Making Learning Authentic with Project Based Learning

To Listen to this interview with Jenny and AZK12 click HERE.

AZk12:   Good morning Dr Pieratt. So excited to have a chance to meet you and speak with you more about your work and share your work with our listeners. How are you doing?

Dr Pieratt:   I’m good. Anytime I get the chance to geek out on project based learning, it’s a great way to start my day.

AZk12:   That is awesome. Danielle and I also have those passions that we love to geek out about as well. And we are so excited to talk to you more about your work and really explore what it is, how you do it and how you bring this to life for both students and other educators. Jenny, can you tell us a little more about your experience with PBL and what has really brought you to this work?

Dr Pieratt:   Yeah, I actually — I didn’t go looking for project based learning, I kind of like to say that it found me. I was in my fourth year teaching and I was in a traditional private school; and one of my students came in one morning as I was with my phone and he said Mrs. Pirratt, I found your people, you shouldn’t be teaching here, you should be teaching at High Tech High. He had just done a tour of the day before and he’s interested in attending there for high school. And I had never heard of High Tech High, I’d never heard of project based learning. I just — kind of was going rogue teaching in a way that I felt was meaningful for my kids at the time. 

And so I went home that night, did my homework and put in my application and went through the whole hiring process at High Tech High and really the rest was history. I was in the classroom for almost 11 years, I taught grades 5 through 10; and for me project based learning just felt – I mean like it just felt like you create authentic learning experiences for kids. I really believe in being a warm demander and having high expectations and it just happened to be that, that was really my style, that project based learning suited me well so… I was a founding staff member and taught there and loved my time there but was ready for me to kind of spread my wings a little bit. So I took a position with a national company “New Tech Network” where I supported teachers across the country implementing project based learning. Work for them for a few years and for — previously buck Institute for education. Now, PBL works. 

And just on often times seeing what PBL looks like in so many different contexts across the country and actually internationally as well. And I have now been on my own leading professional development for project based learning for almost four years with — Kraft Ed is my company now.

AZk12:   So, I really appreciate that. The impetus for you kind of taking on this work was a student in your fourth year of teaching, like how cool for students to see within you that your teaching was something to be admired and kind of unique in that there was a niche for you at such a young age.

Dr Pieratt:   Yeah! It’s kind of funny when I think back to it now and I just had a book published on Project based learning. I was writing my acknowledgement and he’s actually the first person that I acknowledge and the book. So, I told myself that I was going to do my homework and track him down and find him when my book printed and send him a copy and just say like, ‘Michael, you have no idea what you did for me and where my life has gone. Thanks to you. I mean really — it’s kind of a crazy story.

AZk12:   Oh that’s so cool. And I’m so glad that you brought up your book. Keep it real with PBL; because that was my next question. Thinking about PBL and even within your title, keep it real. How do we ensure authenticity in working with project based learning?

Dr Pieratt:   Yeah, so that’s kind of a little play on words, but half of it is creating authentic learning experiences for students. And the other half of it is really kind of my swagger that I bring to PBL, which is I really pride myself on being practical and not theoretical and honoring the challenges that teachers face in terms of all that they’re being asked to do and making PVL not just feel like it’s one more thing to add onto their plate. And the second part of that is creating authentic learning experiences like you mentioned; and for me that really starts with step one. 

So you know, we always start out projects with standards and that’s again just kind of my flavor that I bring to project based learning because; I want to honor the work that teachers are being asked to do. So we start with your power standards and my first question to them is what is the enduring understanding here? What do you want your kids to remember 10 years from now? How does this relate to some sort of an issue that’s in the real world? And if the teacher can’t answer that in a way that doesn’t feel really contrived or like a total stretch, then we just go back to the drawing board. Because in most places teachers aren’t being asked to do wall to wall PBL. So I say start with an easy list like let’s go where an authentic connection is already embedded in the standards and let’s build from there.

AZk12:   That’s incredible! And it’s really empowering for educators to understand that there is a process that comes to embedding this in their work and really making it authentic for both of them and their space and that it shouldn’t be an addition, like you said at the start of that response. And I really appreciate you calling that to life. And if you had to find a way to assist educators in advocating for PBL in their spaces, Jenny, what’s some of that advice that you’d want to give to educators as they work to make this more part of their daily curriculum or their daily instruction?

Dr Pieratt:   Well, I mean that’s different for every person, right? Depending on the context that they’re in. Some places lend themselves to doing project based learning much easier than other places. Some places have the supports in place and more importantly, the structures in place, right? Like they have things like collaborative planning time or professional development days or maybe a TOSA on site to support them with it. You know, resources for training; not everybody has that. So, in some cases it’s just a matter of teachers really seeing themselves as designers of their curriculum, right? Like I often see just that notion of teachers being empowered as a barrier. Like they don’t — they’re looking to other people to give them the answers or for permission. 

And so sometimes my work is just about kind of breaking down that barrier and saying like, hey! Like you are the professional, this is your craft, teaching as a craft. Like let’s embed these best practices. Maybe it’s been a little while since you learned them in your credentialing program. Maybe you never did. Like let’s kind of work through that and build your toolbox because you truly are a designer of your curriculum that is you as a teacher. 

So sometimes it’s just that simple, is teaching teachers to give themselves that permission to move things around in their curriculum, right? Like sometimes people feel like they have to be in lockstep and it’s like, well where did you get that idea from? And they’re like, I don’t know. It’s just what we’re supposed to do. Right? And I’m like, well said too. So we kind of have to process through that sometimes. So it really just depends on the support teachers have and where they’re at in their journey because PBL is very much a journey and it’s a unique journey to every single teacher.

AZk12:   I appreciate that. I know we’ve spoken with other authors or experts in other areas and they always say the same thing, knowing the depth of your content area or really knowing what your standards are asking of you and then when you have that sound knowledge as an educator, being able to navigate the latitude that comes within that expertise.

Dr Pieratt:   Yeah, it really is an empowering experience. I think like people, they seem to feel relief and liberated when it’s like, Oh yeah, I guess I don’t have to go in order for my units. I guess I can move them around. Right? Like it just seems to be a really positive experience for people and we’re able to do that together.

AZk12:   And I pulled from your last comment, Jenny, that piece about – as educators being designers of our curriculum. And to me that holds so much power because it allows us to be so intentional when you think about it as I am a designer and so I’m going to be intentional on the steps that I make, and the moves that I make. And I think one of those moves I kind of — was looking at your Twitter, I’m looking at how we can involve parents in project based learning, whether that’s inside or outside of the classroom. What tips would you have for our listeners around involving parents?

Dr Pieratt:   Yeah, that to me is kind of a little bit of a soapbox. Am [chuckles] for a while because I really was seeing that as a missing link. So you know, for so many parents, PB also feels really foreign to them. And a lot of schools now, there aren’t textbooks. And so parents don’t know what learning looks like in a PBL setting; and so for me it really comes down to communication. And I tell teachers, the more we communicate, the less we have to communicate. So having mechanisms in place, like a digital portfolio or something so simple as a Shutterfly site where you’re posting pictures and you’re sending out newsletters and just kind of making an open classroom so that parents are invited in, whether it be through field work or exhibition or just weekly correspondence with questions to ask them about the project they’re working on, kind of just coaching parents through that process.

I think PBL is already a big lift for teachers and we’re so focused on the kids. But there is this kind of other missing link is, how do we bring the parents along? Because when we’re able to do that, it really did build the community and that’s where the real shift happens. That’s the results of project based learning.

AZk12:   And as a parent, Jenny, I want to say a huge thank you for that. I know as my daughter went into sixth grade, just over three years ago now, she is starting her freshman year this year in high school, it’s pretty insane. She was lucky enough to be a member of the blended learning program and our local community school or public school. And it was really intimidating as a parent to not understand exactly how I was going to support her because a lot of what they did, 90% of everyday was project based. So it was learning something in social studies or math or science and then applying it to something like the future cities competition here in Arizona. 

And until we walked through all of those items for the first time, I really wasn’t sure how to support her. Even as an educator, I felt very intimidated by the process and the engineers that my daughter was working with. And so I really thank you for advocating for that communication because once I understood it, I was at least able to ask her questions and support her. Even if I wasn’t her biggest contributor, I was able to support her as she navigated her way through this new way of learning and really exploring the world around her.

Dr Pieratt:   Yeah, and I have to be honest, it took me a long time to figure that out and I really did learn it the hard way. Hindsight, when I think back to it, I didn’t communicate with parents in advance because I was so swamped with trying to figure out this whole PBL thing and everything that came with it. And I would just say to myself, I don’t have time to make a newsletter. I don’t have time to build out my digital portfolio. But I would end up spending more time answering the parent’s question, their email, having to do additional meetings.

By my last couple years, I was like, I already knew the questions they were going to have and I could anticipate those and I could cut them off at the pass and have like an FAQ and go over specific things at back to school night and just have those mechanisms in place that made them a more open experience. But I really did have to learn it the hard way. And I’m a parent now too, so I think things a little bit differently as well.

AZk12:   And Jenny, what is the value of PBL spanning across the grade levels? What does that do for students and educators alike?

Dr Pieratt:   Well, it just helps get us one step closer to my dream of global domination of projects based learning… for starters.


AZk12:   Alright is that the answer?

Dr Pieratt:   You know, it’s so — I mean — one of the resources that a lot of schools I work with are use are a series of Rubik’s that are open at resources created by scale at Stanford and New Tech Network. And there are these K-12 rubrics that were designed and they were created first, you know, for high school. So they said, okay, when our students leave us in 12th grade, what are these dispositions or qualities that we hope that they possessed when they leave us? And then they create a middle school version from that and then an elementary school version from that. Right. So it was like this whole key to our dream of what we wanted our students to look like. 

And, by having that articulated really clearly in something like a rubric, it really allows teachers think about scaffolding that every single year in every single project. So you can imagine if a child in kindergarten was first starting to think about their agency and then again in first grade and then second grade and then third grade. Oh my gosh. Can you imagine just by middle school, right? Like what a difference that would make. 

And I know having taught at a school that was a K-12 system, I taught high school and we hadn’t yet opened the middle school. By the time the middle school had opened and the students had gone through three years and then came to me in ninth grade, it was night and day; what I saw in terms of having a culture of critique already established within the students. So when we scaffold these skills and students get it over and over and over again, it just becomes part of who they are. Right? Like routines, lead to habits lead to demeanors. So I think it just — it creates this embedded web that just becomes who the child is when they leave us. And that is a beautiful thing.

AZk12: I liked that piece about having students think about their agency starting at grade K or pre K.  Angelina and I are both former elementary teachers and I feel like in our spaces, or I’ll speak for me, I worked in a K2 school and project based learning was just something that it seemed K2 teachers did. But then as students went on it became less of that. And so just imagining how much agency those kids have built up just in that two or three year span of being in the K2 school and then what happens to it if they don’t get to experience project based learning again and you know, they become accustomed to it in their own agency within it. So thank you for kind giving us your clear plan for world domination.


Dr Pieratt:   Yes, please.

AZk12:   So, I want our listeners to be aware that we are very intentional about bringing you on today because we have the pleasure of welcoming you to Arizona. You’ll be with us on September 26 and then again on March 26. And so as we close out, how or what might our guests plan to experience when you’re here with them?

Dr Pieratt:   I — you know, I really pride myself on providing practical resources. So everything that I design and ask teachers to kind of work through with me has been tried and true from the trenches. So there’s not going to be a lot of sitting around and chitchatting or dreaming we are going to be working. It’s not your typical PB that I know, you know the majority of us get stuck sitting through where we get to kind of scroll on Facebook while someone sit and lectures at us. We are going to work, together side by side the whole time that we’re together, and when teachers leave they will have a project that they can run and everything that they need; so it will be very much rooted in practice

AZk12:   That makes us so excited, one as being the people to host this but also to be in that room and to learn alongside everyone else in that space. 

Dr Pieratt:   And I should say it’ll be fun. We’ll have fun together. 

AZk12:   [Laughter] we like fun. We are fans of fun. 


Dr Pieratt:   Jenny, thank you so much for coming on and telling us more about your work and the evolution of your work, and also setting our listeners up for success when they decide to join the professional learning that you’re going to offer here at the center in September, and then again later in the spring. We are just beyond excited to have you here and to be able to share your expertise with educators across Arizona.

Dr Pieratt:   Thanks so much. I’m looking forward to meeting everyone.

AZk12:   Thanks Jenny. Have a good one! 

So, if you’re looking to dream and think alongside Jenny and other colleagues, make sure that you register for the event happening September 26 2019, registration for project based learning and assessment closes on September 12th. We hope to see you there, we hope to have just a small part in your dreams for this year. 

As the last note, the views and opinions expressed in this episode do not necessarily represent those of the Arizona K12 center or Northern Arizona University.

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