You’ve had PBL training, and now what? You’re invigorated, inspired, excited, and feeling ambitious about what experiences and environments you know you can design for your students. You can imagine what sort of driving questions you might craft to launch and sustain student led inquiry. Maybe you’re wondering what kinds of public products your students might create to show mastery, or what sort of entry event is going to garner student engagement in the learning ahead. But what happens when the students come? How will your class structures and systems allow for and support PBL?

We have a choice. Stick to the schedule, choose one of a variety of reasons why we can’t do this in our classroom OR challenge administration and our teammates to re-think a schedule that is the result of hours of trial and error and is all but written in stone. Can’t we have our cake and eat it too? We can, by using the Workshop Model in which to plan and frame projects!

The Workshop Model, first developed by Lucy Calkins at Teachers College, Columbia, is a way to organize your lessons and class time that is student centered. It maximizes student work and practice time, focusing on practice, growth, and reflection while minimizing the amount of time the teacher spends in the front of the classroom. The Workshop Model’s focus on the student, allowing time for students to “get messy with learning,” reflect on their learning, and pursue self-driven inquiry makes it the perfect structure in which to imagine implementing PBL.

Stage 1: Crafting the Mini-Lesson

The first stage on the Workshop Model is when mini-lessons and any whole group direct instruction takes place. This is the perfect time to introduce or revisit a driving question and allow students to generate a “Need to Know” list for the unit or for the day. This is also when any new skills necessary to complete the project may be introduced. 

An elementary class may be asked, “How can we as horticulturalists decide which plants might grow in our region so we can design and build a class garden?” During the crafting phase, students may be presented with a mini-lesson on what plants need to grow, or the parts of a plant. Later in the unit, students may be provided a mini-lesson on area and perimeter in order to launch their garden design plans. The teacher may present a series of mini-lessons on letter writing, prompting the students the write, edit, and revise persuasive letters presenting their proposals to the school board or principal.

Stage 2: Composing

During the Composing Stage, students should be set forth to work in groups, partnerships, or individually, to practice the skills and concepts introduced during the mini lesson, while the teacher circulates to monitor for misconceptions, pull small groups and workshops, work with an individual student, or conduct quick formative assessments, or assessments in small groups. The teacher may use formative assessments from the previous class period to pull small groups or conduct personalized workshops during this time.

This part of the class period can take many forms. For instance, after the introductory mini lesson, students may be dissecting local plants and labeling their parts to practice working knowledge of plant anatomy, or they may be researching the climate and weather patterns of the region in order to decide what the region offers to plants to grow. After students choose plants, they may be practicing new learning on area and perimeter by designing and testing different garden designs, calculating the amount of fencing or mulch necessary in order to build the garden, or even creating a model or scaled prototype. Students could be drafting persuasive letters, or sharing drafts with peers to get feedback to fuel student-led critique and revision during Composing time. 

Stage 3: Reflection

During the Reflection Stage, the teacher and students lead a reflective discussion and check for new learning. This is great time to revisit the driving question or student-generated “Need to Know” chart to capture new thinking and progress towards answering the driving question, or finding new Need to Knows. Students may be sharing their research on what sort of plants may grow in their region, presenting their garden designs for feedback, or reflecting on new learning, new questions, and successful strategies for learning. If students are working in groups, students might manage tasks, set group goals for tomorrow, or reflect on group efficiency and commitments to one another during this time. 

The teacher may also conduct a quick formative assessment or exit slip during this time to ensure students are growing and meeting checkpoints or benchmarks in the project. This part of the lesson is a perfect time to wrap up to capture new learning, assess for understanding, and look ahead to future learning and tasks.

The Value of Workshops in PBL

Learning is messy. PBL classrooms empowering students to drive their own learning might be messy too. Our job as teachers is to empower students to ask questions and find answers, identify problems and solve them, or come up with creative solutions.

The Workshop Model is a class structure that allows for all of this, and more; it’s focused on work time, so students have the gift of time to practice new skills and apply them to the project and their product, It allows time for direct instruction, but also releases the teacher to assess, monitor, and teach personalized lessons or workshops during the Composing time. Reflection time allows students to capture learning, look ahead, and allows the teacher to check for understanding and growth. It can be difficult to imagine what PBL can look like in the classroom; the Workshop Model allows us to be innovative PBL designers so we can do what we know is best for kids, within a structure that we’re familiar with, and won’t uproot the effective, established traditions of a school.

Maddie Shepard, Professional & Deeper Learning Resource Teacher, Jefferson County Public Schools