081: Empowering Students with Project-Based Learning



Project-based learning is one of the most powerful creative strategies available to teachers. It's the triple chocolate layer cake with strawberry cream of the education bakery.

But there's not an easy and exact road map for putting it into action. Every group of kids is different. Every school structure. Every teacher.

Ideally, a project-based-learning unit will fit the school structure, the teacher, and the kids well. It'll lead to a real-world learning experience that makes a difference in your students' lives. But of course, there will be bumps along the way. You'll have to figure out how to structure your projects, how to tap into your students' gifts and motivation, and how to keep track of it all.

Will it be worth it though? YES.

In this episode of the podcast, we're learning with Marynn Dause and Cathleen Beachboard, English teachers and authors of a new book, 10 Keys to Student Empowerment: Unlocking the Hero in Each Child. 



Find it on Amazon. 

You can listen to our conversation on the podcast player below or on Apple PodcastsBlubrry, Spotify, or Stitcher. And/or, you can read on to learn more about Cathleen and Marynn's work and see images from their unique community projects.




Keys to Student Empowerment

The book has ten broad categories that help students become partners with their teachers in the classroom. But don't worry,  you can start with one. There's no need to memorize them all or use them all, they're all just practical, easily applicable strategies for helping to motivate students and make them feel empowered. One of the big themes of the book is that education is supposed to bring out the gifts of our students, to help them become who they really are, and the keys are different ways to help educators get to that important goal.

Keys: Engagement and Agency

Getting to know your kids and building a community where you trust each other are big priorities. Sharing decision-making processes with students really helps. Try talking about different methods for how to accomplish learning and letting kids help with key choices. Engaging them in helping to define their own learning process is a powerful way to give them agency and for you to better understand what works for them.

Keys: Strengths and Relationships.


One way to build relationships with your students and learn about their strengths is to seek out the parents, mentors or guardians of your students before the year begins and ask them to share a little about your incoming students - their strengths and weaknesses, what helps motivate them, etc. Using what you learn can help you make connections with your kids right from the start, and it also shows them that you're investing in them as people and celebrating their real selves.

As Cathleen says, our education system is structured around helping everyone to meet "baselines of mediocrity." But instead of playing into that, we can embrace the fact that people are meant to bloom and grow in the areas that matter to them. We can find out what our students' gifts and goals are, and help them engage in areas they really care about.

Spotlight Project: Vision Boards

Cathleen and Marynn both use vision boards to help students keep their goals present in the classroom. These vision boards also help students understand each other better, and teachers see what matters to their students in a very real way.

Invite students to create a vision board that focuses not on WHAT they want to be, but WHO they want to be. Put them up on your walls. Revisit them together throughout the year. You can use an online visual creation tool like Canva, or Google Slides, or good old-fashioned paper and art supplies.


Cathleen's students and their vision boards

The Biggest Hang-ups for Many when it comes to PBL: 
Hitting the Standards, Content Delivery

Believe it or not, designing student experiences and challenges actually can be easier with standards to focus on. Creative constraint can help you define a project. Once you know what you want your kids to walk away with, what the learning guideposts need to be, then you can craft amazing experiences inside that arena.

For example, if you want your students to build interview skills, you can start to think about all the ways they might do that - with an interview podcast about neat things for teenagers to do in their city, by creating a community history of their neighborhood, by writing a book with student opinions about education today, by contacting teenagers abroad to write a series of blog posts about teenage life in other countries. Suddenly, ideas come thick and fast because you have an idea of what you're trying to accomplish.

Project-based learning and problem-based learning mesh together - giving students a problem to solve with their project gives it direction.  Putting the content of your class to work in the world will help them to absorb it meaningfully. So as you progress with your project, you can give them the tools they need to succeed with it, and they will really see the purpose in your content and their education.

Says Cathleen, "Our kids are going to face problems with no answer out there in the real world, and if we don't give them time and the opportunity to access and solve problems with no answer now, how are they going to do it out in the real world?"

With a project, students have the chance to really explore what they're learning; it matters to them on a different level.

Project Model: The Community Problems Bank

The community problems bank, a project model Cathleen created, is wonderfully flexible. You could easily try it out in your own community.

First, she visits community leaders and asks them, "Do you have problems?" After a little confusion, they share their problems with Cathleen for her 8th graders to try to solve. Imagine what leaders in your neighborhood might ask for help with - keeping kids safe after school, helping people connect within the community, creating meaningful opportunities for people to gather, supporting people with various issues and challenges.

As Cathleen says, the more problems, the better! She creates a bank of problems, alongside what skills students will need to develop to help them solve the problems and what standards they'll be exploring as they work on the problems.

Then, she lets students create interdisciplinary projects to help solve these problems, incorporating  lessons on key skills they'll need along the way.

For projects like this, Cathleen uses the 20 Time model (read more about this method, also called genius hour, here), in which students work one day a week on their special projects. Marynn finds it works best for her middle school students when she chunks this type of learning into 1 1/2 week projects. You can do it either way, or come up with another way to incorporate it into your curriculum.

Read Cathleen's complete article on this model at Edutopia: Using Community Challenges for Learning

Project Spotlight: The School Budget Project

Now let's take a look at one of the unique community problems Cathleen's students worked on.

Cathleen received an "all-call" email that the school budget increase was probably going to fail, and  Cathleen looked out at her students and thought she should tell them the truth. So she did.

"What do you mean?! They're going to not fund... US?" Her kids responded, horrified.

One of her students, Olivia, immediately said they needed to fight. They needed to use their skills and their ability to argue to make a difference for all the kids who didn't even realize their budget was about to fail. Though it was just one student out of many leading the charge, Cathleen listened to her ideas and Olivia soon built a movement and a project to make change. She was empowered to lead, and the other students worked with her.

They found ways to access the many gifts and resources of the class so they could make a difference. They created a PSA to share with their community (Watch the PSA) and they showed up at the board of supervisors meeting and got up to speak. It was so powerful. The superintendent was speechless, seeing them use what they had learned to make a difference in their real lives.


Olivia presenting to the board of supervisors

With project-based learning, the students are able to truly connect with what they're learning. They understand how what they're learning can affect their real lives.

When you can tune into your kids and also connect it to your own personal gifts and passions, the PBL magic can happen. The students have so many gifts and talents, including them in the project process as brainstormers, project designers, rubric designers, etc. is huge. The highest level of Blooms is creating...

Project Spotlight: The Literacy Fair 

One of Cathleen's students read an article online suggesting that elementary school reading scores are used to determine how many prisons will be needed in future. This idea sparked an interest in a new project - helping raise reading scores among the youngest students in their district.

So they began tutoring first graders in reading and working with them throughout the year. They were proud of the progress their young proteges were making.

Then they learned about summer slide, and couldn't believe how much of their progress the first graders stood to lose over vacation. They wanted to do something about it.

Cathleen and her students began to work on an event that would educate community members about how to stay engaged with reading and literacy over the summer.

They created a literacy fair - working with organizations to donate books, to make the fair fun, to cover it in the media, to connect families with local institutions that could help, etc. The point of the fair was to spark a love of education in general, to show that education doesn't end on the last day of school.

As they worked on the project, Cathleen's students:

  • Used their research skills
  • Networked with community leaders
  • Wrote for local magazines
  • Learned about public relations and media
  • Connected their ELA skills to real-world work
And it was all for the purpose of helping their first grade friends. It all started when they realized their hard work would be lost, so they had a strong motivating reason behind their efforts.


Cathleen and her students at the literacy fair

Finally, Dealing with Failure

When it comes to project-based learning, of course there will be failures. Anytime, you hand over the reins of learning for a while, things get messy. But then, isn't that how life really is?

Prepare for the fact that things will sometimes go wrong. Learning how to fail, safely, is a key skill with project-based learning. Help students to get accustomed to the idea that not everything works out, but they can come back from that.

Here are some strategies Marynn and Cathleen suggest for creating a culture in which students can deal with failure and build on it.

  • Have conversations about coping mechanisms they can use on a tough day. Share how you deal with failure, and invite them to share their strategies with each other too. Talk about this EARLY on in the PBL process. 
  • Plan opportunities for rest, relaxation, and reflection on what's going well and what has been difficult. 
  • Talk about how to build on failures and use them to ignite future successes
  • Acknowledge the hurt and pain of failure. It's OK for students to take a minute and feel bad before moving on and up. It's pretty hard not to. 
  • Talk about engineers' failure summits. Every time there's a failure, it's a piece of knowledge to use in building a better project next time. 
  • Keep in mind that openly discussing failure and approaching it generously as a community creates a culture of empathy. 
  • Consider using Marynn's classroom mantra, "It's OK to fail. It's not OK not to try." 


Keep all this in mind for yourself too! If you hit bumps along the way as you design your first PBL units, remember that it's all valuable research for the next unit.

About Cathleen Beachboard and Marynn Dause


Cathleen Beachboard has worked for over a decade teaching and empowering students in her English Language Arts classes. Growing up as a struggling dyslexic student, she learned the power of showing people their strengths instead of their weaknesses. Through an amazing student driven transformation (featured in this book) Cathleen learned the keys to empowerment. Her new life mission is to equip educators and students with the power and the ability to change the world.


Marynn Dause is a National Board Certified Teacher who seeks passion and purpose with all of her English Language Arts students. As a trauma survivor and adoptive mother of a teenaged son, Marynn deeply values the social-emotional aspects of education and champions trauma-informed care for all learners. Marynn's goal is to help her students live well by becoming "heroes in their own lives."


Check out the Unlocking Heroes Website

Follow #unlockingheroes on Twitter. 
Follow #unlockingheroes on Instagram


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