Curriculum Rewind

Curriculum Rewind – Why PBL??  The development of a project-based learning approach to English Language Development Curriculum K-12

In the last blog, I shared our Project Celebration Day and the amazing work of our students and teachers. Today we rewind to share how we got there……

When the state of Maryland became part of the World-class Instructional Design and Assessment (WIDA) Consortium and a Common Core state, our English Language Acquisition (ELA) Office initiated the development of an innovative Project-Based Learning (PBL) approach to our English language development (ELD) curricula.   At the time, the elementary ELD curriculum was aligned to a reading series that was being phased out of the mainstream classroom curriculum, while the secondary ELD curriculum was aligned to the middle and high school language arts curricula. With the new standards, it was clear we needed a new, creative approach to supporting our K-12 English learners.

Key Steps in our Process:

Past successes in language development with hands-on, high interest lessons that were connected to real life led the staff to consider a Project-Based Learning approach. One of our earliest project ideas gave elementary school English learners the opportunity to design and carry out a plan to support troops returning from Afghanistan.  Among their efforts was collecting Halloween candy, weighing and calculating daily totals to share with other schools via Face Time and making goody bags to donate to Operation Welcome Home, an organization at Baltimore Washington Airport that greets returning troops. Local dentists donated $1 per pound of candy to the owh2
Wounded Warrior Project. Secondary students researched the social cost and science of PTSD and other war-related injuries and interviewed veterans via Face Time about the impact on their future activities. As a culminating activity, students traveled to BWI airport with Welcome Home signs, cheered and recited the Pledge of Allegiance for the returning vets.  View our project video here!

As our next step, the English Language Acquisition Office team and a few teacher representatives attended a summer conference at High Tech High, a secondary school designed around a project based, collaborative approach to learning. The match between the school’s vision and ours was immediately apparent. Our challenge then was how to connect English language development in order to make it meaningful for both content AND language learning.

Our trip to High Tech High was followed with further research on integrating the key components of PBL into language and content integrated units. We met with each content area coordinator K-12 to tease out the most important, high impact standards to use as a focus.  This list became a guide for brainstorming unit ideas that would incorporate content standards with Social/Instructional Language, the Language of Language Arts, the Language of Science, the Language of Social Studies, and the Language of Mathematics.

IMG_3114The professional development process of introducing our teachers to the concept of PBL began the semester before implementation. We presented the research behind PBL, shared examples, and gave teachers the freedom to experiment with their own ideas for PBL units.

Our first English language development units designed with a project based learning approach came to life the following school year. We began with 3 integrated units for grades K-2 and grades 3-5.  In secondary, we began with our ESOL 3 course.  Each year we have added new courses for secondary students, and new units for all levels, while continuing to fine-tune existing units.  Additionally, each year we offered professional development opportunities to reinforce our teachers’ knowledge and expertise, both face-to-face and on-line, using tools from both WIDA and the Buck Institute for Education.

After three years of implementation, the result are clear. Not only have we exceeded state expectations for language growth and the percentage of students reaching English proficiency, but also our teachers’ growing creativity and our students’ verbal 20161208_145019confidence demonstrates the powerful influence that Project Based Learning has had on our school community.   Ultimately, high-interest, hands on, project based learning has been more than a vehicle for learning content and acquiring language.  Both student and teachers have had the opportunity to experience the entire gamut of higher order thinking, from researching facts to synthesizing information to creating thoughtful and meaningful finished projects that connect them to the community, an unexpected and extraordinary consequence of what began as an experiment in creating a new curriculum for English language learners.

Coming up next:   Sharing more language development successes….

Project Celebrations – Best Day of the Year!!

On May 30th, English learners (and their teachers) from across the Anne Arundel County Public Schools, Maryland, came together to celebrate and share their learning.

On May 30th, English learners (and their teachers) from across the Anne Arundel County Public Schools, Maryland,  came together to celebrate and share their learning.  It was a day of smiles, questions, explanations, laughter, and most of all…..confidence with academic language.  I’m excited to share our day with you!

Middle school students created avatars to present the highlights of individual parks through informational videos.

Three years ago we began our project-based learning journey using our English language development curriculum. As recommended by the essential project design elements from the Buck Institute for Education, we sought opportunities for our students to share their learning and target their presentations to an authentic, public audience.  Throughout the year, our teachers arranged for various ways to make this happen for students ,whether partnering with local businesses and organizations, the county’s volunteer network, or other schools.


I believe it is very important for those outside of our program to participate in positive experiences with our students and to learn the value they bring to the community. By year two, we knew we wanted a way for our teachers and students to share their work with one another, not only as a celebration of their successes, but also as an embedded professional development for our teachers who were still learning what project-based learning looks like in action.  This year, our project celebration was double the size of last year and the quality of work was amazing!

Signing up to present at the Project Celebration was voluntary, with both an elementary and a secondary project room. Teachers and students worked on a rotating schedule, presenting to visitors and then being the audience for others.  Students K-12 mingled, presented, questioned, and explored eat other work.  Our school system television studio cameraman filmed and interviewed students, adding a level of professionalism and excitement.


I hope you are able to feel the pride and excitement for learning that buzzed through the building that day. That’s what we love about PBL – the student ownership and excitement makes teaching our students so easy!

Students studied how to care for pets. Using language of math, students explained how they designed and constructed a dog house to match the measurements of their class pet, Coco.  Students created a fund raiser for the SPCA and also took a trip to visit and share their literacy with the residents!

COMING UP NEXT – Curriculum Rewind – Why PBL??  The development of a project-based learning approach to English Language Development Curriculum K-12