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(Note to math folks: In this post we discuss the Common Core ELA standards and how a high school social studies project aligns with them, but the 4 key considerations apply to math as well. Stay tuned for another post on CCSS Math and PBL.)

You see the phrase “CCSS Aligned” everywhere these days, from textbook publishers to district offices to teachers’ lesson plans. But when someone says their PBL unit is aligned to the Common Core, it has to mean more than a laundry list of standards the project “addresses.” It’s true that PBL serves as an excellent vehicle for helping students meet the standards for ELA and for Literacy in History/Social Studies, Science, and Technical Subjects. But projects must be carefully designed and managed to help students grow as readers, writers, listeners, and speakers.

To ensure full alignment to Common Core, we see five key considerations for project designers: 

1. Products

The major products and performances students complete in the project should engage them in a rigorous combination of reading, writing, listening, and speaking about the topic of investigation, as they develop their answer to the Driving Question. Teachers should also build the critical thinking skills contained in the Common Core standards.

Example: At City Arts and Technology High School in San Francisco, The California Propositions Project challenged student teams to create 30-second video commercials to “change a voter’s mind” about a California proposition in an upcoming election. The students presented their commercials to a public audience and also wrote individual argumentative essays. To complete these products, the teacher required students to meet several Common Core standards, including:

  • Grade 11-12 Writing 1: “Write arguments to support claims in an analysis of substantive topics or texts, using valid reasoning and relevant and sufficient evidence.”
  • Grade 11-12 Writing 8: “Gather relevant information from multiple authoritative print and digital sources, using advanced searches effectively; assess the strengths and limitations of each source in terms of the task, purpose, and audience; integrate information into the text selectively to maintain the flow of ideas…”
  • Grade 11-12 Reading Informational Text 6: “Determine an author’s point of view or purpose in a text and analyze how the author acknowledges and responds to conflicting evidence or viewpoints.”
  • Grade 11-12 Speaking and Listening 1: “Initiate and participate effectively in a range of collaborative discussions… building on others’ ideas and expressing their own clearly and persuasively.”
  • Grade 11-12 Speaking and Listening 2: “Integrate multiple sources of information presented in diverse formats and media (e.g., visually, quantitatively, orally) in order to make informed decisions and solve problems, evaluating the credibility and accuracy of each source and noting any discrepancies among the data.”

2. Rubrics

Rubrics for a project’s major products should be based on Common Core standards, both in terms of the criteria and the wording. It’s Ok to add more criteria based on the particular goals and products in a project, but be sure the rubric is written to help you assess specific standards. Use the language from the standard in your rubric’s “Meets Standard” column, and repeat key terms and phrases in the column describing what it means to approach the “Meets Standard” level.

Example: In the California Propositions Project, the teacher used a rubric for argumentative writing to guide and assess students as they wrote their individual essays. One row in the rubric focused on the criterion, “Strength of Argument” and the “Meets Standard” column included this line from CC Writing Standard 1b:

“The student develops claims and counterclaims fairly and thoroughly, supplying the most relevant evidence for each.”

To guide students in making effective oral presentations when they introduced their commercials to a public audience, the Presentation Rubric used language directly from CC Speaking and Listening Standard 6:

“The student adapts speech for the context and task, demonstrating command of formal English when appropriate.”

3. Scaffolding

The project should be structured to provide space for inquiry, yet include careful scaffolding of the identified Common Core standards.

Example: The California Propositions Project was carefully scaffolded to enable students to build understanding and skills through a combination of workshops and protocol-based lessons provided by the teacher, text resources, fieldwork, and interactions with experts. For example, early on in the project, the teacher facilitated the Structured Controversy Protocol to help students gain deep understanding of all positions related to controversial proposition issues (Speaking and Listening 1). Later in the project, the teacher had students use a “Follow the Argument Road” graphic organizer to help them determine whether the author’s evidence sufficiently supports claims in texts related to proposition issues (Reading: Informational Text 8). During Writer’s Workshop, students used an Argument Model Graphic Organizer to craft arguments to support their claims about their propositions using valid reasoning and relevant evidence (Writing 1).

4. Text Complexity

One of the key requirements of the Common Core is that all students read texts of steadily increasing complexity as they progress through school. By the time they graduate, students must be able to, as Anchor Standard 10 states, “Read and comprehend complex literary and informational texts independently and proficiently.”

To meet this goal, projects should be designed to include a diverse list of reading materials at the right level of complexity to explore the topic of investigation and answer the Driving Question. Students should receive explicit instruction on how to read closely and unpack complex texts with increasing independence, handle frustration, and demonstrate perseverance. Throughout the inquiry process in a project, learning experiences should be designed to drive students back to the text and encourage them to formulate evidence-based reasoning.

Example: In the California Propositions Project, students developed understanding about their propositions through close reading of a diverse set of complex texts, including the voter information guide from the state government and articles written by various stakeholders. Students synthesized information gained through their reading, conducted market research by interviewing voters, analyzed campaign videos, and interviewed experts to create reasoned, evidence-based arguments for or against their proposition.

5. Formative Assessment

During a multi-week project in which students need to understand a topic in depth and create high-quality products, working independently from the teacher some of the time, teachers need to make sure students are “getting it” as well as getting it done. Project plans should include formative assessment of the identified Common Core standards frequently and at key checkpoints during the project.

Example: In the California Propositions Project, the teacher facilitated peer critique processes and provided his own written feedback to assess progress toward the standards at key checkpoints during the project, such as:

  • Summary of the proposition pro and con arguments (Writing 8 & 9)
  • Draft of argumentative essay (Writing 1 & 5)
  • Video script and storyboard (Speaking and Listening 4 & 5)
  • Draft 30-second commercial rough cut feedback session (Speaking and Listening 4 & 5)
By paying attention to these five areas, project designers can be sure they are on the right track toward reaching Common Core goals.




Hangout with BIE: Common Core and Project Based Learning - Part II

John Larmer and Sara Hallermann discuss how projects should be designed to align with Common Core, from products to rubrics to reading materials to formative assessment.