ESU 13 Midwinter Conference


Our district’s ESU puts on a Midwinter Conference each year. Teachers from around the panhandle get the opportunity to take a day off of school for professional development. The ESU offered about 30 different sessions with different topics.

As I was choosing my sessions, I stumbled across THE BEST NEWS EVER. Ginger Lewman! I initially found her blog about two years ago when I was researching project-based learning (PBL). Ever since I stumbled across her blog, I’ve delved into PBL and when I get my own classroom I will teach PBL units. And she was coming to a local conference. Awesome!

Ginger did not disappoint. She was informative and hilarious! Her morning session centered on PBL (project-based learning)– what it is and how to do it in the classroom.

Photo Feb 16, 9 13 37 AM

PBL is NOT projects. Mainly, nothing is pre-taught in PBL, unlike projects. With traditional projects, the teacher gives lessons and, as a summative exam, students reflect on their learning to put together a project.

The cycle of PBL is much different. Students learn as they develop their project and it is wholly inquiry-based learning. This is the cycle of PBL:

1. Driving Question/Challenge


This is the hook of the unit. Students need to invest in the project if we want them to learn. Ginger offered a few ways to do this: ask students what they know about the topic (don’t let them guess facts…also, pinpoint the experts and ask them to ooze out information when the class needs it), tell a story, pique interest with a hands-on activity, or create a challenge.

This is a great time to get parents and/or community involved. See if the fire department will make an “unexpected” emergency call to the school, but when they arrive, they “don’t know” how to save the students. Challenge the students to create an emergency plan for the school, involving the community, to better handle school emergencies.

Possibilities are endless.

Essentially, get the students to buy into the idea. Get them asking questions. Get them interested.

2. Need to Know

Now that students want to pursue the topic, ask the class to create a list of things they need to know in order to complete the challenge (or to answer the driving question). Some students may create bunny trails with this list, but tell them time is a constraint. We need that emergency plan by tomorrow!

This is a great place to teach time management and priorities. Students need to learn how to get to the point and get a task done.

3. Research and Think

Once the need to know list has been created, give students no more than 30 minutes to find the things they need to know. Have students use EasyBib for citations – it’s quick and easy and there is an emergency plan to create! You can also have students compile their research on Padlet or GoogleDocs. Collaboration is so important with PBL.

circle44. 21st Century Skills

Now students need to do something with their information. Have students start writing a rough draft of an emergency plan on GoogleDocs. If the project involves building, students should naturally begin to draw their plan on paper. Paper first because we don’t have the funds for students to guess on our expensive materials.

Once the initial draft is completed, students take it to the next level. Now is the time for 3-D models or more visual presentations. However, it is crucial that students come up with the next steps. Telling students what to do is counterintuitive to PBL. If we always tell students what to do next, we are creating dependent robots. Let students become independent. It’s okay if they fail; it’s better to fail in K-12 than in real life.

5. Student Choice and Voice

All students are not created equally. We all have different strengths, so let students showcase their strengths. If students are visual learners, let them be the ones to create the technology presentation. If they’re good with audio, let them create a soundtrack for the presentation. Etc., etc.


6. Soft and Hard Deadlines

Soft deadlines are basically the trial run in front of classmates. It’s a practice presentation to get the kinks worked out. As groups present, the audience members write ‘likes’ and ‘wonders.’ When the presentation is over, the audience discusses and creates conversation about the presentation while the presenters watch from the outside. As a teacher, do not call on students to respond. At this point, you are not in control – you are also an audience member. The audience has to talk to each other.

To save time, if a student says a ‘like’ that other students also liked, they point to the student, nod their heads, and say “yes, yes, yes.”


When students finish their ‘likes’ and ‘wonders,’ the teacher asks the presenters if they have a rebuttal. After the rebuttal, the audience rates the presentation 1-5 on their hand, and then, in a dramatic moment, the teacher reveals her score. This completes the soft deadline.

The hard deadline occurs after students have time to fix their presentation problems. The hard deadline is a big deal – make sure students think so, too!

7. High-Stakes Presentations

Take the project outside of the classroom. Think big audience! Invite the fire department back to the school to hear the new proposed emergency plan. Invite the mayor of the town. Possibilities are endless.

This is also what makes PBL different from traditional projects. Students will care more about their project if they present in front of someone different than the people they’ve grown up with whose opinion doesn’t really matter anymore.

8. Celebration and Post-Project Wrap-Up

This is such an essential piece of life. We need to take moments to reflect and celebrate what we’ve accomplished. However, this is also the most overlooked step of PBL. It’s so tempting to just move on to the next project – there are things to do and standards to meet after all! But taking the time to reflect will make the next projects run smoother.


Those are the eight steps to all PBL units. The #1 rule of a PBL teacher is to admire student work and effort. Even if a student is completely off topic, but working hard, acknowledge the work happening and encourage students to get back on track. The #2 rule of a PBL teacher is to ask students questions to go deeper. “Show me the evidence! How do you know this?” Don’t let students just get by. Incorporate differentiated instruction.

PBL is also a great space for group work. When students work in groups, ask students to individually make a list of everything they hate and like about group work. From their lists, have group members collaborate to write a group contract. Encourage students to write contracts with more positives than negatives, such as “we will” statements and to include consequences.

Students can get fired from their group. If this happens, it is your job to build that student up; it’s healing time. However, the goal is to prevent any firings. If a student signs the contract, he/she is bound to that contract. Follow through with this. Also, don’t let students fire members when the project is nearly finished.

You can scaffold contracts throughout the semester. At first, contracts should be required. As students get to know each other, they will know if their group needs a contract. In this case, make it optional.

PBL can be incorporated into any classroom with any age of students. Start with short PBL units, maybe one day or two. Then build. Reflect. Be persistent. And watch the results.