Teacher Innovation #9: “Teacher Reflection on PBL: Overcoming Obstacles & Making Changes”

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Post #9 is courtesy of Brooke Webb again. Brooke is a colleague and friend and contributed earlier to the series here. Brooke’s a dynamic and innovative teacher, so I knew I had to have her share more than once. Today she shares her reflections on growing as teacher who uses PBL (project-based learning) to enhance student learning over the years. Most of the post focuses on reflecting on two PBLs she conducted this past year. This reflection is as real as it gets. Brooke is candid and encouraging, which is perfect for teachers thinking of using PBL or still wary of it’s potential after trying it. This type of writing makes me very thankful for the people I work alongside day in and day out. Brooke’s teaching practices are iterative and reflexive much how any teacher should be. Enjoy!

Previous Series Entries: Post #1 // Post #2 // Post #3 // Post #4 // Post #5 // Post #6 // Post #7 // Post #8

by Brooke Webb

The following is a narrative based upon my experiences of overcoming obstacles and challenges I faced when planning and executing two different PBL projects in my classroom this past year. This musing is not an attempt to be scholarly with cited sources and cross-referencing academic texts, but rather, I wanted to share some real life insight into my triumphs and tribulations with PBL from the teacher’s perspective.

I have been teaching for sixteen years—mostly high school language arts with a stint in middle school for six years inbetween. Unbeknownst to me for a good majority of my teaching career, I had been doing PBL for quite a while without even realizing it. Project-Based Learning seems to be the rising star of the last few years in the education world. I have realized that teaching language arts through a lens of project-based learning isn’t just beneficial for my students, but it is the way I also learn and make connections to the real world in my teaching profession.

One truth I have come to know about PBL is that it is imperative that we, as teachers, stop being the “man behind the curtain” (like the great and powerful Wizard of Oz) and begin the year sharing with our students the expectation that road blocks, obstacles, missteps, and failures are guaranteed to happen during the time in our PBL-focused classrooms. Moreover, these failures not only inevitable, but they are to be celebrated and praised. Why? Because in the real world, getting anything right on the first try is close to impossible. It can happen and does happen from time to time, but to our 21st century students who have been conditioned and grown up in a world of trophies for participation and taking five Advanced Placement courses in a single year, they do not know how to deal with failure let alone to see the merit in reworking, revising, retrying, or even flat out starting over when something isn’t working. In fact, assessing student’s reflection on the process of their own learning after a project can be just as powerful or even more insightful than the end product of the project itself.

I felt that by the end of the year each year, most of my students have a grasp on the fact that hard work pays off but can take many retries and revisions before anything close to marvelous appears. PBL and inquiry-based learning can be chaotic, stressful, disheartening, confusing, and frustrating, but it will also quite frequently transform into collaborative, unique, relevant, prideful, and innovative success. Best of all, if the learning does not transform, some of the most insightful and poignant work may come in the student’s own reflection of the failure. Why did this happen? What could have been done differently? What role did I play in the missteps of this assignment?

Over the last six or seven years, I have elevated my game as a teacher during PBL projects and lessons with  my students to encourage them to have student choice, ownership of their own learning, and reflection on their triumphs and failures, but this past year, I realized that I was not doing very much of that as a teacher. That had to change! Behind the scenes, I was having plenty of big fat failures in my planning and execution of the very PBL projects that I was asking my students to work on. During the planning phase, I had to often times guesstimate the pacing of the each phase of a large scale PBL project. Many times I stayed awake late into the wee hours of the morning stressing about why my classes were behind schedule and how the whole project timeline I’d spent several hours making into a pretty color coded chart on their handout had become irrelevant or obsolete in the middle of the project. My vision for where I thought my student projects would go was missing major, important components that I had never foreseen. What would I do now that in the middle of a project these things were going off the rails? I didn’t want to look stupid, or appear that my planning wasn’t perfection. I couldn’t let my students see that I didn’t have it all planned out and tied up in a neat little bow. Why not?! As a teacher, my own planning, execution, and facilitation of the PBL project was my personal PBL—stressful missteps and all. The pep talks I’d had with my students about how working through hardships and obstacles was an important part of the process began to seem trite if I didn’t admit to my students that even the best laid and well researched plans can fall apart. I am my students, and my students are me!

Now, onto this year’s projects: two projects–one with my 10th honors gifted language arts class and one with my mythology elective class—really tripped me up this year. I’m talking about obstacles that made me want to crawl under a rock and hide rather than admit that things were going awry.

The first project was with one of my favorite novels in 10th grade, Lord of the Flies. This book is an easy sell and even my apathetic readers typically get sucked in and are engaged in reading the novel. Five years ago, I began doing a choice board project I called Lord of the Flies Project-Palooza with my students as their summative assessment grade for the novel. It was collaborative and asked that the group members work together to select teacher selected tasks to complete from a choice board. Each task was assigned a specific number of points and the group had to turn in projects pieces that totaled up to 100 points. I got some pretty great end products: game boards, poems, novel theme playlists, skits, messages in a bottle, and even some talk show videos. As the years rolled on I began to notice that the end products seemed somewhat limiting and began to become cookie cutter replicas that weren’t very innovative. I wanted more from my students. I decided last year to revise a good bit of the original vision of the project and go for Gold Standard PBL (see Buck Institute) by completely taking away the choice board aspect and making it open-ended with student choice and cross-curricular.

The new LOTF Project-Palooza project asked the group to produce five end products; these end products could be anything that the students wanted (I advised them to be innovative and create using their own passions, talents, and/or academic pathways), but the products had to incorporate and explore some aspect of the novel through the lenses of science, social studies, language arts, math, and an elective class of their choice. At first with no parameters, many of them just stared at me bewildered with fear in their eyes not knowing where to start. But guess what—they unfroze, got down to business, bounced ideas off of each other, began brainstorming, and started to truly get excited about the subject that was their wheelhouse. My scientists/mathematicians ended up using physics to figure out the velocity of the rock that was pushed to kill one of the main characters, Piggy. My mathematicians used equations to figure out how the boys’ presence on the island would affect the indigenous pig population. My family and consumer science bakers made cupcakes with flavor profiles and decorations that accompanied themes in the novel. My cartographers tried to figure out which actual island the boys could have crashed onto in the South Pacific. It was the  most amazing process to sit back and watch. However, there were some students who never got it together. Some resisted the group dynamic or the project idea for the entire duration of the project. Some forgot their end product at home that day. Others said they didn’t feel that their project was completed to their liking by the due date and didn’t want to turn in something they didn’t stand behind 100%. The day of the Gallery Walk day the majority of students set up and stood next to their group members who had a plethora of amazing end products while those few students who had nothing stood there with a sign and a blank space where their project would have been. Had I failed as a teacher? Why didn’t they do the project? How was I going to give them a summative grade for an end product they didn’t produce?


So my triumph for this project was letting go and giving up the safety net of the choice board and giving them absolute student choice—which can be super scary to give. My worry turned to exhilaration as I looked at all of those amazing and unique end products that my students so proudly displayed! The choice board is gone for good for this project! My obstacle that I remedied before the end of the project was the realization that the process the student went through during the project was more important to me for this particular project than the end result. I gave students deliverable grades for checkpoints along the way and many of the students who did not have end products did complete the check points for formative assessment grades and feedback. I decided to resolve my failure in not taking into account those students who would not have an end product by making the summative grade not the end product of the project but a reflective essay that was six paragraphs long that asked each student to reflect on the project process from several perspectives:backward looking (brainstorming), future looking (changes and revisions), inward looking (how do I think I did) and outward looking (how do others think I did). Some of the best essays I received were from those students who did not complete the end product—life lessons they learned, struggles they encountered, problems at home that superceeded the project. It was awesome for me to read through their very honest essays in which they reflected on the process of their own learning. I was able to see that no matter what the end product was–learning happened, inquiry happened, collaboration happened, conflict resolution happened, and perspectives were changed.

Conversely, with my mythlogy elective class, I ran into obstacles that almost derailed the whole project and will require even more time in the future to revise if I ever try to do it again. I planned a PBL project that was a semester long: publish a Norse Viking Mythology children’s book. There are barely any resources on Viking mythology; this was a niche that my students could fill easily! I thought my planning was impecable, and the student buy in was great! I reached out and secured professional experts to come in and speak with my students on the aspects of writing (children’s book author), illustrating (children’s book illustrator), and publishing (president/editor of a book publishing company) come in to share the real world process and examples of their own published work. The timeline I envisioned went out the window by the third week of our four month project. I was asking students how  much more time they would need, what other resources they needed, and how could I help them with the publishing aspect. Now, I myself have never published a book,especially a chlidren’s book, so I knew there would be questions I could not answer for them. The good news was that I had my experts, but they were not always available to respond to students’ questions in a timely manner. This created frustration for the students who felt stalemated which led to apathey in moving forward. Some students are artists and would be their own illustrators, but other students who didn’t feel comfortable drawing had to seek out other people to illustrate for them. Halfway through the project, I realized that I should have reached out sooner to our AP Art teacher and enlisted the help of some of our student artists to be illustrators. Why didn’t I think of that sooner, right? The more frustrated and embarassed I became as the teacher who didn’t have it all together, the more empathetic and relaxed the students became in helping suggest fixes for our roadblocks. They began to make suggestions as a group about what we could do to complete the project but compromise some of my initial charge. They found ways to self publish that I’d never thought of that were not so involved like recording themselves reading their children’s book and showing the pages and then publishing it on Youtube for other students and teachers to find and use in their classrooms. It was astonishing! As I said previously, that Viking children’s book project definitely gave me much stress which the students saw, but it taught me the most about myself and gave me a new appreciation for my students maturity and their ability to help me resolve my own problems with the project as well as trouble shooting their own individual obstacles.

Overall, even as a veteran teacher who is very comfortable with PBL in my classroom, I learned through my missteps this past year:

  • There is no way to plan for everything that may arise in a project no matter how meticulous you are.
  • It is a great life lesson to show students how you, as a teacher, trouble shoot and go back to the drawing board during a PBL project.
  • Students when given the freedom of choice can blow your mind with their creativity and innovation.
  • Every student can shine when he/she feels proud and invested in his/her work.
  • Don’t be afraid to throw a trainwreck project plan of yours in the trash, but also, don’t be afraid to revision and repackage a project plan that could reemerge as something amazing!

Don’t be afraid to fail infront of your students. All eyes are on you, so get back up, dust yourself off, and figure out how to make it better!

2 thoughts on “Teacher Innovation #9: “Teacher Reflection on PBL: Overcoming Obstacles & Making Changes”

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