Why I Teach: 4 Criteria for Making Project-Based Learning Impactful

Monday, June 22, 2015

Teach For America's Top Stories is proud to present "Why I Teach," a weekly series where our 2015 Alumni Award for Excellence in Teaching recipients share what makes them passionate about the classroom.

In this edition, Whitney Ward Birenbaum (Baltimore '05) extols the virtues of project-based learning and offers four specific criteria to determine if a certain project would be effective enough for your curriculum.


Middle school students are at an important crossroads in their lives. In my Humanities classroom, my goal is to create a space where they can develop the belief that their voices matter. I want students to expand their curiosity about the world, and to learn the necessary skills to change it for the better.

In order to do this, many of the topics we study deal with issues facing Baltimore, such as urban farming and food access, immigration, and gun violence. Within each of these units of study, students produce work for a real purpose, allowing it to have an impact beyond the walls of our classroom. Projects like these should meet four specific criteria:

  • Serve a real need, and address an authentic audience. When studying the second amendment, students produced podcasts calling Baltimore citizens to action around gun violence. The police commissioner visited our classroom to respond to student questions. During another unit, students wrote letters to the school board recommending healthier lunch options, and received a detailed letter from our CEO, responding to their suggestions. Because experts in the field are hearing their ideas, students are motivated to do whatever it takes to create an excellent product.
  • Involve student choice. At different points along a project’s path, students determine the direction of their work. When my students were studying immigration in the early 1900s, they kept asking questions about immigration today. Our list of questions grew, and it became clear we needed to talk with people in our community with firsthand experience. Students conducted oral history interviews of 16 immigrants within our community, and eventually published the narratives in a book titled "Coming to America: Immigration Stories from the Midtown Community."
Why I Teach: 4 Criteria for Using Project-Based Learning in Your Class
Whitney had her students prepare for their immigration oral history project.


  • Be academically rigorous. These outputs require students to expand their knowledge and deepen their literacy skills. They must read a variety of perspectives on an issue in order to build their background knowledge, and glean and synthesize important information across many sources. They have to construct clear arguments, and craft narratives. Finally, they have to seek feedback, and revise until they have a finished product they are proud of.


Why I Teach: 4 Criteria for Using Project-Based Learning in Your Class
The finished product on display.


  • Develop non-cognitive skills. Projects ensure students develop non-cognitive traits as well, like initiative and self-direction, compassion for others, and a sense of social justice. They allow them to develop a deeper social, cultural, and political consciousness, as they examine problems and injustices in our city, and then work to solve them. They also deepen their access to opportunities through building relationships with community members and engaging deeply with a topic for an extended period of time.
Benefits of Project-Based Learning

Amid the educational landscape of standards-aligned instruction and high-stakes testing, it makes sense to ask how I justify the time spent on project-based learning. It really is a significant time commitment. I firmly believe, though, that this type of instruction is aligned to the heart of the Common Core, and is ultimately what propels my students to achieve at such high levels year after year.

Teaching and learning in this way requires our class to dive deep into content, veering off track if an authentic experience presents itself, and taking the necessary time to create a high quality product. It compels me to be lifelong learner and model the questioning and thought process I want for my students. Most importantly, students are excited to develop their skills as readers and writers because they are producing work that matters to a real audience and has a legitimate impact on our world.


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