Q&A: How I Create Project-based Units to Personalize Learning
We spoke with Chelsea Bowker, Language Arts and AVID Teacher at Saint Cloud Area School District 742 about creating project-based learning units for her students.
Tell us about your district, Saint Cloud Area School District 742, and the role you play in it.
Chelsea Bowker: I am a Language Arts 9 teacher in St. Cloud Area School District 742. I also teach a couple of AVID elective classes which are pretty much college prep classes. Residing in Central MN, our district is pretty large; we have two high schools. The classes I teach are diverse in their abilities, needs, and interests, so personalizing learning is of the utmost importance. Our students have 1:1 devices, so learning is able to be easily personalized. I also have the privilege to work at a new building that has been designed around the ideas of personalized learning and collaboration.
What inspired you to begin creating project-based learning units for your students?
CB: My love for project based learning actually began two years ago at the Personalized Learning Summit in Chanhassen Minnesota. I saw what other teachers are doing with their technology, and I fell in love! Additionally, the technology itself is what inspired me. Daily, I am being told to utilize the 1:1 devices, and that I should be working on climbing the SAMR ladder, so I was searching for a way to do this. I thought giving students more voice and choice in how and what they learn was the solution.
What determines if you choose to make a unit project-based or not? What type of lessons do you think work best as project-based vs. traditional?
CB: It is my ultimate goal to personalize all aspects of Language Arts 9 in the coming years. It is a lot of work, so I know I will need a lot of time. When it comes to being project-based, I look at the standard(s) I am assessing. It is much easier for me to assess communications and reading with a project than it is to assess writing. That is just personal preferences. I do not like to create lessons that are project-based themselves because I like to allow much more time. I only tie projects like this to units.
Please walk us through the steps you take when creating a project-based lesson.
1. Begin with a standard and learning goal.
2. Create an essential question that the students will be able to understand and a rubric to assess your standard.
3. Create a project proposal form where students have to design a project to answer the essential question and give rationale for it .
4. Decide on an anchor text, novel, choice novels, etc.
5. Plan for A LOT of work time and set clear expectations in the class about what this work time will look and feel like for students.
6. Work through the unit.
You mention lack of interest, choice, relevance, and follow through as struggles you encountered in past lessons. How have project-based lessons improved these things?
CB: For one, students are now working toward their goal instead of points. I’m not getting asked, “Mrs, how many points is this?” every single class period. I see that as a complete and total win. Additionally, I, as the teacher, find that I am also more engaged because I have so many different things happening at once. The students are working to demonstrate their understanding while also working on something they find engaging. I have Google Slides, Discussions, Graphs, Statistics, Videos, essays, art projects, and more. Students are really owning their own learning.
In your opinion, how does project-based learning impact the ability to personalize learning in a classroom?
CB: Well, the impact is positive. It is designed so that the students literally need to personalize their own learning. It redefines what we are doing in our class to engage with Language.
You have done a great job at having an action plan for incorporating PBL into your classroom. What are you looking forward to next? Is it expanding PBL into more classrooms at your district or focusing on another instructional approach?
CB: I would like to weave more ISTE goals, 21st Century skills, and digital citizenship opportunities into these units. I’d like to get students to collaborate online. I might start moving down this path by redesigning my project proposal form and adding a stop for the 4 Cs: critical thinking, communication, collaboration, and creativity.
In the presentation you shared with us, you say that finding a PLN is your first piece of advice to other educators. How has having a PLN helped you?
If I have a question, I can ask Twitter and/or Schoology and get a response that helps within hours. More importantly, I receive a daily feed of what is happening all over the country in classrooms. There are really talented teachers out there.
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