Teacher planning future projectsWe’ve all been there. Sitting in the staff room, talking about new initiatives (inquiry-based learning, project based learning) and invariably the statement is made, “Well, if I had the right resources or better textbooks, then I would be able to get it all done.” Or, we hear that there is “just no way” we can “cover” curriculum by letting go and letting the students drive the program. I believe there is a way to engage kids with the curriculum goals AND provide exciting, authentic experiences. This year, I was determined to use the curriculum as my main resource to set up a full year of project-based learning in my 7th grade classroom. I soon realized that PBL actually would be the most efficient and natural way to reach all necessary expectations.

Having used PBL in my teaching for four years, I knew the framework was important and making a difference, but I was constantly worried about the depth of our learning. This year, knowing I would be stepping into the role of a full PBL Classroom Teacher – where I needed to use PBL exclusively – I decided to reframe some of my thinking. I knew I had to clearly define my beliefs about my role in the classroom and what my students are capable of. I knew that the only way I could facilitate learning opportunities that were experiential but also deep and meaningful was to really study the curriculum.

Analyzing My Curriculum Documents

I process information by re-wording or re-writing what I read. So, I went through each strand of the Ontario Science and Social Studies documents to create charts that look like this:

Science class: subject:Life Systems outline

In the past, my planning focused only on the Big Ideas and Overall Expectations. Having the “depth” in mind is what led me to create a list  of “Key Concepts” too. I wanted students to have these as a compass; if we are going to be learning through projects, what are some of the essential pieces to learning about complex issues such as Canadian identity and natural resources?

Connecting the Concepts – plus Literacy & Math

This method worked to help me focus my attention, but it didn’t help me to make any clear connections. My next step was to transfer this chart to a tool I could move around and be flexible with. What I wanted was to see if I could connect the concepts to each other— allowing me to quickly front-load or provide mini-lessons. I tried a number of digital tools but in the end colored index cards were the most effective.

six stickies outlining class


Having these components in front of me allowed for flexibility and ease when deciding where the most meaningful connections could be made, for example: would sustainability (Geography) be best with greenhouse gases (Science) or structures (Science)? In many ways my decisions came down to skills (will they be able to write a report yet?) and development (should we know about population before we know about sustainability?).

I then decided to use Literacy as an “anchor” - seeing it as the most flexible subject that I teach. As someone who loves to teach Literacy, that it’s the area where I can promote that depth I was seeking. Novel studies, poetry, short stories and media are fantastic ways to help students make generalizations about really complex ideas. In the end, this is what I had (go here for a full-size view of this document):

a year of  stickies outlining class


The yellow cards represent the “moves” I take in Literacy and the blue cards are the mathematical concept essential to each strand (Number Sense, Patterning/Algebra, Geometry, Measurement and Data Management/Probability) in our curriculum. That order has been determined based on being developmentally appropriate, or in some cases to be a part of a planned project or learning cycle. For example there are connections between form, function (Science) and proportional reasoning. It is also important to note that the groupings have been made in a way that complies with our reporting expectations for each term.

I returned to this layout over a series of days, adding questions and ideas before I transferred my work to a doc. The “final” map for my first term looks like this (go here for a full-size view of this document):

a full year of class outlined in a chart


Using My Curriculum Map to Plan Projects

The red boxes in my final map represent possible inquiry questions or ideas I had throughout the process. I knew that I would be attending the Buck Institute PBL 101 Workshop, and wanted to have some things in mind for potential projects. Throughout my time at the workshop, this document was essential to my work. I was able to refer back to my expectations and if needed could easily move pieces around.

What I find useful about a tool like this, is I can create large, cross-discipline projects, for example studying identity through Literacy, Geography and History by creating a museum exhibition (which is what I developed at PBL 101) or keep it smaller by focusing on just science, and learning about structure by creating eco-friendly packaging (knowing that my students will have already learning sustainability, volume, surface area and proportional reasoning). It allows me to think ahead, but keep my ideas grounded in our standards and my students’ development. I no longer feel inhibited by expectation, rather I feel free to gather ideas from colleagues and my students and dig through this document to find the best fit. In terms of PBL, it gives me the peace of mind to know that, whatever experience my students are driving, I can promote authenticity by not teaching subjects in isolation, and root it in the depth of our existing curriculum.

Through developing this system and using it to plan my upcoming year, I know for sure that starting with the curriculum is how we create a PBL opportunity that is engaging, authentic for students, and allows us to meet our obligations and responsibility to teach the curriculum.


Vote for our session at SxSWedu! Featuring our CPO Brandon Wiley and the voices of students: What’s In It for Me? The Power of Projects.

Want to learn more about PBL? Check out our books.

Julie Hough, Grade 7 Teacher, Central Senior School, Lindsay, Ontario, Canada