students collaborating


We opened Goshen Post Elementary School this year as the first Project Based Learning school in our county. Our entire staff was trained in PBL prior to opening, and by August, teachers were ready to start incorporating PBL experiences daily. As a school counselor, I wondered how I could best support our students’ social and emotional learning (SEL) needs within our PBL framework.
During the first month of school, I began noticing a concern common to many classrooms. While students overall were highly engaged in authentic PBL experiences, some students struggled with collaboration. Our teachers were building strong classroom communities by teaching collaboration skills, but some students needed more support. These students struggled to listen respectfully to others’ ideas, speak calmly, and decide on group roles and products. Students started asking me for help in solving their group conflicts. I surveyed teachers, and the response was clear: some students needed targeted collaborative skills support to move forward in PBL experiences.

Starting the “Leadership Lunch” Group

I created a small group to offer this targeted support to students. Teachers recommended students, and when I contacted their parents for permission to join the group, they quickly signed up. I named the group “Leadership Lunch,” because I wanted members to take on a leadership role in solving their problems. 

We began meeting once a week during lunchtime. During our first meeting, my goal was to create a safe space where students could share their feelings with each other. Students agreed on group norms. We discussed what respectful speaking and listening “look like” in a group. Members frequently interrupted and ignored each other, and it was clear to me that we would need to focus on respectful speaking and listening for some time.
When we met for the second time, we came up with our challenging question: how can we, as Goshen Post students, collaborate better with each other? The authenticity in this group was undoubtedly clear: group members knew that they struggled with collaboration and wanted to get along better with their peers during PBL work.

Students Find Their Own Solutions 

During subsequent meetings, each group member began to share their collaboration difficulties. I challenged them to offer solutions to their problems. While members had difficulty finding solutions for their own problems, they started offering up thoughtful solutions to other members’ difficulties. This surprised and excited me. I facilitated the discussion, but group members began teaching each other. Problems were presented, and members agreed to try the solutions offered up by the group. During the following week, I’d check in with them to see if the proposed solution worked. Most of the time, problems were getting resolved. If a solution didn’t work, we’d start brainstorming all over again and come up with different solutions.
As the weeks went on, I saw tremendous growth in my students’ collaborative skills. They began to collaborate incredibly well with each other, sharing roles, actively listening to each other’s feedback, and providing feedback respectfully. Members began to show empathy toward each other’s struggles, and started trying to understand other members’ perspectives.

The Progress I Observed in Classrooms

I wanted to ensure that these newly gained skills were transferring over to the classroom, so I began observing them in classroom groups. Imagine my feelings of elation when I saw group members using those collaborative skills in class as well.
The Leadership Lunch group had created so many effective solutions to group problems that I realized other students could learn from them. I asked members if they could present their solutions to their entire class during one of my classroom counseling lessons. Each member proudly agreed to this. We planned our presentation together, complete with student-created google slides and an interactive presentation format.
When group members presented their solutions to their classrooms, each member exuded a newly found confidence that was remarkable. These were the same students who, a few months prior, were experiencing conflicts frequently in their groups. Now they were proud leaders sharing collaborative ideas with their peers.
I have since expanded my Leadership Lunch groups to other grade levels. My next step is to add other elements of Gold Standard PBL to the group. Increasing student voice and choice is my goal for my current group; members are younger, and some students want to share their solutions to their class in alternative ways--drawing a poster detailing collaborative skills, or creating a song about collaboration. I’m excited to go on this PBL journey with our students, challenging myself to find more ways school counselors can support students so that each student experiences success. 

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Nayeli Garcia-Selvaraj, School Counselor, Goshen Post Elementary School, Aldie, Virginia, Loudoun County Public Schools