A Teacher’s Journey Into Project-based Learning: Part Two

Oct 18 · 5 min read

Leaning into Newness & Setting Goals

By Shelby Denhof, Teacher in Grand Rapids, Michigan

Think back on last school year. What made it special? I don’t mean special for the kids. I mean for you, the teacher. What made it different from the year before? What memory will stand out as time moves on? What sparked joy in you? Did you take any risks that paid off? Did you lean into newness?

I’m all about goal setting. I’m the kind of person that gets giddy about sitting down with a thick notebook and the perfect fine-tipped pen and writing down my aspirations for really anything: for the gym, for vacations abroad, for my annual reading. I begin each school year with this habit, too, and am now as I embark on Year #5.

I use this practice as a way to identify how I’d like to make this year unique. I’m wary of teachers that go into each year without an eagerness for newness. When I’m in the thick of the school year with rolling to-do lists and piles of grading, what keeps me going strong are my personal projects that make each year stand out. The newness excites me, whether that’s applying for summer institutes, planning a new field trip, or organizing a volunteer event, for example, and piloting these endeavors makes the difficulties and banalities that often come with teaching more palatable.

As this year begins, my goals mainly emanate from my desire to make my debut project-based learning (PBL) English class as successful as it can be for a first run-through, but I never lose sight of my ambition to also have fun at my job.

Goal #1: Seek Out Meaningful Professional Development

Last year, I completed two online courses for educators through National Geographic — one to become a Nat Geo certified educator and another on incorporating service learning into the classroom. I found both courses wildly inspiring, practical, and a more productive use of my time than any other PD I’ve had. This past year, I used both of the unit projects I completed as requirements for the courses. Both, too, are PBL-aligned and fit easily into the PBL English course I’m debuting soon.

This year, I’m seeking out similarly-inspiring PD for myself. I have my eyes on attending the “Write to Change the World” workshop put on by The Op-Ed Project, an organization that actively works to increase the number of underrepresented voices contributing to thought forums so the best ideas can be heard and shape society. While this workshop isn’t really for educators, I see a connection between the Op-Ed Project’s vision and my PBL curriculum centered around persuasion and rhetorical analysis. My goal is to attend this conference in Chicago, learn the step-by-step process of writing an op-ed piece and pitching it to media outlets, and then bring that practice back to my students as they craft and pitch their own persuasive essays.

Goal #2: Connect with Community Leaders

One main tenet of project-based learning is the necessity of authentic audiences for student work. That means summative projects, papers, and presentations are ideally shared with people other than the teacher and, even better, other than just their classmates. Another necessity is connecting curriculum to issues on a local, regional, and/or global scale. My goal this year is to network with community leaders, local businesses, and nonprofit organizations and invite select individuals into our classroom to be part of our learning, perhaps as guest speakers or audience members for student presentations. My voice isn’t the only voice students need to hear, and there’s so much value in opening students’ eyes to all that’s going on in their extended communities. If I can’t always take my students out into the community, at least I can bring more of the community in.

Goal #3: Bring in What I Love

This is like a bonus goal, one that doesn’t necessarily have to do with curriculum or PBL. This one is purely about doing something new that’s fun for you. As teachers, we often neglect our own fun when we’re engrossed in our day-to-day responsibilities, as if it’s placed on some high, unreachable shelf. It’s time to take it down again.

The strongest classroom communities blossom, in part, when the teacher lets her personality shine and shares her passions. It’s clear to my students, for example, that I’m an amateur environmentalist and strive to be a good steward of the Earth, but this year I aim to capitalize on this interest of mine as a way to bond with my classes. I love a good competition, so I’ll be orchestrating an optional “Respect Your Mother (Earth)” challenge, during which students and I track our own eco-conscious choices over a two-week period. Both individuals and the class with the highest point totals may receive a prize, perhaps sustainably-minded products from local businesses or something as simple as a picnic day outside. Historically, my students have enjoyed class competitions and responded positively to what I show genuine enthusiasm for, and I see this challenge as a way to not only build excitement in them, but to get students thinking more deeply about their everyday choices.

As I sit here with my goals list in progress, I see delightful chaos — ideas crossed out, edited, combined. Ideas with addendums sprawled in the margins, hasty question marks, and definitive underlinings. You, of course, see this curtailed list. But as I reflect on this school year, I can’t help but feel invigorated by the possibilities for newness.

I challenge you to embrace that newness for yourself and make this school year memorable for you. Chances are what brings you joy will bring it to many others, too.

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

Follow the conversation #WhyITeach

To be reminded why your work is so very important and for more stories and advice, visit our collection of teacher perspectives at The Art of Teaching.

You can view the McGraw-Hill Privacy Policy here:http://www.mheducation.com/privacy.html. The views and opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author, and do not reflect the values or positioning of McGraw-Hill or its sales.

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.


Written by

We apply the science of learning to create innovative educational solutions and content to improve outcomes from K-20 and beyond.

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.

Welcome to a place where words matter. On Medium, smart voices and original ideas take center stage - with no ads in sight. Watch
Follow all the topics you care about, and we’ll deliver the best stories for you to your homepage and inbox. Explore
Get unlimited access to the best stories on Medium — and support writers while you’re at it. Just $5/month. Upgrade