Project Based Learning (PBL) and the Case for 21st Century Learning Skills

I taught my first class in 1975, the same year that sociologist Dan Lortie published his book Schoolteacher: A Sociological Study. As teachers, Lortie points out, as teachers we go through a lengthy “apprenticeship of observation.” We spend our entire childhoods observing teachers teach.

I was lucky to have observed the best. My teachers were project-based teachers. In kindergarten we put on a circus without live animals, years before Cirque du Soleil. In first grade we created group murals. In second and third, we learned about insects, rhymes and fairy tales. We created stories and class books. In fourth grade Mrs. Downs thought it would be a good idea that I run the film projector in the film room on Thursdays. This began my life long love affair with documentary films. It started with Disney’s True-Life Adventure, Beaver Valley. I saw it six times as a nine year old. I threaded the projector, assigned the light monitor and got lost for the next 32 minutes

In fifth grade I wrote and directed my classmates in my version of The Beverly Hillbillies. I don’t remember sixth grade, other than I pretty much learned everything there is to know about South America when I was supposed to master early civilizations.In seventh, Miss Johnson assigned a page from our pre-Algebra book to anyone who would volunteer. I dutifully prepared my lesson (commutative property of addition), turned it in for approval and the following Friday, I taught. Within minutes everyone was in hysterics. They liked my comic timing. At the end of my lesson, I pulled out my freshly pressed ditto and gave a pop quiz to check for understanding. I instinctively knew how to teach from my apprenticeship of observation.

As a new teacher, it took me two years to wrangle the job I really wanted, which was to teach gifted students in a “one room schoolhouse.” I begged to be assigned a grade 4/5/6 gifted class in the inner city of Los Angeles. My classroom was multi-age, multi-ethnic and collectively we spoke fifteen languages. Everything we did was project and theme based. We went whale watching and spent two weeks delving into the science of oceanography. For Open House, we emptied our classroom of furniture and turned it into an art gallery and performance space. We made super eight movies in groups working together to produce a film. There would be no editing after we shot so we had to storyboard. We explored advertising techniques and employed stop animation to demonstrate our knowledge.

I have reconnected with my former students through Facebook. Last weekend I hosted the thirty-year reunion of my 1982-83 class from Wonderland Avenue Elementary School. Most of their teachers and their principal attended along with their spouses, partners, children and parents.

And what do they remember? They remember that our classroom was run as a mini-economy; the bulletin boards were green and purple and they remember the projects.

They watched in fascination the DVD I burned of their performances in an original musical. The lyrics were ours but “If you don't mind having to go without things, it's a fine life” was borrowed from Oliver.

And what does this have to do with grant writing? Choose your favorite classroom project. Describe what kids will make and do. A project has a beginning, middle and an end. As a teacher you have been trained to write lesson plans. Now write a winning grant.

Dr. Gary A. Carnow is the Director of Technology and Information Services at Alhambra Unified School District, CA