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The Relevant and Meaningful Experience of Project-Based Learning

In 2017, my school, Hanalani Schools, decided to embark on the project-based learning (PBL) journey. At the time, I was a 6th-grade teacher and was eager to learn more about this method of teaching. Our school decided to adopt the Buck Institute model of Gold Standard Project Based Learning, which is now called PBL Works. I appreciated how our administration introduced this initiative to our faculty. Let me explain. Every summer, our whole faculty team reads a summer book. In the summer of 2017, we, as teachers, were asked to read Setting the Standard for Project-Based Learning by John Larmer, John Mergendoller, and Suzie Boss. This book clearly explained the philosophy behind project-based learning and the powerful impact it has on student learning. After the summer read, when we came back to school at the beginning of the year, our administration focused on professional development, specifically focused on PBL. This was so helpful! We were given the tools we needed to embark on this PBL journey.

It was important for our whole faculty to be on the same page and have a common language, common documentation, and a common understanding of PBL. The most encouraging aspect to me as a 6th-grade teacher was that our leadership just asked us to try. Just TRY. As we all know, there are many types of teachers. There are early adopters who are always eager to learn and take on new challenges. Then there are ambivalent teachers who will just do what they are told to check the box. Lastly, you have resistors who bristle at the thought of change or adopting something new that is non-traditional. At our 2017 teacher in-service, we had teachers in all of those camps. In case you were wondering, I was an early adopter! Because we were asked just to try, that took a lot of pressure off. It was freeing to know that our first project didn’t have to be perfect. It was OK if we failed; much learning comes from failure. We like to call it failing forward. We had permission to just try. So that's what we did as a faculty; we tried. We collaborated more than ever. We brainstormed and supported each other. Since that year, we have grown by leaps and bounds. Each year has become richer and richer for experiential, relevant, and meaningful learning for all of our students on campus.

Since our implementation of PBL, we have witnessed many amazing projects on our campus. I personally was changed as an educator after completing my first PBL. It was a lot of hard work, but the results were so worth it. At the time, I was a 6th-grade English language arts teacher. I collaborated with our 6th grade Bible and history teacher to create The Living Easter Story project. Essentially this was a “play” that had ten stations set up in our school gym. Each station had a student-designed backdrop, props, and student actors who acted out a script that the students completely wrote. Each station came to life to share their portion of the passion week story.

The outcome was amazing! Not only was it impactful in the lives of our 6th-grade students, but we impacted our whole student body who came through to watch our play. In addition, we had a second evening performance that was open to the community, and we had over 300 people attend. What made me excited as an educator is that not only did my students get to display all their hard work, but along the way, they were learning ELA standards, history standards and growing in their knowledge of the Gospel and the incredible love God has for us in sending His Son to be our Messiah. This whole project was completely student-driven, with careful mentorship and guidance from PBL-minded teachers. I still have students who are now juniors in high school share with me about that project and how they will never forget their experience!

What is exciting about PBL is that it doesn’t matter what grade level or subject you teach, this method of teaching is applicable in any classroom. We have seen remarkable growth in our student body since incorporating PBL. Student engagement and practical hands-on experience in a real-world project is invaluable. Our ultimate goal as teachers is to provide a relevant, meaningful, and rigorous education for all our students. I strongly believe that one avenue to accomplish this goal is project-based learning.

Here’s a thought. In all the years of education that you have had, studying principles, methods, strategies, etc., for best practice in teaching, have you ever stopped to think about how Jesus taught? As Christian educators, shouldn't we be following the example of the greatest teacher of all time? Jesus lectured on the Sermon on the Mount. He encouraged student participation when working with the disciples and instructing them during the feeding of the 5,000. But probably the most impactful learning occurred when he engaged the disciples to come on a journey with him and experience real-world, meaningful lessons, as evidenced in the New Testament, specifically Mark chapter 5. When reflecting on centuries of teaching practices, much emphasis has been placed on the traditional paper-and-pencil strategy of teaching. My questions are, how long will our students retain that information, and what have we really taught them? Incorporating project-based learning into your classroom will ensure that the lessons and experiences your students are engaged in will have long-term benefits.

I am excited to share my passion for project-based learning in a very practical and tangible way at the Christian Deeper Learning Conference in March in the session “Gold Standard Project-Based Learning 101”. In this session, you will begin your Project Based Learning (PBL) journey with this foundational workshop where teachers who are new to PBL will experience Gold Standard PBL training. This practical, hands-on training will introduce and explain the seven elements of Gold Standard PBL. This workshop will be applicable and relevant to teachers at any grade level, including PreK through 12th grades and specialty teachers. This workshop will highlight and emphasize the importance of common language and documentation to strengthen the alignment between grade levels across your school campus. It will also provide practical resources and useful tools that will help teachers and administrators take their PBL journey to the next level. The best teachers love it when they see the lightbulb go off in their student’s minds. If this is something that excites you and you are passionate about, then join me on this journey of discovering Gold Standard Project Based Learning, and I will help you keep that lightbulb stay on long term.

Workshop: Gold Standard PBL 101

Presenters: Mrs. Melissa Lemon and Ms. Erin Sowers


Melissa Lemon is the lower school vice principal at Hanalani Schools, a private Christian school with 700 students on the island of Oahu. She has 20 years of educational experience in elementary, middle, and high school levels, as well as special education. In addition to teaching at Christian schools in Arizona, New Jersey, Ohio, and Hawaii, she also taught in a charter school and a title 1 school in Las Vegas, as well as a Department of Defense School in Germany. She has a B.S. in Elementary Education and an M.Ed. in Educational Leadership and Curriculum Design. She has been conducting Project Based Learning training and workshops since 2018. Mrs. Lemon is especially passionate about Christian education and is dedicated to encouraging and empowering today’s Christian educators to be excellent in their field. When she isn’t working, Melissa is a wife and mother of 3 who likes to read, travel and make pottery. She helps lead worship and participates in a ladies' Bible study at her local church.

Erin Sowers is the first-grade lead teacher and lower elementary department head at Hanalani Schools, a private Christian school on the island of Oahu. She has been an educator for 16 years, including five years at a title-1 school in Florida, four years at a Christian School in Pennsylvania, and eight years of various leadership positions at her current school in Hawaii. She has a B.S. in Elementary Education and an M.Ed. in Educational Leadership. Erin has also led the Lower School division as a professional learning community coordinator (PLCC) for five years and started a new-teacher mentorship program. Erin has a passion for leading teachers and supporting them on their Project Based Learning journey while instilling a love for deeper learning within young students. In her free time, she enjoys going to the beach, trying new coffee shops, and traveling with friends and family. She also leads a women’s Bible study in her local church.


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