Examples of project-based learning in high school 

Carol Cabrera is a learner, maker, and teacher, currently at High Tech High North County. I have been following Carol’s work and struck by the elements of authenticity and interdisciplinary planning that show up in her work. I was thrilled to have the chance to interview her on examples of project-based learning in high school! 

Jenny: What are you passionate about in PBL? 

Carol: I’m very passionate about building projects with other teachers that makes for a student’s aligned day. I’m passionate about authentic cross-discipline project building.

Jenny: Creating authentic-cross disciplinary projects can be difficult, what advice can you give to a teacher who wants to collaborate with their colleagues on planning a project?

Carol: Kurt Schwartz, who I have collaborated with for 7 years now, and I actually sat down and tried to distill this answer a few years ago because we get asked this question so much! For us, there are three main things that make it easy and exciting for us to collaborate with one another. 

  1. We value pauses. We value the space between the question and the answer, but we never let a pause become a stop. We really value listening to one another deeply and thoroughly before jumping into a straight gut reaction from our perspective. When we come to a standstill when we are trying to work on something, we literally pause and go for a walk or go and get something to eat, and that pause often gets us out of the emotion of the problem and into the energy of the solution. 
  2. We operate on what we call “Avenger Theory”: As Kurt and I have defined it, is the recognition of your own specialized superpowers as well as the superpowers of the other people on your team. We bring what we have to the table, and when we need help, we do not hesitate to call upon our collaborators (the other Avengers) to help, because we know that together, we are stronger. While we have worked together on many projects, we have also collaborated with Spanish teachers, multimedia teachers, art teachers, and teachers from elementary and middle schools! We share this theory with them when we begin to start a project together, and we also share this theory with any student teachers and academic coaches that work in our room with our students. 
  3. We are friends. We get really focused on designing projects together, and when it is time to work, we really buckle down. However, we intentionally make time to talk about life and how we are doing on a personal level. Our lives often influence the directions that we take when designing projects, and it makes no sense to keep that from one another if it is impacting the work we are creating together. Kurt and I walk a mile together before we start the school day, every single day, literally walking together before we journey together metaphorically with our students. 

Img 3390 Orig

Jenny: I love that you place so much value on reflection! …Why is that? What are some of the benefits? 

Carol:  I have always had diaries and journals–since I was very little–I think the youngest you’ll find my notebooks are from kindergarten! I value reflection because of how much I have seen it shape and improve my life. Over the years, I have discovered 3 main questions that drive me and the way I think, act, and, well, teach. They are: 1) Who am I? 2) Where is my place in the world? 3) What am I capable of? I have discovered that life is simply a cycle of asking and answering these questions, and that my life gets more interesting when I am asking these questions intentionally rather than just haphazardly. I have brought these questions into my practice in the classroom, and reflection is a great way to constantly circle back to them as students do projects and discover ourselves on new or deeper levels. I can talk about reflection SO much beyond the context of education! It really has shaped everything I am today. 

Jenny: What are some examples of project based learning from your class? 


  1. Dreamlight:  Students interviewed elementary students, our Spanish speaking parents, and senior citizens about their dreams for what they want to be when they grow up, what their dreams are for their children, and what their dreams are for the legacy they’d like to leave behind (respectively), and then created lanterns where they used parallel and series circuits to wire movement and light that they gifted back to each interviewee. For exhibition, students also created Wonderspaces inspired art installations. Click here to see this project. 
  2. Living North County: We visited 6 cities in North County and did deep dives in exploring and understanding what made each of these communities unique and special. You can learn more here
  3. Rile ‘Em Up: We looked at Banksy, and then students picked a controversial subject to make a graffiti art about. They also created butterflies that lit up and moved, with decor inspired by their controversial subject. We exhibited in a local warehouse. I co-designed this project with a student who struggled through my class, but who loved to spray paint, and Anna Petrick who was our art teacher at the time. We read Julia Alvarez’s In the Time of the Butterflies, with the essential question: What politicizes you? 

Img 0260 Orig

Jenny: These are amazing! How do you come up with these project ideas?

Carol: I don’t remember a time in my life where I wasn’t somehow involved with theatre. Theatre has been my life’s greatest paramour for sure! Aside from the fact that theatre is totally ultimate project based learning, there is something I learned in my specific study of theatre that has really helped me design projects. I come from a Viewpoints background of theatre, developed by Anna Bogart and Tina Landau, and something that is taught in Viewpoints is that you should act with what is called “soft focus” where you are focusing on something onstage, but you are keenly aware of everything around you as well. I think that by living in “soft focus” and taking this practice outside of the theatre, I have just stumbled into great project ideas! I can be going to the bookstore for a specific book, but notice this really cool light up skirt on a mannequin in the window of the store next door that will inspire me to talk to Schwartz about a wearable circuit fashion show. I can be cooking a meal with my husband, and then notice how often fire is used in the process, and get curious about how this differs across cultures, and then this gets me excited to collaborate with a Spanish teacher on a family recipe project. I think project ideas come from anywhere and everywhere–and that we just need to widen the way we look at the world and be the ones who notice the ideas that are just streaming into view. 

Jenny: How did you measure “success” of a project?

Carol: Success is such a funny word! I think that all the projects I have done with students have something going for it that is exciting and “successful”, but I also think that each of the projects have room to grow into something even more wonderful. In the short term, there are the obvious ways that I measure a project’s “success”–quizzes and tests that gauge content knowledge, exhibitions that allow students to orally demonstrate all they have learned and discovered, the actual product that they have made in the process of the project. However, I think the greatest measure of what makes a “successful” project comes years after the project is over. The projects my students remember when they come and visit me 5, 6, 7 years after they left my classroom are the ones that I deem the most “successful”. If students are still coming to me years later, not only remembering a project and what they did in it, but coming into those conversations with energies of excitement, those are the projects that are successful. For me, learning is only successful if it sticks, and as a teacher, I can create projects/units/lessons with the intention of making it as “sticky” as possible! 

20191017 180432 Orig

Jenny: Assessment can be difficult for teachers to wrap their mind around in PBL. What tips can you give to teachers who want to uphold rigor in their projects? 

Carol:  This might not be the most exciting answer, but as a teacher who values rigor, I am someone who still regularly quizzes and tests. I don’t make crazy long tests or anything, and sometimes I don’t even enter the grades into the gradebook, but it is important to me to constantly be measuring what students know, and how well I have taught it. I use www.Socrative.com to do quick quizzes and tests, and the way that this website works allows me to see what percentage of students are getting each question right, and it allows me to see where I need to do some re-teaching within the project or redesigning of the project as a whole. In addition, as a writing teacher (and a writer and journaler myself), really reading student reflections on projects gives me a really great picture of where they are and what they have learned within a project. 

These are some incredible examples of project-based learning! For a more in-depth look at these projects, including daily schedules and learning outcome rubrics that the 9th grade team uses across disciplines visit Carol’s Digital Portfolio HERE. Carol is a passionate theatre maker, singer-songwriter, magician, and avid traveler who considers her life her greatest project! You can follow her quirky life on instagram at @CareTheRockStar, and follow her and her magician husband living their best lives on instagram at @PlayMoreAttention. Carol teaches at High Tech High North County, and you can see their school’s work at @HTHNC_feed. And for help building out your own project, be sure to check out Keep it Real with PBL and my PBL e-courses.