Journey to Success for All Students: Providing a Structure to Support Students in PBL

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I’m excited to share this Guest Post Written by Kelly Hastings, junior high principal & member of the #ITA17!  She came to education later in life (mid 30’s) and started teaching World Geography and Government at Mansfield and Summit High School in Mansfield, ISD.  She was an Assistant Principal at Della Icenhower Intermediate School in Mansfield ISD and at Martin High School in Arlington ISD.  She has been a principal at Young Junior High in Arlington ISD for five years.  She is a member of the Learning Forward Academy 2018, learning how to embed effective professional learning into her school so that adults learn new skills to best support our students.  Kelly’s focus is creating a culture of thinking across the school.

I love what I do, and am very passionate about my students!  While test scores are increasingly important in our current reality, I strongly feel that we need to do more.  Our world is changing every day.  I watched the movie Back to the Future a few days ago, and laughed at what they thought was going to be the “future” in 1985.  This reminded me that no one can predict what the future will hold.  What implications does that concept have in our work?   I believe we need to prepare our students for a world that doesn’t currently exist!   We can accomplish this by teaching students to think and take ownership of their own learning.  I strongly advocate for student-centered learning.  One method of student-centered learning is PBL (project-based learning).  There are a lot of definitions of PBL; I’ll share Edutopia’s definition here:  Project-based learning is a dynamic approach to teaching in which students explore real-world problems and challenges. With this type of active and engaged learning, students are inspired to obtain a deeper knowledge of the subjects they’re studying. 


Sounds lofty, doesn’t it!  I think so, and that’s one of the reasons I supported the implementation of PBL at Young Junior High School in Arlington, Texas.  The faculty came together to develop a vision for what we wanted our students to know and be able to do. Our collaboratively developed mission is: “Teach, guide, and support all students to reach academic and social success.”  We started with eight pilot teachers, who agreed that PBL is a way to help move our classrooms to be more student-centered; we did this two years ago (2014-2015).  Last school year (2015-2016) we went school-wide.   The “Future-Ready Skills” of autonomy, collaboration, communication, creativity, critical thinking, growth mindset, and professional ethics were explicitly taught and infused through the PBL process, as well.   

Just like most initiatives, there have been varying levels of success in creating an effective PBL rollout in every class on campus.  While we used a model from Engage Learning, there wasn’t a systematic support of “best practices.”  Nothing is going to work without systematic support of best practices.  The Active Learning Cycle in Arlington ISD, in conjunction with Engage Learning, was developed to create that system.    

The Active Learning Cycle includes:  

  1. Phase 1:  Inspire – Making an explicit connection to how the learning relates to students’ interests and lives that is based on the grade level standards.  
  2. Phase 2: Commit – Students use the pre-assessment to set goals, and teachers use the results for small group and differentiation.  
  3. Leveled Rubrics.  Teachers plan how to support students to reach their goals (mastery) by creating leveled rubrics.  Students use the rubrics to plan how they are able to reach their goals.
  4. Phase 3: Acquire – Teachers provide differentiated resources based on the standards-based pre-assessment.  Students have choice along the way of how they learn the information.  Continual formative assessment is utilized, with explicit feedback provided to students.
  5. Phase 4: Apply – Teachers plan ways to provide different ways – and different levels – where students can practice their learning.   Again, continual formative assessment and feedback is provided.
  6. Phase 5: Demonstrate – Begin with the end in mind, and plan the summative assessment (that is aligned with the level of the standards the students are required to master).   Students self-assess using the same tracking tool they used to set goals.  Then they answer an open-ended question or show how they solved a problem so THEY can make the connection of whether they met mastery of the specific standards.   As should be, the summative assessment, project and/or test, can be shown on different days in order to differentiate the time that students take to learn.  

It’s, also, important to plan ways students are going to engage with the material.  How are you ensuring that students are talking with others about their learning, while listening to others?  How are they reading and writing every day?  All of this needs to be a part of the planning process.  

By utilizing the structure of the Active Learning Cycle, we plan to make the learning more visible for students so that we can truly meet our mission to, “Teach, guide, and support all students to reach academic and social success.”  Here we go!    





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