My Student Named “Sam,” and Differentiated Learning in Project Based Learning


In my Meliora social studies class last year, I had a student I’ll call “Sam.” A bright eighth-grader, some of his ability to learn is impeded by a variety of sensory issues, and by his tendency to get distracted.

Since the students conduct two major research projects during the year, I invest significant time early in the year developing research and media literacy skills. We talk about the attributes that make one source reliable and another not. We discuss how to deal with situations where different sources have conflicting information. And so on. As part of that learning process, and throughout the year, I ask the students to conduct online research activities, and to share their findings.

The first time I asked Sam and his classmates to carry out one such task, he lost his composure because he felt overwhelmed. He was familiar with using books and other print resources, but was unfamiliar and uncomfortable with using the Internet and online databases for this kind of work, especially in a dynamic, “do it now” environment.

To complicate matters, Sam had arrived in class with a relatively black and white view of the world, and was disconcerted when I asked questions that challenged this rigid perspective. Over a period of several weeks, I communicated with his mother a number of times, working with her to identify ways to make Sam more comfortable with these open-ended kinds of tasks.

I recognized building trust was key, as is the case for all students. They need to feel we are supporting them, that they are in a safe place where they can exhibit uncertainty and can make mistakes as we challenge them to stretch and further develop their capabilities.

They need to feel we are supporting them, that they are in a safe place where they can exhibit uncertainty and can make mistakes as we challenge them to stretch and further develop their capabilities.

One breakthrough in this regard took place early in the school year, when I discovered Sam is rabid about statistics. I had given two assignments comparing characteristics between several Asian countries and the United States. One was a land mass analysis, the other related to human populations. Sam arrived in class rattling off detailed information, along with the results of several other analyses he had independently conducted. Taking note of this, I sought other opportunities to infuse statistical research and analysis into assignments and discussions, as it provided one way to grab his attention and encourage him to look more deeply into topics. By asking him to lead in-class research related to statistical data, I repeatedly validated that he is a capable student. I also used these opportunities to broaden and deepen his critical thinking, asking more complex questions as his skills improved.

Over time, Sam became more comfortable and more confident, especially in his ability to truly listen, and in his ability to clearly articulate his point of view. He discovered for himself there are many viewpoints, that not everything is “right” or “wrong,” that we can respect others even when we disagree with them.

Zone of Proximal Development by Dcoetzee is licensed under CC BY, via Wikimedia Commons

This example illustrates one of the great liberating qualities of PBL. We can differentiate learning using our understanding of our students, providing voice and choice which allows the students to start within their (comfort) zone of proximal development. From there, we can challenge them to dig deeper or wider, or to learn a new method, steadily expanding that zone.

In a discussion with Sam’s mother during the second semester, she practically glowed as she spoke of his academic growth, especially his improved critical thinking. She chuckled as she said, “when he looks at Wikipedia articles now, he criticizes them for the inaccuracies he finds.” Bravo, Sam. And, bravo PBL!

Charlene Doland is a co-founder and an academic coach at Meliora, where she seeks to #inspirepassion in teens by amplifying student voice and by offering choice in how students demonstrate their evidence of learning. Charlene also provides Project Based Learning (PBL) coaching services to public and private schools and teachers. She is a recent alumnus of Community Works Institute (CWI). Charlene is also a certified PBL teacher through the Buck Institute for Education, and stays abreast of best practices in PBL and in education through formal and informal learning, participation in a variety of social media groups, and as a practitioner.

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An Intercultural Student Project as a Path for Advocating for Immigrants


Chatterton (2008) advocates a collaborative process that: 1) gives voice to the dreams and desires of real people struggling for justice and equality; 2) provokes productive discussion by bringing our community work into the classroom, into our scholarship, and into the public: and 3) that brings our students out to engage in the world(s) we study. In the Spring of 2008 two professors at Georgia Southern University (GSU) stepped up to Chatterton’s call by planning and executing a collaborative service learning opportunity with students in Intercultural Communication and Advanced Video Production courses, and the Southeast Georgia Communities Project (SECGP). SEGCP is a non-profit organization serving needy families and migrant/seasonal farm workers in the area. Students produced a ten minute video documenting their service-learning experience with SEGCP and their conversations with Mexican migrant workers. The video is used as an educational and fund raising tool by SEGCP and GSU faculty. The entire project became a step toward a sustainable working relationship between the university and Latino/a community in the region. In this essay, the authors discuss how they came to be involved in the project, their preparation for the field trip, and their field/service experience. They conclude with a discussion of outcomes, including other community-based learning opportunities that the project set in motion.

Documenting an Amazing Encounter: Fostering Sustainable Intercultural Exchange

Chatterton (2008) encourages scholars to spend as much time as possible working outside of the university with/in communities in need of support. The author also extols universities as “amazing places of encounter, conflict, diversity and debate (not to mention resources), and it is crucial that we find ways to defend and expand these and open them up to others” (p.421). To bring these worlds together Chatterton (2008) advocates a collaborative process that 1) gives voice to the dreams and desires of real people struggling for justice and equality, 2) provokes productive discussion by bringing our community work into the classroom, into our scholarship, and into the public, and 3) that brings our students out to engage in the world(s) we study. In his conclusion, he exhorts us to “[p]ush the boundaries, kick up a fuss, organize with friends” (2008, p.426). The authors of this essay stepped up to Chatterton’s call not only in terms of the project in which they participated, but in the writing of this essay as well. Continue reading

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Family History Writing: A Prototype for Local Service-Learning Projects


Suzanne is an assistant professor in the Department of English and Linguistics at Indiana University Purdue University Fort Wayne (IPFW), where she teaches technical writing, multimedia, and family history writing.

In a spring 2009 course on family history writing and service learning, students wrote portions of their own family history and then worked to help write an historical book for the Cottage Lake History Project. Data collected from student-participants and members of the organization revealed themes of collaboration, reflection, and reciprocity. These themes articulate the correlation between service learning and family history writing as well as shed light on what family history is and how service learning can be used in other historical, family based, and localized research projects. This article argues that a prototype course with small, seemingly insignificant, local efforts, such as working with our own families or working with two members of a little-known historical project, have immense value for long-term sustainability.


During the spring semester, I taught a senior/graduate level writing course on writing family history that incorporated a service learning component. During the first half of the 16-week semester, students researched and wrote on their own family histories, using various qualitative research methods and fieldwork guidelines for archival research at the Allen County Public Library’s Genealogy Center (ACPL)[1]. In the second half of the semester, the course shifted to helping a local organization called the Cottage Lake[2] History Project (CLHP). Cottage Lake is about an hour from our campus. The previous fall, two members contacted me for consulting advice on how to proceed with their large collection of interviews, images, and folklore from the lake’s inhabitants. They wanted to create a text of the lake’s history from the late 19th century through the 1960s. Students constructed research binders and narratives based on the data that CLHP members gave them. They organized and expanded the existing archive in order for future writers to more easily write the text. Continue reading

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The Art of Making Cider: Sometimes the Learning Stays Home


Ode to Autumn

David Sobel is a regular essayist and contributing editor of Community Works Journal and is a Senior Faculty in the Education Department at Antioch University New England. He also coordinates Antioch’s new Nature-based Early Childhood program. Through his writing, speaking, and teaching, David plays a major role in what has become a national movement promoting place-based education.

Five apple trees create a protected bower in our back yard. Six if you count the scraggly one that’s never borne any fruit but I can’t quite cut down. My son Eli has always referred to it as the front yard, and I’ve often corrected him. “The front yard is the side that faces the road. The back yard is where the apple trees and the garden are.”

But as he persisted, I came to see the underlying truth. Nothing much ever happened on the road side of the house. No games, no craft, no family time, just walking out to get the mail and the newspaper. Conversely, life happened under the apple trees. We played kickball and soccer, we napped in the hammock, we jumped in piles of leaves, Eli learned to use a chainsaw cutting down ash and maple just on the other side of the western stone wall. Wendy revived the perennial flower beds here. Jeff our rambunctious neighbor, launched his clandestine nighttime firework attacks out there. And it’s where we always made cider. If front connotes significance, like in “front and center” and back connotes neglected, like in “put it out back,” then indeed the yard with the apple trees was more front than back. Continue reading

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The Stranger Who Was Yourself: What Wisdom Greater Than Curiosity


The time will come
when, with elation
you will greet yourself arriving
at your own door, in your own mirror
and each will smile at the other’s welcome,

and say, sit here. Eat.
You will love again the stranger who was your self.
Give wine. Give bread. Give back your heart
to itself, to the stranger who has loved you

all your life, whom you ignored
for another, who knows you by heart.
Take down the love letters from the bookshelf,

the photographs, the desperate notes,
peel your own image from the mirror.
Sit. Feast on your life.
— Derek Walcott

Begin and Begin Again (Resumé)
However pragmatic and explainable they may appear, many of our life stories may be traced back to mythic origins. At least, that is the way the great storytellers from Homer on down have seen things. Here is the true story of what happens when two teachers on wildly different journeys (one of them being myself) eventually meet.

The First Teacher
His path to teaching was straightforward. As a small child, he was liked by teachers, mild mannered and compliant. He minored in education in college, and went on to receive teacher certification and a masters degree in education. From there it would be a steady advance. He taught at a New York City prep school, specializing in art history and world history, then moved to the suburbs and was tenured at a large, comprehensive public school. Next, pursuing a global perspective, he taught at a European international school, eventually apprenticing himself to the headmaster as an administrative trainee. At age 29, he was made the head of an international school, the youngest in the European Council of International Schools. Continue reading

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Blogging Our Way to Cultural Understanding


The following article explores the experience of two educators who are using classroom based blogging to deepen understanding, raise important questions, and ultimately as a tool to build classroom community, Sylvie Debevec Henning is Professor Emerita at East Carolina University, in the Department of French and Francophone Studies. Luci Fernandes is a regular contributor to Community Works Journal. She is a cultural anthropologist whose research focus is on documenting daily life through audio/visual mediums. She documents life ways in both contemporary Cuban and in Eastern North Carolina, where she lives and teaches anthropology courses for East Carolina University. Her aim in to highlight everyday people, their joys and struggles to connect people in their human experience.

Blogs as a Tool for Reflection
A blog is an innovative way for students to maintain and expand the scope of the reflective journal that is required in the Global Understanding course. Students share reactions to course readings and presentations by guest speakers as well as cultural observations after linking sessions with international partners. Their interactions with one another outside the classroom help overcome class time restrictions, expand opportunities for peer to peer learning and create a sense of student ownership. By democratizing discussion, the blog helps students articulate their ideas more freely, develop critical thinking skills and build confidence. The technology is flexible enough to allow for inclusion of media. We have found the sharing information about and reactions to cultural differences and similarities through blogging encourages students to develop cultural awareness and opens the way to greater cultural understanding. We have not seen any resistance to blogging; students have adapted well to it. Continue reading

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Practical Lessons: Building Authentic Partnerships with the Community


Meghan is the School/Community Partnerships Coordinator for Virginia Beach City Public Schools

I am a teacher. My teaching style has always been to tell stories. I don’t teach in a classroom anymore, but I still tell stories all the time. This is my story.

My career has been a winding path of increasingly difficult to explain job titles. When someone asks you what you do, “second grade teacher” is a really easy answer, no matter who is asking. “Gifted resource teacher” was slightly more challenging to explain, especially to non-educators. “Elementary social studies coordinator” got more difficult, even to those who work in my own school division. “School/community partnerships coordinator”? Impossible!

As School/Community partnerships coordinator for Virginia Beach City Public Schools, I have a really unique, interesting, challenging, and rewarding position. I am an ambassador of the schools to the community and of the community to the schools. I get to spend half of my time with teachers, students and principals and the other half of my time with parents, volunteers, and community organizations. I get to connect kids to the real world and connect the real world to kids. It’s not easy to explain, but when I do, the usual response is “Wow! What a cool job!” quickly followed by “What is your background?”

I began my career on my 22nd birthday in rural Pennsylvania. I had a class of 18 second graders in a room built for 6th graders at Blue Ball Elementary in Lancaster County. (Google it. It’s a real place!) I occasionally succeeded, but mostly failed and loved the heck out of those kids. I marched through the text book, leaned on my colleagues, and stayed at school late into the night most days. In my four years at Blue Ball, I taught second grade for two years and fourth grade for two more, earned a Master’s degree in teaching and curriculum, and became an adequate teacher who could never imagine doing anything else.

Then I moved to Virginia Beach during tough economic times. I applied to dozens of schools and heard back from none. Then I was contacted by the Director of Gifted Education for an interview. I thought it was a mistake. I barely knew what gifted education meant and was superbly unqualified, but I accepted a position as gifted resource teacher because I desperately wanted to live in Virginia Beach and needed a job. I left the classroom sooner than I wanted to, but I learned so very much! As a classroom teacher, I was terrible at building relationships with parents, something that became vitally important to my new role. I learned to co-teach, designed instruction for adults, learned sophisticated pedagogy, and most importantly, began to understand the power of authenticity in the classroom for all students. I earned my gifted endorsement. I had the greatest job and thought I would never leave.

However, I had developed a passion for instructional design and had the opportunity to join the Department of Teaching and Learning, designing elementary science and social studies curriculum. I learned to lead teacher committees, present to administrators, oversee large projects, and develop assessments. I earned my administrative endorsement. My favorite projects, by far, involved connecting community partners to curriculum, helping teachers create real-world opportunities for students to connect to organizations and businesses with expertise in the content they were studying. I love curriculum and the job was made for me, but I became passionate about partnerships and wanted to do more.

When the opportunity emerged to join the Office of Community Engagement as school/community partnerships coordinator, I could not resist. The best part of my job in Teaching and Learning was connecting with the community and I loved the idea of working on partnerships full time. I now work in the Department of Media and Communications, I am still a teacher. My curriculum? The irresistible power of connecting students to the world, starting with their own community. Virginia Beach is an incredibly transient community full of people trying to figure out what “home” means. I get to help shape the identity of our schools and community by connecting like-minded adults who want to make education more meaningful and engaging for kids. It’s a dream job. Sometimes, though, I think back on my journey and wish I could talk to myself in my previous roles. Here’s what I’d say:

  • Teacher me: connect your students to the real world. Abandon the textbook and occasionally even the literature you love so much in favor of real people, real experiences, video chat, and field experiences. All the reasons you think you cannot are weak excuses. Overcome the obstacles and your own fear of failure. It’s worth it. Kids will make memories and nothing is more important.
  • School Specialist me: do the work for the teachers. They are busy and afraid. Support them, stand by their side, and find ways to connect students to the world. Show teachers how to add relevance while still meeting (and exceeding!) requirements. Show parents how to expose their children to a wide variety of opportunities. Show students windows into the world and mirrors that help them determine who they are and who they will become.
  • Curriculum Coordinator me: set the example. Make yourself uncomfortable. Take risks yourself and remove barriers for teachers. Your job is filled with state requirements, alignment, and accountability. It’s easy to pretend relevance and accountability are mutually exclusive, but they are not. Show teachers how to connect the requirements, their passions, and their students’ interests. It’s worth it.

And I try to talk to myself now. This is what I say: Partnerships me, remember who you are and where you came from. Give others what you wish you had been given. Stay a teacher. Tell your story.

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© copyright 1995–2017, Community Works Institute (CWI) All rights reserved. CWI a non-profit educational organization.

CONTENT USE POLICY All materials contained herein remain the sole and exclusive property of CWI, or the author, if designated by arrangement.

Continue reading

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Don’t Miss This! National Network of Schools in Partnership Conference

Our partners at the National Network of Schools in Partnership (NNSP) are holding their inaugural conference this February. We share many goals with our partners at NNSP and recommend their conference as an excellent way to connect with edcuators from across the U.S. learn more

The 2018 NNSP Annual Conference will take place February 4-5, 2018 at the Renaissance Harborplace Hotel in Baltimore, Maryland. An ideal opportunity to connect with educators from every sector, the NNSP Annual Conference features a full program of inspiring and emerging practices of community engagement and school partnership.

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From Charity Towards a Social Justice Paradigm: Critical Consciousness Through Service-Learning


A charity paradigm of service-learning emphasizes the importance of altruism and joy that comes from giving. Yet this charity paradigm plays a role in domination and does not critically examine the acts, decisions, and policies that lead to domination and injustice (Mitchell, Donahue, & Young-Law, 2012).

A social justice paradigm based on Critical Consciousness develops the capacity for service-learning projects to integrate how systems of power are created, maintained, and changed. This social justice paradigm of service-learning can play an important role in developing students’ skills, knowledge, and agency to create just social systems.

With the growth of social inequality, it is essential that educational institutions develop pedagogical models that equip students to address the root causes of social inequality. This article explores the elements of Critical Consciousness, and how those elements can be used to deepen students’ capacity for social change through intentional service-learning experiences. Continue reading

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The Time is Now for Place Based Education


The urgency for experiential, hands-on “life learning” is just as imperative now as it was at the beginning of the 20th century. We need to continue taking down the walls between schools and the rest of the world. This requires a shift in our collective thinking. Schools are not just training grounds for children to learn content and job skills for twelve or more years before they are allowed back into broader society, ready to pursue their own individual enrichment. In the place-based education vision, schools and students become an integral part of the community acting for the public good.

Why Now is the Time

There are multiple reasons why now is the right time for place-based education. Across the country, the stage is set for a new community-based, student-powered form of education.

Disconnection from Nature

Children are separated from the natural world more now than ever before. This crisis was well documented in Last Child in the Woods where author Richard Louv labels the problem “nature deficit disorder.” Kids are getting outside less and less, partly because of the seductions of technology, but almost more so because of parents who fear danger. The obvious result is a new generation that is less informed about the environment, and therefore potentially less likely to care about it in the future. This inadvertently places more responsibility on schools to get students outside and into the natural world around them. Continue reading

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