How To Do Project-Based Learning That Connects to Standards and Curriculum

This blog series was authored by our own A.J. Juliani, Head of Learning & Growth.

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There is a scene in the film, “Most Likely to Succeed”, that struck me to the core.

You see, for years I wanted to be the challenging teacher. I wanted to be the one where students came into my class and left knowing and understanding much more than in any other subject. I made their tests and quizzes extremely challenging, making sure they’d have to study in order to even come close to a B or an A. And for the first few years of my teaching career this is how I taught.

My students were forced to pay attention in order to get a grade.

I used every extrinsic motivation technique in the teacher playbook. Grades, extra credit, and of course the dreaded “wait until you go to college or get in the real world” talk.

And I thought it was working. In fact, I prided myself on it working.

Then I had almost the same group of 11th-grade students that I had the previous year as 10th-grade students. They were a great group. Motivated, hard-working, and most of all, we got along. The social and human side was built in as I headed into that school year, and I was excited to teach them again.

I’ll never forget the first week of that school year. We had students write an essay for summer reading, and take a diagnostics test in the first few days of school. I was confident my students would rock this based on the progress they made the previous year. Then reality hit when I looked at the results:

They had forgotten almost everything we learned the year before.

I was shocked, so I gave them another assessment, this time directly linked to some of the areas we had covered in 10th grade such as sentence structures, literary devices, symbolism, etc.

Another shocking result. Almost every single student failed this short assessment.

I had to change up my practice, because it was directly in my face: it didn’t work. The tests didn’t work. The challenging traditional assignments did not work. There was no retention.

Which is exactly what this one minute video from “Most Likely to Succeed” shows. They actually did a study on retention of understanding on these types of assessments. Watch this:

Did you watch that clip? It is short, but it says more about what we have been doing wrong in education for years, than any other clip I’ve seen.

It hit me so hard upon watching it because I was that teacher for so long. 

I truly believed that students who did well on my challenging tests had mastered the content. Until I found out they didn’t.

And it wasn’t even close.

The Move to Project-Based Learning and Creative Work

During that year I began to change how I assessed my students. Fewer tests. Fewer summative assessments. Less regurgitation. We also began to change how we learned and developed understanding.

But, it wasn’t easy.

We had standards and curriculum to cover.

My school district was fairly high-performing and had a reputation to protect.

My colleagues questioned what I was doing. My principal wasn’t so sure about it. The parents asked questions.

I knew that the type of traditional assessments I had been taught and I had used wasn’t working. But I had to defend the choice to change that time and time again.

You may be in a similar situation. In fact, I know that many of you are doing authentic work in schools, and have to make it fit in the curriculum and connect to the standards.

Even though we all know that Bloom’s taxonomy includes Create, Evaluate, and Analyze right at the top, we still have so many assessments that ask for students to remember, understand, and apply. Remember, understand, and apply.

So, let me share three ways to do project-based learning in the midst of standards and curriculum. Not because it is cool, or fun, or fancy. Because it is what works with our students, and has worked time and time again for retention.

Innovative Projects in the Midst of Standards and Curriculum

#1. Show How the Standards Connect

We live in a standards-based educational world. They are everywhere. They are changing. But they are a reality. That’s why I showed everyone how the standards connected to all of the making, creating, and designing my students were doing. Here are some of the slides I shared with colleagues and anyone who wanted to see why this was working:

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We hit every single one of the ISTE NETS Standards for Students as well during these inquiry-based projects in my class:Screen Shot 2017-03-28 at 9.46.22 AM

And, of course, we were constantly creating, collaborating, communicating, and critical thinking:

21st Century Skills in 2017

#2: Don’t Add to the Curriculum, Layer it Into the Curriculum

The first mistake I made that year was adding creative projects to the end of each unit. I even kept the summative assessments. Then I took away the summative assessments, but still made the “projects” be an end of the unit.

I’ve heard many of the same types of questions, over and over, when talking about inquiry-based projects.

  • How can you keep students accountable?
  • What if they don’t do anything with their time?
  • Does it connect to the standards?
  • My curriculum is set, how can I do it?
  • This doesn’t seem possible in a class of 25 students…

And yet, my 11th-grade classes were between 25 and 30 students each. The students kept each other accountable in groups. They went above and beyond anything, we had written in our curriculum, and hit more standards than any other project/activity we’d ever done.


Because they chose to help create a project that they cared about.

We had recently read Night by Elie Wiesel, and this quote in particular guided our campaign to create awareness about human rights violations:


After our discussion about human rights violations, child soldiers, and genocide that was currently happening in our world right now–my students wanted to DO something.

As a class we decided to not be bystanders, and to take a side. This new project would be a chance to use our voice to spread awareness.

Traditionally, during this Unit students had written a position paper on the Holocaust and Genocide in general, as well as send a letter to a Senator about a current human rights violation.

My group of students wanted to take this further. Together we crafted a new project that would focus on creating awareness about current human rights violations. I say WE because the students had a lot of input into how this project would look, what they would be measured on, and what the ultimate goals and objectives would be.

Project: Global Inform (PGI) was created in the 2008-2009 school year. The students picked their own groups and researched current human rights violations. Each group picked a violation they felt particularly passionate about and began to develop an action plan. Their action plans allowed the students to judge how effective each method of media was at spreading information and creating awareness. At the end of Project: Global Inform’s first run, hundreds of people had been met face-to-face with

At the end of Project: Global Inform’s first run, hundreds of people had been met face-to-face with information they did not know, while thousands of other teens and young adults saw videos, visited websites, and became Twitter and Facebook fans of media meant to create awareness.

In 2009-2010 Wissahickon High School took Project: Global Inform to the next level. Over 110 students participated and this time the students were even more creative. In addition to the video, web, and Facebook campaigns – groups began to host events dedicated to raising awareness for their cause. This time, not only was information spread, but money was also raised for organizations currently fighting against human rights violations. Thousands of dollars were raised in just under six weeks, showing that students do have the power to make a difference.

Project: Global Inform was one of my proudest moments as a teacher. It still gives me chills when I look at the work these 16 and 17-year-old students were doing to spread awareness on such serious violations.

And it was part of our curriculum, not an added piece. Layer the work into the curriculum instead of making it something added to the work you are already doing.

This can work in any subject, including Math, as shown by the teachers and students in the video below:

It also can work in any grade level as I share in this post about Project-Based Learning at the Elementary School level.

#3. Assess the Process (and only sometimes the Final Product)

Every now and then I’m blown away by something I find online. This happened a few years ago when I stumbled across the “GRIT Rubric” created by the College Track program in San Francisco. “College Track is an after school, college preparatory program that works to increase high school graduation, college eligibility and  enrollment, and college graduation rates in under-resourced communities.” The program is awesome, but what blew me away was the GRIT acronym and student rubric. College Track has broken the word Grit down to four factors: Guts, Resilience, Integrity, and Tenacity. From their site:

It takes a lot beyond academic readiness to succeed in college. Tackling challenges like dealing with a difficult roommate, finding the financial aid office and registering for classes requires resiliency and tenacity, and these are two character traits that College Track San Francisco is targeting.

The site is working to make habits of mind and GRIT visible to all students by recognizing positive character traits that are linked to college success. They went a step farther and created a rubric for students that measures the seemingly immeasurable:


How cool is that?!?! This program is taking a BIG idea like Grit, and making it tangible for students to understand. In a world that is constantly connected, and “flattening” more and more by the day, the people that succeed need grit. This rubric may be made for college, but it applies to all levels of life. If you want to be successful, you need Guts, Resilience, Integrity, and Tenacity. Please share this with educators, parents, and students you know. It may just open their eyes.

We’ve taken and modified this type of rubric for all types of projects (K-12). The students learn to make mistakes and get back up to keep working when we focus on more than the end result!

Interested in Learning More?

Project-based learning is shown to work in all kinds of schools, in all different grade levels, with students of varying backgrounds and abilities.

So, if this is what the research says about PBL, then why do we still have so many schools falling into the test prep trap? Why do some many teachers feel like they cannot make the jump into PBL? Why haven’t we seen a nationwide movement towards PBL as a best and effective practice for all students?

It comes back to HOW to do PBL in the midst of standards and curriculum. I’ve put together a free workshop to show you the 5-step process to do just that.

I’m holding three workshops this week (for K-5, 6-12, and school leaders):

You can sign-up to be a part of the training right here! If you can’t make the time, please sign-up so you can get the recording.