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Virginia Journal of Education

We Beg to Differ!

A Hanover County teacher’s adventure with project-based learning.

By Julie Sions

Several years ago, I heard the concept of project-based learning presented at a meeting, and the speaker remarked, almost off-handedly, that using PBL would require a shift in a teacher’s paradigm: Instead of a project being the culmination or display of student learning, the project itself is the vehicle through which the learning takes place.

I wondered how that could be possible. When students walk into my room for their first day of seventh grade history, they usually don’t know the course content. They may have a general idea of some of the major events, but they rarely have any sophisticated understanding of the complex forces that shaped 20th century history.

Still, I was intrigued. I have always loved a bustling, buzzing classroom where students are engaged in their own learning rather than listening to me, so I did some research and decided to give it a try.

First, a disclaimer: the mini-unit I taught did not meet all of the requirements of a formal PBL approach. It was, though, a first attempt that was reasonable and doable within the confines of a typical middle school schedule, teaching load, and Standards of Learning-focused curriculum.

The SOLs and curriculum framework for middle school history are quite specific. However, one goal of project-based learning is for students to grapple with concepts, generating their own questions and answers along the way. This posed a problem: How could I meet that goal and still make sure students learned the “right” information for the test in May?  I decided to begin by searching through the curriculum framework for a theme that students could build their learning around, and I hit upon the idea of protest. Protest is central to 20th-century history, it’s certainly something 13-year-olds can instinctively understand, and lends itself to a variety of student-generated questions.

Many experts in project-based learning recommend starting with a “guiding question” – a sort of touchstone to which all the learning can be traced. It needs to be specific enough to direct the learning, yet open-ended enough to demand that students generate original responses. Since I was going to begin this unit in the context of early 20th-century protest movements, I settled on this as my guiding question: How do you protest when you’re powerless?

We began with a class discussion. I asked them how much power they think kids have when it comes to decisions made by adults. Opinions varied widely. “None. You do what your parents and teachers tell you to.” “A lot. I always get my way eventually.” “It depends on the adult. Some will listen to you and some won’t.”

At this point, I had to caution students that what they were doing next was a simulation.  (I’d definitely forewarned my principal, too—don’t miss that!) I then handed out a set of “new” school policies in which all privileges, even chatting with friends at lunch, were tied to test scores. In this hypothetical scenario, students would be required to wear different color vests, with the color indicating their test scores and attendant privilege level.

As you might expect, there were loud howls of inchoate protest when students read the new rules. I challenged them to protest the policies in ways that would be both effective and realistic for students their age. I organized them into groups of about four, and each group was to prepare a minimum of three protests, including actual products. For example, if they were going to write a letter to the editor or School Board, they had to actually write the letter. If they were going to put up posters, they had to make a sample poster; if they were going to have a sit-in, they had to make a plan for exactly when, where and how it would take place.

I allowed three full 90-minute class periods for this part of the unit, and I reserved the library for as much of this time as I could, because it has better working space than my classroom. At first, many of the protest products were immature at best and silly at worst. I had to continually remind students that the protests had to be effective – and that making a sign that said “School Rules Stink” didn’t meet that criterion. Slowly, though, they began to get more sophisticated, and a great deal of in-context learning took place. Groups writing letters began to think through their arguments more carefully, organizing the letter to highlight the strongest arguments. Groups making flyers thought about both their main arguments and principles of good design, trying to emphasize the most important words. One group created an organization complete with t-shirts, and another group used state SOL test data to try to determine what percent of students would fall into each privilege level.

After three days of planning and production, it was time to bring the learning into academic context. I began by asking the students to rank the protests they created in terms of how effective they thought each one would be. Next, I used a mix of lecture, primary source material and film clips to present information on three approaches taken to confronting injustice in the early twentieth century:  Booker T. Washington and the founding of Tuskegee Institute, W.E.B. DuBois and the founding of the NAACP, and the women’s suffrage movement. Finally, I asked students to think about the protest they’d chosen as most effective, and then write a paragraph comparing their protest to one of these three approaches.

Although students often resist writing, most took to this pretty quickly. One began by discussing DuBois’s open challenges to segregation and comparing DuBois’s use of language to the language in the brochure the group made, concluding, “Overall, our approaches were similar because we both spoke our minds loudly about the urgent change we wanted. We both didn’t go too far with our protests but we went far enough to be known as fierce and daring.” Another student compared the group’s protest to the women’s suffrage movement, saying “The women tried to gain important people with more power to join them, and that’s what the sit-in does. We try to get the teachers on our side (who have more power).” 

As with all student writing assignments, not every comparison was as sophisticated as those I’ve quoted, and there were some paragraphs I had to hand back for a re-do on grounds that the student didn’t do anything but summarize. However, the majority of the paragraphs I got definitely showed some level of original thinking.
To return to my disclaimer for a moment, in many ways this unit was not formal project-based learning. That asks students to solve a real problem and present their solutions to a real audience, rather than the simulated situation I created. PBL purists would also probably object to my presenting the academic information rather than having students research it for themselves. However, I felt I had to make this compromise in order to be sure that they were working with accurate information – something often sorely lacking in student-generated research at the middle school level. 

It’s also important to acknowledge that there were plenty of practical issues as well. Some students did not respond well to the freedom of this approach and did not produce quality products, despite my best intervention and coaching. Others were frequently off task, and still others produced superficial work very quickly and then resisted my attempts to deepen their thinking because they were, in their words, “already done.” 

Grading was a significant concern too. I graded the group part of the assignment solely on effort. Each group had to earn a certain number of check marks, which were awarded for genuinely trying to work on the project, even if they were struggling. I graded the paragraphs, which they wrote individually, using my standard paragraph-grading format, with which they were already familiar.

Every teaching approach I have ever tried has had pluses and minuses, and this one was no exception. However, for me, the plus side here far outweighed the minus side. The students were engaged and enjoyed the project, they demonstrated a great deal of original thinking, and they were able to draw substantive academic conclusions at the end of the unit. I’m thinking through ways to improve this unit the next time I teach it, and I’m already combing through the curriculum framework for another big theme to generate a new round of creative thinking!

Sions, a member of the Hanover Education Association, teaches history at Chickahominy Middle School.


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