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From Good To Awesome - practical steps for taking PBL to the next level!


Most downloadable project plans, like the ones on our Park Based Learning website, include everything you need to facilitate a high-quality project for the students in your classroom. You’ll have everything in terms of hand-outs, resources, assessments, and advice on how to “do PBL” with your class. But plans can only get your projects to “good” If you want them to be “great” you’ll have to take them the rest of the way up the peak yourself!

No matter what project you’ve selected, these general guidelines should be kept in mind in order to facilitate an amazing project experience for your students;

Consider your resources and use them

Our projects are designed to not require 1:1 technology, specific books or texts, or media elements, but all of these will enhance your project and increase engagement by connecting to students of diverse learning needs and styles. There are a multitude of “additional touches” that you can add that will show your students your commitment and excitement about their project. For starters, you could;

  • Dress up your room with media, visuals, and other displayables.

  • Create a Project Wall that displays images, posters and student work.

  • Share what they are creating on your school social media feed.

  • Tech savvy? Consider a project website where they can download any forms they need.

  • Have your librarian set aside a “national parks” section with books for your project.

Check out nps.gov, National Geographic, goparks.com, or other sites for more ideas.

Build a flexible timeline for yourself and your students

Look over the project plan we have provided. Look at each day and ask yourself, “do these learning outcomes seem realistic for my students?” If you have any hesitation in answering yes, consider building additional time into your calendar, especially if you are still new to PBL. Projects, especially the good ones, take time to complete.

Check in with your students often – Informal, formatives steps save the day!

The project plans we have created list all of the activities and products that can be used as formal assessment points for your students, but we haven’t included where informal assessment can be done throughout each say. These checks are what really give you that quick, immediate feedback allowing you to shift your plans or approach in order to meet the needs of students in the moment. Find these opportunities or create them where you can. Here are some ideas for informal assessments you might check;

  • Agree/disagree statements

  • Exit tickets

  • Give me three (ask for three examples of something)

  • Ask a question

  • Thumbs up/thumbs down/thumbs to the side

  • Fist to five (on a scale of 0 -5, how are you doing?)

  • Chalk talk (have students write their thoughts on a poster or sticky note)

  • KWL chart

  • MVP (most valuable point – have students share their most significant learning)

The project plan is not engraved in stone – YOU are the expert on your students

There is an old saying in the Marin Corps, “no plan ever survives contact with the enemy.” Well if you’re a teacher, you also know that “no lesson plan survives contact with students.” The plans we have provided are designed to be a strong foundation, providing teachers the resources they need to ensure a high-quality PBL experience even if they are new to PBL. We can’t anticipate all of the teachable moments you’ll uncover that will demand more time, nor can we anticipate “life” happening during the project. With this in mind, be open and flexible to the project taking longer than we have stipulated. If a student comes up with a really great idea for a product that requires more time, embrace that. If it is a particularly busy week at school with lots of due dates colliding, extend your time frame. If you have students who you’ll know need additional time and small-group support, build that in! And if you have improved the project in ways that we hadn’t suggested please tell us!

We welcome your feedback and will make sure to give you credit!

Create experiential opportunities

In a perfect world, you’d be able to take your class to the park you’re studying in order to complete part of the project on site. There are few substitutes for the kind of real, place-based connection that can come from on-site exploration of a national park or monument. But the challenges that can come with transporting, funding, and planning a student trip might prevent you from taking a field trip. Instead, ask yourself, “how can I re-create field work here in my classroom or at my school?” What kinds of real-world and work-based activities can you plan for your students to bring the experience of working in a park directly to them? What about…

  • Going outside to develop observational skills or improve their writing?

  • Creating a “mock-up” of a Native American dwelling or burial mound?

  • Printing and displaying interpretive panels on the walls of your classroom to turn it into a “visitor center” or “museum”

  • Giving students real objects, like pinecones, leaves, rocks, or artifacts to touch and explore.

  • Look online for photos from family vacations that captured interpretive elements or look online for ranger talks posted on YouTube!

Connect with the experts at YOUR national parks as soon as possible

There are few substitutes for connecting students with people on the ground in our national parks. Not only is it a great way for students to get more difficult questions answered or for them to get advice while researching and developing their products, it also roots your projects in authenticity, showing students that the work they are doing has real-world and career connections. We highly suggest that as soon as you download one of our projects and figure out where it fits in your year, connect with the park immediate. Reach out to their visitor center or education coordinator. Explain your project, how excited you are for your students, and how much better it would be if they could be part of it, even in a small way. If the staff members you are speaking with don’t know what they could bring, suggest any of these;

  1. Participate in a video call to kick off the project and explain the challenge.

  2. Answer questions submitted by students via email or twitter.

  3. Review and give feedback on a rough draft of a project.

  4. Be a “guest assessor” and come view final products or presentations.

  5. Host an exhibition of student work at their park or in their regional office.

Don’t expect a “perfect project” the first time. F.A.I.L. = First Step in Learning

Project-based learning, like anything in education, takes time and effort to perfect. Your first project will most likely not be a perfect success, but you WILL be impressed by the learning, engagement, and progress your students make, even if they don’t all score “fours” on their rubrics. Nobody can tell you how your project will go the first time you try it, but one thing we can guarantee is that by the time you are done with your first project, you will already have figured out at least ten ways to make it work better the next time! Commit to the first project you not being the LAST project you do!

Have questions? Reach out! We’re here to help you along the “PBL Trail”

PBL is not something that should be in a silo or exist in the educational vacuum! In addition to being passionate educators and outdoor nuts, we are easily reachable at parkbasedlearning@gmail.com and would love to partner with you anyti

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