agency · authentic writing · choice

PBL in the Writing Classroom

Students enter the classroom fired up to make a difference in the world around them. They want to learn about ocean acidification, rainforest deforestation, rising sea waters; they pay close attention to social issues that impact them. Students are craving to have their voices be heard and to make this world a better place–ready to argue for solutions to large, global problems.

As teachers of writing, we know the power of authenticity and beginning with self. Writers write about what they know, what they are connected to, what they are passionate about. My heart swells as these young writers communicate their passions. They are motivated to do the hard work of research, writing, and presenting their thinking because they are connected to the topic. Within project based learning (PBL), the writing process takes center-stage and is focused on throughout the unit. 

According to the Buck Institute, PBL “is a teaching method in which students learn by actively engaging in real-world and personally meaningful projects.” Real world, authentic opportunities to engage in writing with the goal of enacting change is something all students can really sink their teeth into. PBL and writing workshop go hand in hand. 

Identify the Topic

When laying out a PBL unit for writers, I provide them with a big overarching question that has many access points and is rooted in social justice and change. 

Initially, students often come up with a topic that is enormous and not something directly connected to them. Time is spent narrowing the focus from a big idea to a driving question that will focus their research. Concept maps to identify connections and ultimately help determine the direction of research, is one way to help students narrow their focus. With my grade 6 students, I direct them towards topics that are directly related to them. 

Student-selected Seminars

Having a clear set of standards and expectations laid out from the beginning is an important part of any project; however within a PBL unit, there is flexibility in how each student tackles them. Flexibility can breed challenges that, with a bit of preparation, can be dealt with right from the start. Student-selected seminars where students get help that is tailored for them and just at the right time address the challenges that can occur when writers are given the flexibility. 

In a previous TWT post titled, “Student Agency, Self-Assessment, and Small Group Instruction,” Melanie Maheen discusses ways students can identify and sign up for seminars that are tailored to their needs. I also use a project tracker that is clearly displayed to students, with pre-recorded instructions attached that can be accessed through QR codes. For instance, when students are ready to move from thesis statement to outline creation, they scan a code that takes them to a video of instructions with resources to support them. This decreases the amount of “what do I do next” from students and allows them to move with confidence through their project, AND frees me up to meet with more students to address specific needs.

Exhibition of Learning

An exhibition of learning ups the ante for students. They know an audience will be present, and so it isn’t enough to have completed their research and writing; they also need to consider how best to present their findings in an authentic way. The buzz and excitement of having others there to share their learning is often identified by students as a highlight of the project. Their voices are heard and their work valued. 

Year after year of incorporating PBL units into my writing classroom, I have been amazed by the dedication of my students and the work they produce. Students are willing to put in the hard work as researchers and writers to share their learning about topics they are passionate about. They actively seek out help in areas they know will help them to better pull their project together and show greater independence in their learning.