A Teacher’s Journey into Project-based Learning: Part One

McGraw-Hill
Oct 11 · 5 min read

What Drew Me In & My Initial Hesitations

By Shelby Denhof

I want to wipe the slate clean and build this class back up, piece by intentional piece. Like most longstanding classes at any school, English 11 needs a makeover, and I see PBL as the way to give the curriculum the scrutiny that it needs. Maybe I’m a masochist. Anyone who’s developed a course knows just how big a feat that is. Regardless, this is the journey I’m on: developing and debuting our high school’s first PBL English course with no model to lean on.

My hope, throughout the school year, is to reflect deeply on this adventure and write about the different facets of a PBL classroom as my students and I experience them. This article is the first in an upcoming series of successes and failures with the goal of assisting other educators as they take this plunge into adopting PBL practices, too.

What Led Me To Yes

Three realizations led me to throw myself into this venture.

First: I already was integrating PBL-type elements in my own classes and, personally, I want more administrative support and legitimization department-wide for these more experimental projects.

Second: I knew that agreeing to this undertaking would lead to more meaningful professional development opportunities. Frankly, I was tired of the lackluster PD offered by my district and hoped this PBL track would present more specialized, out-of-district training (so far, it has).

Third: The tenets of PBL align so strongly with my own teaching philosophy. What a jargony phrase, I know, but I truly believe in the skills and attitudes PBL aspires to develop in young people.

What Even is PBL?

Project-based learning is a model used to structure any course. Simply put, PBL emphasizes the following:

  1. Incorporating real-world issues on a local, regional, and/or global scale into the curriculum
  2. Collaboration between students in intentionally-formed groups
  3. Connection with community partners
  4. Opportunities for student choice and platforms that highlight student voice
  5. Authentic audiences for student work (that is, student work is shared with people beyond the teacher and classmates)
  6. Intentionality about fostering students’ collaborative abilities, communication skills, problem-solving capacities, and curiosity about the world and others
  7. Assessments that often involve teamwork to solve a pressing issue or explore a complex topic within society, for PBL units heavily emphasize connecting curriculum to the world beyond the four walls of the classroom

Sounds Great, But What About…?

Looking at those ideals written out, it’s hard not to support PBL in any classroom. After all, what teacher wouldn’t want to see students feel empowered by what they’re taught and become change makers in their communities? As I embark on this PBL journey, though, I’m recognizing my initial hesitations and I see these worries expressed by other educators online.

The biggest, of course, is time. Projects take a lot of time, and I wonder how my students and I will be able to do justice to everything required in our English curriculum while constrained already by trimesters.

Other worries involve team teaching specifically and how to navigate shared instruction time as well as responsibilities like grading and lesson planning. I’m concerned about students seeing my team teacher and me as equal leaders and facilitators. I wonder, too, where I’ll find the time to coordinate efficiently with my team teacher without losing most of my needed prep hour.

I’m also struggling with how to make each of the required units in the English 11 curriculum PBL-friendly. Some, like the unit on persuasion and rhetorical strategies, for example, so clearly align with PBL and I see a clear vision on how to make that work. Other units, however, like our unit on Romanticism, completely stump me. How can I make reading poetry and short stories PBL-like, and does everything even need to be PBL aligned? Does traditional instruction have a place in a PBL classroom?

Lastly, designing PBL-aligned units is a lot of work upfront. One unit alone could involve organizing student groups, writing up detailed instructions, creating a model project as an example, connecting with community partners, organizing timelines, crafting rubrics, and so on. How can I manage a positive work/life balance when immersed in creating a PBL course for the first time when each every project needs to be made from scratch?

Looking Forward

As I move into outlining the specific elements of this course and crafting each unit’s materials, I’m cognizant of these looming questions, yet feel (perhaps naively) confident that this course will change the students’ perception of what an English class is and begin to see how their learning can inspire them to be movers and shakers within the community. And while going into the unknown and embracing newness can be intimidating, I’m up for this challenge with the hopes of revamping student thinking about both school and their own capabilities.


Shelby Denhof is a writer and teacher living in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Embedded in her teaching is her passion for travel, storytelling, and service. Her reflections on teaching can be found on websites such as Cult of Pedagogy, McGraw-Hill , Edutopia, and Refinery29. Shelby is a National Writing Project fellow, a National Geographic Certified Educator, and a two-time participant in National Endowment for the Humanities institutes at both Stanford University and the University of Utah. You can contact Shelby at shelby.denhof@gmail.com


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Inspired Ideas

Resources, ideas, and stories for K-12 educators. We focus on learning science, educational equity, social and emotional learning, and evidence-based teaching strategies. Be sure to check out The Art of Teaching Project, our guest blogging platform for all educators.

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Inspired Ideas

Resources, ideas, and stories for K-12 educators. We focus on learning science, educational equity, social and emotional learning, and evidence-based teaching strategies. Be sure to check out The Art of Teaching Project, our guest blogging platform for all educators.

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