illustration of someone writing

In PBL, our learning goals target both content and skill development.

And thinking about skills is one of the easiest ways to deploy a more cross-curricular element to any unit.  After all, every unit should be focused on content, on standards and learning targets, but it also must be focused on the communication of that content. That’s where writing comes in.

Once you get an idea of what content students will be learning, whether it be financial literacy or The Great Gatsby, it’s time to think about how students will communicate it. Maybe that means an oral presentation or a website or an ad campaign. Whatever that authentic product is, for whatever authentic audience you and your students deem applicable, you have to use writing to coach students to get there.

Writing can be used as both a summative and formative assessment. It isn’t just used for a run-of-the-mill final essay anymore. An oral presentation, like the one mentioned above, still requires script approval before rehearsals can begin. There’s an assess-able piece of writing right there. A website needs text on multiple pages: from Home to About, from Donate to Contact Us. That’s assess-able. An infographic for an ad campaign needs to be copyedited in a feedback protocol before going live to the public. That also can be a writing grade of some kind.

Writing can be used through every stage of the PBL unit. Every. Stage.

So let’s look at a very broad outline of a mythical PBL unit. I won’t even designate what the content is. If you’re reading this, you could be a high school English teacher, a middle school science teacher, an elementary math teacher, or a primary music teacher. It doesn’t matter. This is a sweeping overview of PBL, and each step represents an opportunity to embed meaningful writing that is assess-able and that shows a snapshot of a student’s capabilities and growth.

Note: many of the “beats” in a PBL story actually appear time and time again in the narrative of the unit. That is, elements like reflection and inquiry are cyclical. They happen over and over throughout the unit. Reflection embeds the learning more deeply with each activity, and inquiry is used to launch everything, from deeper research to deeper feedback. Both, no matter the format - be it a paragraph of informal writing or a question formed as an exit card - can be assessed for its writing quality as well as its content. And speaking of feedback, that, too, can happen a few times within a unit. The whole process beats with a heart of dynamic, not static, production. Nothing is ever fully done. And writing can be the blood pumping that heart.

Check out this PBL unit outline and some corresponding suggestions to incorporate writing into the “beats” of the story.

Incorporating writing into the "beats" of the story chart


The key to using writing in a PBL unit is to vary the format of the assessments.

Formal paragraphs can be used in drafting a problem statement or annotated bibliography. But there’s also nothing stopping you from assessing a simple Padlet activity asking for a student’s thesis statements or question. Writing can be used in every step of the way, from helping to launch a unit to bidding it goodbye.

Heather Wolpert-Gawron, National Faculty
Heather Wolpert-Gawron is an award-winning middle school teacher and district PBL/21st Century Instructional coach.