Using Project-Based Learning to Cultivate Student Engagement and Trust

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“I hope that my book becomes at least one child’s favorite,” reflected Monique. “I worked really hard on my book to make sure that the children in Burkina Faso enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed making it for them.”

This spring, I assigned the 10th graders in my Intro to Education class one of my favorite projects yet: creating children’s books for a village in Burkina Faso.

At first, my students totally freaked out. They had dozens of questions. None of them had any idea how to write a children’s book, or even where Burkina Faso was. What language did they speak there? What should the stories be about? Would their drawings and artwork be good enough?

Monique, a 10th grade student in Orphal's Intro to Education class, holds up the children's book she wrote.
Monique, a 10th grade student in Orphal's Intro to Education class, holds up the children's book she wrote.
—Dave Orphal

But my students quickly took this project by the reins, creating an amazing collection of books that, later this summer, will go to a village in Burkina Faso courtesy of my former student, Philmon Lei, who is going there with the nonprofit buildOn to help build a school.

Here’s how our project evolved and how you could implement something similar in your class.

Backward Planning

Starting with the end in mind has become a mantra for my lesson planning. Known as “backward planning,” or “lesson design,” this technique has been shared with teachers in professional development sessions for years. I first became acquainted with backward planning through Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe's work.

Just as I like to backward plan my lessons, I also like my students to backward plan their projects. So, I introduced this project with the following slide on the PowerPoint:

Naturally, students were a little panicked. I gave them some space to panic and generate questions. One of them was, “Where is Burkina Faso?” In addition to simple geography, my students had lots of questions about Africa, the education systems there, and what school might be like for Burkinabe children.

From having lived in West Africa for a year (seemingly a lifetime ago), I knew some of the answers. However, I wasn’t telling. It was time to get started with research.


I’ve learned from years of experience trying—and failing—to get my students to pay attention to and remember my lectures that lectures are ineffective. Instead, I took all of the questions they had generated and turned them back on the class.

“Mr. Orphal! Why?” one student complained.

“Quit your whining, Whiney McWhineypants!” I laughed. “Get your phones out and find the answer to all these questions.”

My school in Oakland does not have 1-to-1 iPads. Nor do we have 1-to-1 Chromebooks, laptops, or even 1-to-1 putty-colored desktop computers. We have about 148 computers and laptops in two labs and three carts for nearly 1,800 students to share. Getting access to a lab or cart is a nightmare that demands months of planning.

So, instead, I asked my kids to get out their smart phones to do their research.

And it totally worked! Thumbs were flying over keyboards. Kids were talking about the answers they had found. Some even began arguing when they found contrary information. Not every student had a smart phone, so they shared with others. It was far more engaging than any lecture would have been.

Students found value in using their phones for research. Daijah reflected: “By allowing us to use our phones to gather information, I felt like he really trusted me to use my phone the right way. It felt like he wasn’t worried that I would be irresponsible. It felt like he was treating me as an adult.”

One week later, we were done with our research. We knew much more about Burkina Faso and had satisfied our curiosity about where our children’s books would go.

Up next: Determining what makes a quality children’s book.

Student-Created Rubrics

I learned about student-created rubrics a few years ago when I organized some colleagues into a professional development book club and we read several books on assessment. This is the third year I’ve had my students help me create rubrics.

We started off by reading several children’s books. Many of these were books that my students had read, or had read to them as children, so this activity lent a fun nostalgic aspect to this part of our unit.

After reading, we started brainstorming the elements that made these books successful. We came up with:

1. A setting and characters that were interesting.
2. A good plot that drove the story along.
3. Some kind of lesson or message for the reader.
4. Perfect spelling and grammar.
5. Interesting illustrations.

These elements formed the criteria for our rubric. Next, we had to determine values. After some whole class discussion, we agreed to this five-point scale:

4. Awesome! We could seriously publish this.
3. Great! We can hardly expect more from a mere sophomore.
2. Meh… It’s OK.
1. Seriously? You’re turning this in? With your name on it?
0. SMH (Texting acronym for “Shaking My Head”).

You can tell from the language that my kids had a hand in this!

Authentic Audiences

In Intro to ED, nearly all of our work is project based, so I try as often as possible to give students an authentic audience for their work. This makes students far more enthusiastic and invested in the outcome of their project. Just like band students will rehearse for hours in preparation for a concert, my students were willing to go the extra mile to make sure their books were as good as possible. Many students even worked on their books during world history period, happily missing deadlines for their essay drafts.

Students had two audiences for their books. First, I collaborated with my CTQ Collaboratory colleague Wendi Pillars to create a “Meet the Authors Day.” A dozen of my sophomores read their books to Wendi’s third graders on Skype. My kids agreed that reading their stories out loud, to real kids, meant that, ahem, stuff had just “got real.”

Now that students have had a chance to test drive their creations, the books will soon be on their way to Burkina Faso.

Dashara, a 10th grade student in Orphal's Intro to Education class, works on her children's book.
Dashara, a 10th grade student in Orphal's Intro to Education class, works on her children's book.
—Dave Orphal


This project was a great way to combine my interest in backward planning, BYOD, and student-created rubrics. More importantly, my kids took away some big lessons, too. My student Dashara summed it up best:

“I was happy to do this book, because I could actually change someone’s life. I learned from this project that I am capable of making something that I had never thought I was capable of.”

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