An Entry-Level PBL for High School English and Social Studies Teachers

Over the last decade, project-based learning (PBL) has transformed secondary education throughout the United States. In a PBL school, students are active learners, and take ownership of their education. The teacher is a facilitator to knowledge, and not the gatekeeper. 

If your school has yet to adopt PBL, knowing where to start is no small challenge. To get you and your students’ feet wet, you need to use an ‘entry-level’ PBL, one that is challenging but not overwhelming.

This article proposes a PBL that pairs an English III and U.S. history teacher (along with their students). It is adapted from a PBL that the author helped develop and implement in spring 2013. 

Project Introduction

  • Project Length: 9 weeks
  • S. History Standards Covered: The American Civil Rights and Antiwar Movement
  • English III Standards Covered: Research, Essay Writing, Public Speaking
  • Products: For this project, each student takes on an identity of a major Civil Rights or antiwar movement leader. He or she will turn that leader’s message into modern media posts such as twitter/Instagram/blog etc. With this product, students will educate their peers at a TED-style talk, for which they will prepare a 4-minute speech.

Throughout the project, both teachers meet on a regular basis (at least twice a week) to discuss students’ progress and solve any complications that may arise. The components below run in parallel.

English Component

U.S. History Component

Weeks 1-3

  • Introduce students to modern research methodology along with a unified way that they will collect data throughout the research portion of the project. 
  • If your school has 1 to 1 technology, instruct students on using tools such as google docs for research purposes. This will make it much easier for you to assess students’ work and leave feedback.
  • Students perform small, guided activates to show their proficiency with the required research methodology.
  • Introduce students to the use of social media by modern figures fighting for social equality. Examine both American and international examples. (e.g. Arab Spring, Black Lives Matter etc.)
  • After the introduction, launch the project: each student will choose a different Civil Rights or antiwar movement figure. In both U.S. history and English, they will perform research into their figure and create the two products: 10-15 modern media posts on that figures voice and a 4-minute TED talk.
  • Provide students a list of possible figures and allow them 1-2 days to explore. Require students to take research notes the same way they were taught to in English. Use their performance as a formative assessment, sharing the results with the English teacher.
  • At the end of week 3, students choose a Civil Rights/Antiwar movement figure. 


Weeks 4-6

  • Both in class and at home, students collect 25-30 pieces of essential information related to their figure’s actions during the Civil Rights/antiwar movement.
  • At the end of the information collection process, you review each student’s research, assessing them on the use of the required research methodology.
  • As students perform research as part of their English class, begin your unit on the American Civil Rights and antiwar movements. During your lessons, bring students into the conversation through eliciting comments about their research and the revelations they have discovered so far. (Note: To help you stay organized, have a chart on the wall that shows students’ names next to their chosen historical figures.)
  • In week six, students create the product based on their research, 10-15 social media posts (ideally on PowerPoint or another electronic format). Students follow an English rubric and a U.S. history rubric.

Weeks 7-9

  • In weeks 7-8, students create a 4-minute speech that highlights 2-3 of their best social media posts. You will provide a rubric, something akin to what students would use if you assigned a standard research essay. Ideally, the speech should introduce the figure, explain the significance of the posts, and discuss the figure’s lasting impact.
  • Schedule the TED talk for the end of week 8. Each student will have 4 minutes to present. In the audience, other students take notes, as the summative assessment they will take in week 9 will necessitate information from their peers’ presentations. As students present, you assess them using a speaking rubric provided by the English teacher.
  • To assess what history knowledge your students learned through the PBL, use a higher-level thinking essay question on your unit test (given sometime during week 9). For example, have students incorporate the speeches of three of their peers as evidence for an argument.

Final Thoughts

Even for experienced teachers, PBLs are a challenge to develop and implement. That’s why first timers should start small. This is a brand-new experience for you and your students. Celebrate successes, learn from mistakes, and use the experience to create even better PBLs in the future.

Thomas Broderick is a freelance writer and consultant in the education field. He lives in Northern California. You can learn more about Thomas on his website.

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