Adventures in Project-Based Learning

Adventures in Project-Based Learning

I figured it would be a pretty easy thing to do. About eight years ago, I began teaching a college course called “Fine Arts in the Classroom.” Since this is an elective course that education students take toward the beginning of their course of study, I thought it would be easy enough to incorporate project-based learning (PBL) into the curriculum. I had heard of PBL while doing coursework for my master’s at Dordt College. I really liked the way it engaged the students, so I did a bit of research, read a book or two, talked to some teachers who had done some cool things with PBL, and set off. At times, PBL was engaging and wonderful and one of the most satisfying things I have ever worked on with my students. At other times, it seemed like a disaster waiting to happen.

I started my adventure in an imaginary world. Several of the books and articles I had read warned that PBL needs to be centered on real-world problems. I had also talked to a couple of teachers who used a combination of real-world problems and hypothetical scenarios. Because I didn’t have a ready partnership with a school, and because my goals for the project involved students writing lesson plans and teaching sample lessons, an imaginary scenario seemed like a good place to start.

On the first day of class, I handed my students a letter. The letter was from an imaginary principal at an imaginary, newly-formed Christian school congratulating them on being hired and informing them the school was going to try to celebrate God’s creativity by focusing on the fine arts across the curriculum. The school had gotten a grant that allowed them to send the teachers on a two-week summer retreat where they would develop units to be taught in the school. They were expected to present their work at a special meeting of the new school board at the end of the summer. Their presentation would include both justification for such a curriculum and sample lessons, lesson plans, and schedules showing how it would be enacted. On the second day, in response to a quick survey they had filled out, I handed students a directory showing what they would each be teaching in the new school (they got surprisingly excited about this) and their committee assignment (one committee for each of the fine arts: creative writing, dance, drama, visual arts, and music).

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