbers, and then share images demonstrating large numbers to relatable things (e.g., stacks of pennies next to the Statue of Liberty), Segar then had the students work in small groups to “completely spend” $1 million, and then $1 billion, in a limited amount of time. What the students thought would be easy was not, and inevitably, ethical and somewhat stressful considerations came up once decisions about individuals’ spending priorities were identified. Segar recalls questions being posed aloud by the student teams such as, “If I bought an island, what would I then do for the people who lived on that island? What is my responsibility to the people on that island since I ‘own’ it?”
Lastly Segar offered to students the option to complete an extra component of any type. Through “highly original and creative” interpretative dances, raps, and more, the students presented how they (now, better) understood exponential concepts.
“In my opinion, the main benefit of PBL is that it can change the way students see themselves because it puts them in active, authentic roles—i.e., writer, scientist, activist, etc.,” says Giselle Winters, who teaches seventh grade English. “In a ’traditional classroom,’ they tend to only see themselves as just students, doing the project or activities because ’the teacher said so,’ as opposed to doing a project because there’s a real problem to solve.”
In Winters’ class, students were challenged to answer the driving question of “How can we use poetry to bring awareness to a cause?” By learning poetry construction with a focus on an issue that was important to them, the students were “embracing” the issue and not just going through learning the mechanics of creative writing. Winters explains: “They identified a specific social problem, such as bullying, did research to support their feelings about this problem, and then they turned this research into a poem. Then they created an iMovie video of that poem, in order to both share their feelings and bring attention to the problem.”
Seventh grade history teacher Matthew Schade says, “As a teacher, your goal is to try to get the students involved as much as possible. PBL dictates that this be the case, and students are constantly creating and working from the beginning of the unit. I’ve found that the experience then becomes much more meaningful for the students.”
“I think the biggest benefit of PBL is that you are presenting the students with a real-world issue, something that they could and should be concerned about now, and maybe something that they might pursue as a career in the future,” adds Paul Jung. “Hopefully it provides a spark that will grow into a lifelong passion.”
To effectively implement PBL, teachers need to become adept at facilitating rather than directing students in their learning. D-E has had several teachers attend the Buck Institute of Education (BIE) in Napa, CA, where PBL was conceived. In addition, the School has hosted BIE experts who have given workshops to faculty members. The concepts of PBL are changing the ways teachers are thinking about how they practice their craft at D-E. Maria Kaufman said that her training at the Buck Institute’s PBL Conference prompted her to rethink how to approach the curriculum goals of the seventh grade. “One major area of study was the interdependence of living organisms,” she notes. “In the past, we have taught this in a very information delivery sort of way. I wanted to change this way of teaching to a more effective way of student learning and engagement. Now, the students use information gathered and personally developed ideas to persuade an audience to get involved in making a difference in the world around them.”
Notes sixth grade social studies teacher Ben Fleisher, “PBL’s insistence that you engage with the world presently is what sets it apart from traditional teaching methods, which have a tendency to treat and perceive content as a degree or two removed. The challenge for teachers to think about the content they teach and how it can be applied to the world in which the students live actually pushes their practice to be better, which I think is a major benefit.”
Visual arts teachers Lydia Scrivanich and Rachel Brusky echo Fleisher in describing the City Design Re-Mix PBL for Studio Art 6 students. Guided by the driving question of “How can we design and build cities that solve real problems that exist in our communities?”, the sixth graders chose a building or structure in their hometown or community that they saw as needing improvement. They also searched for buildings that were inspiring. Gensler International Chief Architect Mark Thaler, who led the design of D-E’s new Hajjar STEM Center, visited with the students, sharing his real-world experience and examples. Scrivanich notes, “In their research of buildings the students gained an understanding of the history of buildings, form and function, as well as the importance of aesthetic appeal of sites in a community. They had to collaborate in small groups effectively to complete not just their structures but their whole city quadrant with their teammates. [By extension], design and construction skills—such as drafting, measuring, using a scale, and making mock-ups—to practice good cutting and adhering techniques, effective painting and embellishment were the key art components used.”
A final presentation is the culmination of PBLs, and even the act of preparing for the presentation has benefits, according to Courtney Marro. “There are various opportunities for students to get up in front of the class before the final presentation in order to practice and develop their presentation skills. While performing these mini-presentations in front of the class (or, in some cases, small groups), other students are completing checklists in order to make sure that all the requirements are met. In addition, after presentations are complete, both positive feedback and critiques are shared with fellow classmates in order to help students improve their presentation skills for next time. After initially setting up the feedback system model in class, the whole experience has been very productive as the students take it seriously and, for the most part, run the process themselves with little guidance from myself.”
Because students have dictated the way in which they’ve done their research, they have a sense of ownership. Says eighth grade history teacher Bryan Kessler, “The students are more comfortable presenting their projects. The topics they choose mean something to them personally. They have done the research on their own. They have created their websites and videos on their own. They had to answer questions in front of peers and/or an ’expert panel’ comprised of outside professionals. The pride of what the students accomplished makes their presentations that much more meaningful.”
Kessler explains that the eighth grade’s Making a Difference (MaD) PBL, co-facilitated with fellow faculty member Mimi Garcia, was initially sparked last year, during their teaching of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech. The class was discussing if the speech, while historic and clearly dramatic, was also effective in terms of placing pressure on President Lyndon B. Johnson to pass the Civil Rights Act. “What do you do after the initial prompt–in this case, a speech?”Kessler relates. “How do you go from being a bystander to being an ‘upstander?’ This driving question then led the teachers to have eighth grade students start this year by writing a traditional social movement paper. “The students did traditional research and then took on contemporary issue projects…they were then guided to consider how historic events have influence on present-day problems in society. This work then led to them to their curating and writing of their own websites and creating of public service announcements, which in today’s world, is critical in building support for a cause in which you believe.” Citing just one example, Kessler points out how student Chris Meleski ’20 took his MaD project on coding in school curriculum to the next step (see photos below). “Chris organized all the logistics, technical equipment, and complex scheduling involved with teaching a coding class to his peers. He became an ‘upstander’!”
Measuring PBL Success; Far Reaching Impact
D-E’s teachers are finding that PBL is not just fun and engaging but effective as a teaching method. “I had some of my best work out of my students, including students who struggle with traditional methods,” says Ben Fleisher, who added that his students were excited about analyzing and reporting news stories to answer the driving question, “What in the world is going on?”
Teachers believe that well beyond the goals of the Middle School curriculum, PBL can have an impact on the development of life skills and on the way students view the world and their role in it. Matthew Schade believes that students come away with the assurance that they can change the world: “Whether it be by finding a cure for a dreaded disease or just making their local area a little bit better, they can make meaningful change. That, to me, is the goal of PBL and why we are trying to implement it in the first place.”
“PBLs have a common theme—that our daily routines can have an effect on the world around them,” says Maria Kaufman, adding, “Our hope is that they will make better choices in their own lives and persuade others to do the same. Perhaps they will gain a passion for helping the planet and choose a career, or hobby, that makes a difference.”
Middle School students are being stretched to consider newsworthy topics and intriguing inter-relationships between the natural world and a world in which factors are completely controlled, in the process gaining (in the words of seventh grade science teacher Courtney Marro) “ownership over their own learning.”
What’s in your water? This provocative (and timely) question, posed to Grade 7 students, was meant to be engaging and allowed the students a great deal of choice in terms of how they planned their research. Marro explains: “Two projects stood out to me because of the groups’ creativity and risk taking. In the first project, a group of students designed a business plan to potentially solve the Asian Shore Crab invasive species issue in the area while also creating jobs in America. Another project focused on the high mercury levels in the local water sources. After researching proper disposal methods and reaching out to disposal companies, the students designed and created a model and plan to solve the mercury level issue in the Hudson River.”
How does changing the environment affect plants? This guiding question has led Grade 7 students into the Lagana Greenhouse of Hajjar STEM Center to test a variety of factors on environment and plant efficacy, ranging from the use of commercial fertilizer vs. natural compost, to the use of sandy soil vs. top soil and fluctuating temperatures vs. the use of (stable) heat lamps. Science teacher Maria Kaufman explains, “The top outcomes from this PBL are experimental design and lab report writing. Students see how small changes can make a big impact. Going forward with this PBL we’ll shift our focus to bees, and the relationship between plants and bees, including colony collapse syndrome and how it may affect our food supply.” Kaufman continues, “With this type of learning we are open for different outcomes. Our direction can change if the student’s ideas drive us in a different direction. While the content is less prescribed like a book, it allows the students to think and actually acquire the knowledge rather than just memorize the facts.”
Where does culture come from? Students explored this intriguing question within their foreign languages PBL exercises. As faculty member Romualdo Bautista explains: “Each of the MS languages instructors took on a component of culture, such as housing or clothing. In the eighth grade Advanced Spanish class, students researched and compared buildings in Latino cultures across different centuries. They were challenged to learn vocabulary to express why certain buildings were created. When constructing a diorama of their chosen building, students had to behave like city planners, explaining how their building solved problems and addressed needs. Consider Mexico City’s La Basilica de Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe (The Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe). When first constructed this building was a critical symbol to creating a culture of conversion by the Catholic Church. Today it’s a historic landmark. E pluribus unum… out of many, one. By explaining the evolution of buildings, students can appreciate and learn about culture from a more comprehensive, [authentic] perspective.”