Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Additional Reflections on a Semester of PBL in American Literature

Here are additional reflections from students in an American Literature PBL class at The Frisch School:

Student sample 1:

Doubts by Ami

Granted, I had my doubts. Over the years, I had come to regard the various posters and programs decorating Frisch’s walls with suspicion; I often questioned whether they were a testament to their creators’ good-natured toil or simply an excuse to miss class. Naturally, my experience in English this year, which I believe to have transported me out of my narrow-minded perspective in some respects, came as quite the surprise. I now feel as though the comforts of the sheltered community I call home had eclipsed the glaring difficulties faced by those nearby. I also feel that project-based learning has given me the opportunity to scrutinize the status quo in a manner that is both engaging and significant. The evolution of my perspective began with the class discussion of Rebecca Skloot’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.

I was raised with the notion of a flawless America. America is the country that saved my father and grandmother from economic oppression and cultural persecution in the Soviet Union; it was here that they fulfilled the American Dream and thus sought to ensure that I afforded America the proper respect. As a consequence, I have always had trouble accepting the grim realities that tarnish America’s reputation. Yet when confronted with the disheartening description of inequality and poverty in the case of Henrietta Lacks and her children, I was forced to acknowledge that America may not be as flawless as I had once thought. I had obviously heard of the issues raised by Skloot before, but it was not until she poignantly recast them in a more personal, human light that I realized the gravity of societal injustice. When I researched how the Lackses were denied any compensation for their mother’s invaluable contribution to mankind and wrote an op-ed condemning the judiciary’s unfair arbitration of similar cases, I did so not in the name of justice alone, but for Deborah Lacks and John Moore. In class, we often discussed the writer’s use of pathos, which I feel Skloot uses extensively in order to portray a darker side of America.     

    In a New York Times series, entitled “Invisible Child: Dasani’s Homeless Life”, Andrea Elliot employs pathos in her vivid portrait of childhood poverty as seen through the eyes of one young girl, Dasani. Dasani lives with the other nine members of her family in an overcrowded apartment in New York City. Dasani and her siblings tolerate rodents, a decrepit home and hunger as her parents struggle with an addiction to narcotics. Reading one article in the series, I was stricken as Elliot describes the heartwrenching difficulties Dasani faces at school. Unable to afford a clean school uniform, Dasani must assume a “ghetto” persona, taunting her classmates and remaining alien in mind and body. Dasani, however, cannot only be included among the nine others forced into her ramshackle home; she also takes her place among the other 16.7 million American children living in poverty. Within the confines of my community, it is often difficult to appreciate the suffering of those less fortunate. Dasani cannot be found among the impressive, suburban homes or the privileged, middle-class families. Dasani is not only a symbol of the imperfections of American society but proof of the public’s ignorance. My work in English this year, however, has opened my eyes to a world previously unknown. I learned that women and minorities are routinely denied access to reasonable employment and that one in every ten children in the United States lives without access to basic health care. Yet it was not until I began to prepare for the Twenty-Six Acts of Kindness Day that I fully understood the intent of our class’ tireless efforts.

    In early December, I had the privilege to hear Laura Schroff, the best-selling author of An Invisible Thread, speak at Frisch. I was greatly moved by Ms. Schroff’s heartwarming tale of how she welcomed a young stranger, Maurice Mazcyk, into her life; the story bespoke the themes of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks and brought them only further into my sphere. In memory of the twenty-six children who perished at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, Ms. Schroff and Maurice agreed to run the Twenty-Six Acts of Kindness Day on December 26, along with our class. I felt as though my participation in the program could rectify the injustice I had encountered earlier in the year; I soon embarked on an ambitious quest to convince Google to recognize the day on its homepage and encouraged my peers to share their acts of kindness with the student body. Although my former self might have doubted these programs’ relevance to English, I have nothing but regret for my myopic concerns.     

    Pathos is defined by the Merriam-Webster Dictionary as “a quality that causes people to feel sympathy and sadness”. I believe the definition to be an inadequate depiction of the pathos used by the artist. As I had read earlier this year in Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, his self-professed desire is to cause me to “feel what I felt” (O’Brien 171). The task of the writer is not simply to observe the shortcomings of society and dutifully note them with indifference; it is to become one with the afflicted and to tell their story as the writer might tell his own. The definition of pathos should read “a quality that expresses the pity or sadness felt by another”. Social commentary is not the perfunctory pursuit of justice as some may assume, but an outlet for a writer’s inspired, righteous indignation. The relevance of literature is contingent upon the proper use of pathos in writing. Pathos is a time-honored tool that has lent itself to works as diverse as the biblical prophecies of the Jews’ impending doom in the Book of Jeremiah and Thomas Hardy’s personally inspired critique of marriage, Jude the Obscure. Thus, to my former self, I would argue that I have learnt more about literature than I could have imagined; I learned that the artist is inspired by his impassioned investigation of inequity rather than his spontaneous creation of a plot and characters. I can resolutely declare that it is my work in English this year that has thrust the world into a new light.

    Granted, I never thought the poster-plastered walls deserved more than a cursory glance. I once doubted pronounced inconsistencies in American society. I once doubted that America could be the greatest country in the world and retain flaws nonetheless. Now, however, I doubt that our society affords American women, minorities and children with the capacity to succeed. I doubt that Dasani and millions of other impoverished children are content leading lives far inferior to my own. I doubt that a truly principled society could deny a select group of citizens a modicum of humanity as it did in the saga of racial injustice described in The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. Countless others have protested societal misconduct for ages, and I am proud to now include myself among their ranks. I began the semester with some doubts and ended it with others.

Student Sample 2:

Romanticism by Michelle

Throughout the first semester of school I learnt about Romanticism. Romanticism is an artistic movement originating in Europe in the late 18th century. This movement is characterized by a great interest in nature, emphasis on the individual's expression of emotion and imagination, departure from the attitudes and forms of classicism, and rebellion against established social rules and conventions. My English teacher (Mrs. Wiener) was determined to have our class fully experience and take to heart the essence of Romanticism. The process of taking Romanticism to heart consisted of three parts: experiencing Romanticism, showing one’s understanding of Romanticism, and personal growth. 

The best way to experience Romanticism is to turn to nature. One November day, Mrs. Wiener took us outside; she then proceeded to read a poem with us. This poem was “Trees” by Joyce Kilmer.  “Trees” is an important poem that exemplifies Romanticism. In his poem, Joyce Kilmer describes nature as perfect and loving. After reading this poem, my class was instructed to draw pictures of a tree and then write a reflection. 

The following is my reflection: “The poem “Trees” by Joyce Kilmer influenced my art by showing me that trees are more than just trees. This poem helped me see that an autumn tree displays on its leaves the entire life cycle. The green leaves represent children, or beings that are new to life, beings that are “green” in their understanding of the world around them. The next color is yellow. Yellow represents young adults, those who have more experience than children, but less than adults do. Red represents adults who have more knowledge than the young adults and children.  Finally, the color brown represents elders and death. Brown is the final stage, because the color brown is a mixture of green, yellow, and red. When at the brown stage of life, one can look back and see one’s self as what one really was in all the stages of his life. By reading this poem I learnt to recognize such meaningful symbolism in nature, and trees specifically.”  

I have always found a tree in autumn to be quite beautiful; the multitude of colors displayed on the trees leaves are so perfect. This magnificent sight would leave me feeling as though I had missed something. I could never figure out what I had missed, until I was told to draw a picture of a tree and analyze it. The drawing aspect of the project did not take long. Analyzing the drawing, on the other hand, took hours. I studied every aspect in my drawing and could not find any symbolism, until I remembered what Mrs. Wiener had said that day. On that November day Mrs. Wiener had handed out The Scarlet Letter, and said, “There is a lot of symbolism in this book, especially color symbolism”. Suddenly my drawing seemed to reveal to me something astonishing, I now could see the entire life cycle displayed on the tree’s leaves. Thanks to the seemingly trivial words, I was able to recognize the symbolism hidden in the color scheme of an autumn tree’s leaves. This project helped teach me that nature has a lot of hidden messages. By having a class outside, I was able to understand the appeal of Romanticism. 

After having experienced Romanticism outside, it was now time for us to show the extent of our knowledge about Romanticism. Mrs. Wiener gave us an assignment, which consisted of taking a painting by the Hudson River School of Art and comparing it to The Scarlet Letter

The following is an excerpt from my assignment: “This painting is most comparable to Reverend Mr. Dimmesdale, a man with two sides to his personality. The first is the Reverend Dimmesdale in nature, who is free of the conforming restraints of society. Then, there is the Reverend Dimmesdale who is bound to the rules of society.  This painting is a painting of nature, which in itself is free of society’s hold. However, while in nature, it is still under society’s control. For it is a member of society who drew this picture, and it is the members of society who deemed this painting worthy of being admired; thereby trapping this picture in an eternal struggle of freedom from society and being controlled by it.”  This assignment helped me evaluate the extent of my knowledge with regards to Romanticism. 

Now with a good understanding of Romanticism, my class took on a project that would help us grow as human beings. On December 26 my school paid tribute to the twenty-six victims of the Sandy Hook shooting. In order to pay respect to those victims, my class decided to help spread twenty six acts of kindness. To make this day even better Mrs. Wiener contacted Laura Schroff and Alex Tresniowski, who wrote An Invisible Thread

An Invisible Thread is a memoir about how Laura Schroff helped saved the life of Maurice Mazyck by doing just one small act of kindness. Maurice was from a broken family and was suffering from malnutrition. His mother was a drug addict, and his father had left in the early part of Maurice’s life. Every day Maurice would stand on a street and ask for money, so that he would be able to buy some food. On a day that seemed like it would be normal, in that people would ignore Maurice’s pleas for money, Laura Schroff experienced a feeling that she would later claim was fate pulling her in the right direction. She acted on this feeling and offered Maurice a meal. Laura and Maurice would later turn sharing a meal into a tradition. Maurice had come from an area known for its violence; nevertheless, Laura never feared for her life in all the time she has known Maurice. Romanticism is characterized by a person acting on his/her emotions and going against society’s norms. Laura Schroff acted on her emotions when she decided to help Maurice, and she went against the societal norms when she decided to take Maurice under her wing. Had Laura Schroff been in a novel she would have been labeled a Romantic hero. An Invisible Thread ties in with our Romanticism project in that it helped us be able to recognize Romanticism and the Romantic heroes of everyday life.  

On December 26th, Laura Schroff, Maurice, and Alex Tresniowski came to The Frisch School to participate in the 26 acts of kindness day. This day was spent promoting acts of kindness, and it also had an impact on my behavior. The following Monday the Russian Club had a pre-New Year’s party, and I had brought food. After the party I noticed that I had some leftover food and decided to treat my class to the food. The act of sharing food with your class, also, happened to be one of the twenty- six acts of kindness. Romanticism and this personal growth experience correlate, because Romanticism is characterized by acting on one’s emotions. A person is usually pulled by his/her emotions to help another person in need.  

The process of internalizing Romanticism was an especially valuable experience. Though I learnt Romanticism through an unconventional way, I feel as though I now truly understand Romanticism exceptionally well. I spent time in nature as most protagonists from Romantic novels do, thereby learning to see nature through the author’s prospective. The project on Romanticism helped me see to what extent I understand Romanticism. Finally, the 26 Acts of Kindness Day helped me internalize the message of Romanticism. 

Sunday, February 16, 2014

The Importance of Reflection

Reflection is one of the key components of PBL and for good reason. One of the things PBL affords students is the chance to understand why they're learning what they're learning. Students shouldn't be sitting in class wondering how their course work relates to them or their world. Reflection gives students a way to contemplate the relevance and importance of their learning, and it also lets teachers know that the students are grasping the material in a deep and significant way. The feedback loop in PBL keeps students and teachers aligned in their learning goals.

Following is an example of student work that displays the kind of deep learning that can take place with PBL. The assignment -- which offered students voice and choice, another key component of PBL -- asked a class of juniors to discuss how they saw the American dream, after seeing it from a myriad of perspectives over the first semester of an American literature course. Students had read The Things They Carried by Tim O'Brien and The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot over the summer; during the first semester, they also read The Scarlet Letter and The Crucible and had become familiar with Romanticism and the Romantic hero.

PBL also makes sure that student work has authentic purpose. In this class, students chose a type of injustice in America today and investigated it in groups, sharing their findings with the class; they also had to read one article from a New York Times series about American children living in poverty. Finally, the class planned and executed an Acts of Kindness Day on December 26, in honor of the 26 victims of Newtown and as a way to begin addressing unfair treatment in American society.

Here is Liat's wonderful assessment of the semester. We particularly like the personal details she includes in the essay, discussing her great-grandfather's experience with the American dream:

Reflections on the Semester
Had I been asked four months ago to define the “American Dream,” I would have answered with a laugh and resorted to cliche.  “To live the American Dream is to raise a family with 2.5 perfect children, and to own a large, spotless house--complete with a white picket fence and a dog (probably a Golden Retriever).” Had you asked me the same question one month ago, however, I would have hemmed and hawed and been forced to deliberate my answer--finally declaring that based on my discussions in English class, there is no concrete definition of the notion of the “American Dream.” But ask me today and you’ll find my answer is far more long-winded (five and a half pages, to be exact). To me, the American Dream was not, is not, and cannot ever be a static idea, but rather is one that is constantly changing and is reflective of our history.  But however one defines the American Dream at a particular point in our nation’s timeline, the concept of “opportunity” is a central theme throughout its course.

In the early 1600’s, the Pilgrims fled Europe for the New World.  In their version of the American Dream, America was not a place where individuals could practice religion as they saw fit; but rather, America was a haven from religious persecution, where the pilgrims could enjoy the liberty of starting their very own theocracy. The Dream underwent a transformation when the Bill of Rights was signed into law in 1791. It promised certain, inalienable protections to each and every resident of the U.S.A., including freedom of religion, freedom of speech, and freedom of the press.  A citizen living the American Dream could voice open expression of his ideas and be whomever he chose to be.  Following the civil rights movement of the 1960’s, an essential part of the American Dream’s new identity became the new freedoms the United States offered to minorities and people of color.  With the advent of feminism in the seventies, the American Dream morphed into one of equality of the sexes.  A woman could now own the American Dream in the same way as a man, expecting the same freedoms and opportunities which he enjoyed.

Alongside all of these versions of the American Dream, there has existed a parallel text of the American Dream.  In the late 18th century, enterprising opportunists first sought to buy huge tracts of farmland. In the 19th century, young men journeyed west in the Gold Rush.  In the early 20th century, Jewish immigrants left their homes and communities to reach the “Goldene Medina.” This trend continues through today, as America has been known as the land for great personal financial growth. There is, however, a huge flaw in the American Dream that I’ve witnessed throughout this semester’s class, and that is that individual Americans often fail to live up to these evolving expectations.

In the literary works that we have read so far this year, the American Dream has proved elusive to many characters--both fictional and nonfictional. In Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter, Hester, a true romantic hero, journeys to America knowing full well that she will be living in a Puritan theocracy. Despite this prior knowledge, Hester still feels trapped by the confines of her community, and seeks refuge in the forest or by the sea. As my group came to understand, through a deep analysis of the symbols of town, forest and sea, Hester cannot truly escape the “town,” which represents societal and religious ideals, into the uncontained “forest” and “sea,” both of which represent the ability to make different choices and the capacity for human growth and change. At the conclusion of the story, Hester’s daughter decides not to follow her mother back to America.  I would suggest that both she and her mother have been disillusioned by the scope of the American Dream, and that the narrow freedoms it offers are still too restrictive.

Arthur Miller's The Crucible can be read on an allegorical level as the story of the failure of the American Dream.  In the fifties, McCarthy began to point fingers at his political enemies, igniting a frenzy that was akin to the Salem witchcraft hunt of the 17th century.   Miller himself was blacklisted and, I believe, this experience taught him that the freedoms of individual expression are tenuous and not guaranteed, despite the promises of the First Amendment.  

In Tim O'Brien's book, The Things They Carried, the author relates fictional stories of soldiers during the Vietnam War. During the war, young men were forcibly drafted into the army and into a war that they did not support, believe in or even understand.  I think that O’Brien is presenting a highly critical picture of the callousness of our leaders in sending these young men off to die, and is calling the government out on its failure to protect the rights of the individual.

In Rebecca Skloot’s, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, Henrietta and her family are wronged by the American scientific community on multiple levels.  Henrietta’s personal freedoms were violated when the doctors failed to get informed consent on the use of her cells.  Though there was no active cover-up in the successive two decades, during which the civil rights movement was taking hold, I believe that her descendants were failed by silence--by the passive acceptance of those involved that there was no need to acknowledge Henrietta’s pivotal role.

At the beginning of the semester, when we were asked to write a Declaration of Independence, I declared myself independent from “The Patriarchy that is 21st Century American Society.”  I recognized a series of blatant strikes against the Dream as I wrote about male-centered language, male privilege, slut shaming, indecent media portrayal of women in the media, unequal job opportunity, and unfair wage gaps. I can only hope that I will not be disappointed in adulthood when it is my turn to transform my Dream into a reality, and that I will find the true equality of men and women that it promises.

As I sit here reflecting on this semester (or rather half reflecting and half lamenting the end of shiriyah!), I envision the possibility of success and am not convinced that all American Dream stories need to end in failure or disillusionment, though it makes for good reading and discussion.  Over Thanksgiving weekend, my grandmother shared some fascinating family history with me.   As it turns out, my great-grandfather, Grandpa Sam z”l, was a hobo during the Great Depression. As an 18 year-old, he was without employment for over a year.  He rode the rails from coast to coast looking for day work, earning a pittance in order to keep from starving.  He received occasional handouts from the Salvation Army and benefited from meals in their soup kitchens.  But, years later, he managed to become an insurance salesman, marry my great-grandmother, buy a house, raise a family and send his two daughters off to college. This is the quintessential story of the American Dream!  Given the opportunity, a man pulls himself up by his bootstraps, forges ahead with will and passion, and achieves success–familial, professional and financial.

Last year, The New York Times published a series of articles called The Invisible Child, detailing the life of Dasani, a homeless girl living in New York City.  At the conclusion of the series, Dasani and her family are transferred out of the decaying, moldy, unsafe shelter they had been living in, into their own three-bedroom apartment with a kitchen. They settle in and they are ecstatic to finally have their own place; in their minds, they are living the American Dream. Their transition to a new home is due entirely to the work of the department of social services.  I wonder if this one small act will change the course of Dasani’s life for the better (and I look forward to reading any follow-up articles!)

Concluding the semester with “Twenty-Six Acts of Kindness Day” was incredibly meaningful for me. On that first Wednesday in December, as I sat down to listen to Ms. Schroff [Laura Schroff, author of An Invisible Thread, came to speak to the students and returned to share our Acts of Kindness day with Frisch], I knew that this would be a very different kind of program than I had experienced in the past. The manner in which Ms. Schroff spoke was so genuine that I became convinced that the notion that “one small act of kindness can change a life” had some legitimacy to it.  In the week after, as we prepared for “Twenty-Six Acts of Kindness Day,” I became more and more enamored by the idea and enjoyed thinking up acts that seemed like doable and realistic goals for students.  I felt a surge of pride as I stood at the sign-up table and saw the numbers for myself: 193 people in the Frisch community participated, and we accomplished a total of 233 acts of kindness! Sure, we had sponsored chessed [acts of kindness[ days before, but juxtaposed to Ms. Schroff’s and Maurice’s talks, and with the backdrop of honoring the 26 victims of the Newton Massacre, it felt more meaningful.

Grandpa Sam, Maurice, and Dasani serve as proof that the American Dream can be realized, though so many great writers choose to acknowledge its failure.  But perhaps we would not recognize the American Dream successes without being able to contrast them to the failures.  As I wrote in my Thanksgiving piece earlier this semester, one can only understand light when it is held up against the dark.  With drive and perhaps a little bit of goodwill from others, we can all take advantage of the opportunities living in America affords.  Light can emerge from the darkness.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Resources for PBL

If you want to start incorporating elements of PBL into your classroom but don't know where to begin, how about trying to break down the components and introducing them slowly? You can start with the component that seems easiest, most interesting, or most inspiring to you.

First, let's start by reviewing the different components of PBL:

We're going to focus in this blog post on a few different elements:


The arts can be used in the PBL classroom in many ways: as a final product, as a type of assessment, as a reflective tool and more. Check out why arts integration is an important educational tool:

The arts can also help build deep and beautiful work, as shown here by Ron Berger:


One effect of PBL is deeper learning. But don't take our word for it. Hear it from a student:


Obviously, there's no end to the types of digital media one can incorporate into a PBL project. Ask yourself:

Will I curate content digitally to share with my students as we gather information for a PBL unit? Are students curating the content? If so, are they sharing it on a digital platform? 

Does the class need a cloud-based, knowledge-sharing platform such as Google Drive in order to gather and process information?

Are students creating digital content? Will the content be online and/or for a public audience? 


PBL is for any learner in any setting. Check out what Ron Berger has to say on the subject:

Highlighting Student Work


Our go-to place for rubrics is bie.org. Here's a link to the organization's amazingly useful rubrics:

RubiStar is a rubric-making website you can use to create a rubric. 

Here's a rubric for learning goals that we developed for students to use when they first began a project:


Focus: content

What knowledge do I need to have to complete this project? What knowledge do I want to gain?


Focus: reading or math literacy skills; critical and analytical thinking skills; oral presentation skills (including interviews); etc.
What skills do I need to hone in order to complete this project? What adjunct skills am I going to need to develop?

Focus: artistic and digital media skills

How will I demonstrate my creativity in the assignment in digital and/or artistic ways? Are there additional ways I will demonstrate my creativity?

Focus: being a team player

What will I contribute to the project? How will I use my talents and skills to enhance my group’s work?

Focus: resilience and flexibility and adaptability skills

How did I fail over the course of the project? What did I learn from the failure, and how did I reframe based on my failures?

We've left room for students to fill out the form with four goals per category, but obviously the form should be individualized for each student and course. Students and teachers can also add and subtract categories as needed.



Following are resources from The Frisch School developed by students and teachers, pertaining to all the elements of PBL described in this post. Enjoy!