students holding up hands in class

In Dan Carlin’s political podcast “Common Sense” he explained how to make history relevant to all students.

Whether it's the history of hip-hop music, the evolution of the coffee industry or a person you pass on the street, what stayed with me from the podcast was that everything and everyone has a history—but history doesn't matter to students if it's not relevant to their own lives. 

As a high school history teacher with 15 years of experience, this shouldn't have come as a surprise, but something about the way Carlin explained it awakened me that day. I've always used the power of personal connection to teach historical thinking skills such as critical analysis, synthesizing information and recognizing bias, but that day I realized I hadn't given students the freedom to decide what history they wanted to learn and how they wanted to learn it—and Carlin says choice is key. I was determined to create a project that would help me provide more choices for students. I called it “Big History.” 

This was six years ago, when I was teaching ninth grade World History. The goal of the project was to allow students to self-select a topic they were interested in researching (e.g., fashion, warfare, sports) and share about it as if they were an educator. The project would culminate in a presentation of the information they learned using a format that allowed them to demonstrate their personal strength. I was a genius. 

One student studied the history of fashion and presented her findings with a fashion show that brought the audience through the evolution of fashion from the prehistoric era to the classical time period. Another investigated warfare and created a video game to demonstrate how the Greeks battled various city-states. While many students enjoyed the freedom to investigate their interests and share with their peers, there were, as always, some students who struggled to complete the assignment. Anya was one of them.

It surprised me that Anya was struggling, since she was a top student.

a tree with questions (art for presentation)
Anya's Question Tree, Image Credit: Anya

As an eighth grader, her sole mission had been to receive the highest grades in her class so she could be recognized on Awards Day. She thought outside the box at every juncture. This was a quality I admired about her, but it was causing some roadblocks for our project. Anya was not seeing the amazing revelation I had around teaching history. She pushed back constantly to gain an understanding of why we were doing this project, and she rarely accepted my responses. No matter how much I tried to explain my why, or support her in identifying what she wanted to research, we couldn’t find common ground. 

I encourage students to push back and ask questions, but it was getting to a point where frustration was creeping in for both of us. Before our frustration escalated, she sent me an email about an “aha moment” she had. Her issue was not the Big History project. She was struggling to understand why we were doing projects this way, which stemmed from an even broader question she was noodling on: Why is school set up the way it is? After spending a good amount of time talking about education and schools, it hit us: This was her research question for the project. 

Anya studied various school models like High Tech High and the Watershed School in Boulder, CO.

She conducted deep research and had so much to share, but when it came time to decide on a medium for her presentation, she had an internal struggle. Anya didn’t think it was right to give a traditional presentation to showcase her research on innovative school models that were exploring new ways of teaching and learning. She didn’t want to share information that her classmates could find if they searched on Google. Instead, she wanted to use her research to spark changes at our school. 

I proposed the concept of redesigning the way we do projects at our school, which I had been thinking about for a while. Her constant line of questioning and all we had learned together through her research prompted us to take action together. Anya prototyped a structural change—an ideal schedule that would allow the time and flexibility for the kinds of projects that, in her view, were indicative of an optimal learning environment. She collected data and brought charts to class that displayed her findings to provide evidence for her claim that things needed to change, and she brought multiple schedule options to think through. Her ideal schedule carved out time for student collaboration, off-campus experiences and time for teachers to serve as mentors for students.

Teachers and students from other classes flocked in to watch her share after hearing so much about her project.

While most students presented for five minutes, Anya’s presentation was 45 minutes long with a 40-page slide deck. Three people even recorded her presentation.

Student presenting her research
Anya presenting her research, Image Credit: James Campbell


Anya’s project led to some changes in my class, impacted elements of her personal education path and created change within our school. In my history class, her project paved the way for Genius Hour, a period of time dedicated to independent project work. Our school created an Innovation Diploma program, a school-based startup that gives students the opportunity to develop as young innovators by working with various industry leaders and creating solutions to company challenges. Anya was, of course, a founding participant. 

Anya’s fierce demand to understand why school is designed the way it is also led to some personal changes in my own practice. The experience allowed me to see myself as a mentor and helped me recognize that everyone in the room has something to teach. It showed me that to push the limits of education, I have to try new things, listen to my students and trust them to make smart choices.  

Today, every time I co-create a new lesson plan or design a project, I channel Anya and ask “why?”

Why are we doing this work? Why does it matter? Asking myself these questions pushes me to think outside the box, like Anya always does, and that has made me a stronger teacher.

James Campbell, National Faculty
Throughout James’s teaching career he has used Project Based Learning as a process to give his students access to Voice and Choice in the classroom. He also uses PBL as a method to assist teachers with developing meaningful lessons and units. James is excited about PBL because of its direct connection to authentic work for all students.