Tag Archives: PBLL

Thinking about Student Voice and Choice

This note refers to an article posted on Edutopia at this link. It originally was posted on the P21 Bloagazine.

My friend from #LangChat and ACTFL conferences, Marilynn Mansori, has posted a great article on Edutopia! I recommend it to you. The link is posted above.

A quick summary of her note follows.

These four ideas can help teachers start building student voice and choice into language learning.

  1. Use an inquiry approach to language instruction.
  2. Employ personalization strategies that allow students to see themselves in what they learn.
  3. Make the learning relevant to the students.
  4. Invite students to make local and personal connections with the language they study.

To these four points, I would add a 5th, which Meriwynn agreed, is also important for an inquiry-based approach to language learning.

#5. Choose themes of global importance.

Students want to know that they can make a difference in the world. How can we create units which shift the traditional WL curriculum from the typical units of family, food and sports, to more challenging global themes such as world hunger and nutrition, or healthy living in diverse communities?

I love the power of collaboration. Thanks Meriwynn for an inspiring post!


learner centered George


Upon further inquiry on the topic of voice and choice, I came across this excellent infographic by George Couros, and a blog piece by him at this link, on his website, The Principles of Change.

George states:

As I think that leaders should be able to describe what they are looking for in schools I have thought of eight things that I really want to see in today’s classroom.  I really believe that classrooms need to be learner focused. This is not simply that students are creating but that they are also having opportunities to follow their interests and explore passions.  The teacher should embody learning as well.

George advocates for a new kind of classroom interaction and learning, one in which these eight characteristics are visible and normal:

  1. Voice
  2. Choice
  3. Time for Reflection
  4. Opportunities for Innovation
  5. Critical Thinkers
  6. Problem Solvers/Finders
  7. Self-assessment
  8. Connected Learning

That’s what PBLL looks like, and why I love it! I recommend these resources, and there will be more to come. Stay tuned!




Going deeper with PBLL planning

This question was posted recently on Edutopia

Dear Don,

Thank you for your article. I am a French teacher at the American School of New Delhi and I am currently preparing a COETAIL program (Certificate of educational technology and information literacy) . As part of my last course, I have decide to implement a PBL task. I am teaching a beginner group and our next unit is about ‘food’. I have been inspired by your article to ask the students to set up a restaurant in a francophone country. As a novice with PBL, I would be really grateful if you could give me some advice to ensure a succesful and enjoyable experience for my students : do you give your students any vocabulary or structures beforehand? how do you make sure that they communicate with each other in the target language (considering that I have a beginner group, they might use more English than French)? How do you assess them along the way? How do you track individual’s participation in the group? I’ll appreciate any advice, rubrics, resources I could use to help me set up that project. Merci beaucoup!


Hi Julie – you have some GREAT questions! Well done on experimenting with PBLL (project-based language-learning) as well.

I usually introduce a PBLL-aligned unit with some form of comprehensible input in the form of a story related to the learning targets and including a driving question for inquiry. For example, for this “food unit,” the driving question(s) is/are: How can we help to preserve the rich culinary heritage of the Francophone world? The learning targets are formulated in “I can statements” = I can + language function + theme. For example:

  • I can describe how to prepare a recipe from the target culture.
    I can ask and answer questions about the foods of the target culture.
    I can help someone select a dish from a menu.

My story will model all these learning targets. I include key vocabulary and structures (not grammar! but syntactical relationships, or sentence frames) as a model of the language they will learn and produce. My story may have episodes as well, to break it down into segments, as all at once could be overload. I do not provide lists of words, I ask students to share out new words they are learning, and we create a word wall – usually on Padlet.com, but also the walls of the classroom. I am not keen on a “defined list” – I want students to own their vocabulary. There can be choices here.

Students work in groups of four ideally. More is too many, three is the least. They have assigned roles (decided by the group) to ensure everything is done well – project manager, secretary, questioner/clarifier, producer…). I help scaffold interpersonal communication between students with sentence frames – on Padlet and on paper. I also circulate around the room constantly, checking in with groups as they do their research. I ask and answer questions in French, and support their use of the target language. Students are encouraged to use target language as much as possible, but they are not required only to speak French.

I have rubrics for several things: collaboration, critical thinking, creativity, and of course communication: oral and written, in the three modes of communication – interpretive, interpersonal and presentational. I am working on updates of my rubrics, including making variations for novice, intermediate and advanced level fluencies. The ones I have made are on my website at https://drdmd.wordpress.com – see the tab labeled “PBLL” – note that this page is under construction, but there is a link to my old site where there is all I have posted so far. More to come on this! You will find a lot of resources there.

I am writing a “how to” book on PBLL, but it is in draft, not yet done. More to follow on this!

I hope this gets you started! Thanks for your post, and best wishes on your good work!


My PBLL Webinar on Infusing Culture for the NFLRC at University of Hawaii


Driven to Distraction

This article also appears on Edutopia at this link

In a recent post on Edudemic, author Leah Levy suggests “7 Ways to Deal With Digital Distractions in the Classroom.” I appreciated her ideas, and wondered if anyone in our community has other ideas for things that work?! So what do you think? Have you tried something that works?

Personally, I am not keen to “fight the fight” that many of my colleagues choose – not that I blame them, nor am I suggesting that they are wrong to do so. I simply don’t have desire to spend the time or the energy to stop the cultural shift toward tech devices in every hand, 24/7.  I may be guilty of the same thing anyway!

Rather, I prefer to accept that the devices are in hand and in class. I have decided to lay out a set of common agreements, which we all must embrace, including me. We don’t hide them under the table. We use them out in the open in honest, appropriate ways, for academic purposes. I tell my students that I am choosing to trust them, and that if they want me to continue to do so, then we need to keep our agreements. For most students, this works very well, but I must admit, there are times when it does not and I am disappointed.

Then again, there has never been a time in my 32 years of teaching that everything went perfectly 100% of the time! Why should things be any different today? And are the technology devices really any more of a challenge than things in the past? I really rather doubt it.

Your turn now. What have you tried that helps you keep your cool, and your sanity? No ranting here, please, just frank discussion about how we can “psyche” ourselves into shifting in good ways, so we stay the course.

I look forward to your thoughts!



The Value of Reflection

This post first appeared on Edutopia at this link

One of the more challenging aspects of PBL is keeping kids on track with the details of the project. Rubrics help a lot, however, students don’t always understand rubrics the same way we do. We need to work on making them more student friendly, for example by using ‘I can’ statements under each category and level of achievement. Even when we design excellent rubrics, students do not necessarily read them attentively. My Spanish teacher colleague and I recently designed a reflection tool to give to students to evaluate their own work, as well as each of their group members. We had some positive results from using this tool, so I thought to share the idea with you to consider for your own purposes. The reflection tool contains the rubrics for the given project – in this case, the first rubric was for first year French students who had to create a menu for a restaurant serving the cuisine of a Francophone country of their choice. The menu had to include at least five categories and twenty-five items, priced in local currency, with an appropriate address, phone number, a few pictures of food items, and laid out in a manner typical for a menu in the target country. The second rubric was for a speech based on the menu. Students were asked to play the role of the owner of the restaurant they had created. I gave them a template as an example speech since they needed guidance in creating the presentation, and were invited to make the speech on their own by adding in relevant personal observations, as well as appropriate details from their menus. Students were asked to describe their menu offerings, the prices of some items, and to make some recommendations. They also needed to welcome their clients, and invite them to enjoy the meal. Naturally, we also have rubrics for the four C’s of PBL – creativity, critical thinking, collaboration, and communication. Students have an on-going need to reexamine these rubrics as well, to help them internalize the expectations of their learning objectives in PBL. The students were asked to rate themselves according to the rubrics. They were also asked to rate each member of their group, but only on the speech portion of the project. Although their evaluations were not necessarily the same as mine, it offered an opportunity for deeper discussion of the standards, of academic rigor, of quality product, of exemplars of each of the four C’s. etc. In addition to the rubrics, I wanted the students to think about their time management, their work ethic, and their attention to details, so I added in some questions to answer on this matters as well. Overall, I think the tool was very effective, so I plan to keep using it for several projects over the course of the school year. Even so, it it important to remember that the objective is the learning, not the teaching. I am more concerned that students grow over time, than that they know every specific detail I have possibly taught. There is no guarantee that students will internalize every word or verb form I have shown them. However, the skills they have learned will remain much longer. That includes reflection, in addition to the four C’s, and communication skills in French in appropriate cultural contexts, such as going to a restaurant in Québec, Tahiti, Paris or Dakar. What about you? Have you tried some type of reflection tool to help your students think about their own learning? Please post a comment below and share your ideas!

Until next time, Don

Engaging Today’s Learners

This article and discussion was first posted on Edutopia at this link.

I have thought a lot about student engagement in the 31 years I have been teaching teens. How about you? In fact, I would say this is one of the most intriguing questions for inquiry I have investigated, while at the same time never thinking that I have arrived at an ultimate conclusion beyond this: I still have work to do to engage my students! Just when I think I have found a surefire new technique, a new student comes along to push me back to digging through my tool box of ideas.

Resources on Engagement


There are a bunch of resources on Edutopia to consider. Check out these posts, for example:

One of my other favorite resources is ASCD. Here are a few things available on their site:


Today’s teens are not so very different from the past. They want their learning to be meaningful, fun, and especially, they want it to be engaging. I have found a number of tech tools that my students enjoy using, such as Todaysmeet.com, Padlet, and Edmodo.



I use wikis to create multimedia language learning opportunities for my students based on the themes of our inquiry. The wikis are loaded with videos, language learning games, input on various aspects of language and culture… I add to my various pages as the needs arise in response to the students inquiry and needs to know. I seek to direct them to many sources as a home base rather than merely turning them loose to go all over the internet. I am not opposed to that, I just recognize that we have 55 minutes a day together, and I want the time to be well spent. I consider this to be part of my coaching.

PBLL as engagement

As for PBLL itself… I love PBLL because it IS engaging! Whenever we offer students opportunities for voice and choice, opportunities to be creative, to make the learning personally relevant and meaningful, we create greater incentives for students to be engaged. I have enjoyed seeing students come alive and excited simply because of the increased opportunities for meaningful exploration based on their own interests, curiosity, the desire to know. I have often wondered what has happened to students who are apathetic about learning. Little children are naturally interested to explore and know. Why not teens and adults, for that matter? We build bridges to connect our students to the real world when we truly engage them with meaningful inquiry.

Language-learning as engagement

I have always wanted every student to be successful in my classes. I truly believe that anyone who already speaks a language can also learn another. Language is innate to we humans, so it should just be a given that anyone can acquire second or third language. It has been a real challenge in a very monolingual cultural context to help people believe it is possible! In much of the world, knowing 2, 3, 4, or more languages is normal. In America, even in such a diverse place as California, it often feels like a battle to convince people to believe that it is doable. The big problem is we have told the public that language learning ought to be reserved only for those going to college because the belief is that it is too hard for many people to learn another language. In addition, even those going to college are told that they need take only 2 years of a language, when it takes about 6 years to reach advanced fluency in a language similar to English like Spanish or French. So, my efforts to engage students in their own language learning have included the need to support them to take language classes over a period of years, not just one or two. I want students to become communicatively proficient, not experts of verb conjugations which they will never use in real life! Engagement has been an essential component to my teaching all these years.

Teachers as agents of engagement

One more thing. I need to be engaged too. When I think about being in the classroom for 31 years, I must stop to ask where all those years have gone. What has kept ME going all this time? It is not just a love for kids, even though that is a big part of what makes teaching a wonderful career, but it is also about the opportunity to grow and learn for myself as well. I wanted to be a teacher in large part because I love being a student. I have a job where they pay me to learn in community with others. I have often been asked why it takes so many hours a week to teach. People have wondered why I would keep changing the curriculum if it is already working, or why I feel the need not to use a textbook. I think people are well meaning, but honestly, if I were to recycle year after year the same thing, 35 or more times for a whole career, wouldn’t that be odd? I would easily grow board with what I teach because I NEED to learn, constantly to be renewed, growing, not stagnant. I think the best way to engage students is to be excited about learning new things all the time. If I can pass along a desire to rekindle the natural curiosity of childhood to those around me, I will have done a good thing, I believe. Not that it is about doing a good thing, but rather, it is about experiencing meaningful community by sharing inquiry one with another. That has truly been the best part of being a teacher these many years.

What about you?

Have I whet your appetite to share? Got any ideas to pass along? In your experience, what has worked well? What hasn’t? What have you learned from your own inquiry into student engagement? I would love to know about your experiences with student engagement. Or collegial collaboration. Or personal pursuits which have been meaningful in your teaching journey…






Using Project-Based Learning to Teach World Languages

This post first appeared on Edutopia at this link.

Editor’s Note: Today’s guest blogger is Don Doehla, French teacher and instructional coach at Vintage High School in Napa, California. Don recently stepped up to become the new facilitator of our World Languages group. He’s got some great ideas for teaching world languages, including the use of project-based learning. He shares a few of these tips today. We hope you’ll join him in the World Languages group as well. 

The world may be small and flat, but it is also multilingual, multicultural, and more and more, it is an interconnected world. Consequently, cross cultural communicative competencies are increasingly important for mutual understanding and cooperation – how is that for some alliteration?! Our students’ need to be able to communicate with their neighbors, here and abroad, is increasing with every moment which passes! The borders separating our countries are diminishing in importance as the global culture emerges. The definition of who my neighbor is has changed as well. No longer are we isolated from what is happening across the globe. Recent events demonstrate this quite well! Examples abound for everyone on the planet. We must be able to communicate well and proficiently across the kilometers which separate us.

The Challenges

Like other World Language teachers, I am constantly trying to focus on the essentials in order to create a standards-driven, communication-based curriculum for my students. I am also keen on addressing the necessary skills students must acquire for the 21st century as outlined in the wonderful document from the Carnegie Institute available at www.p21.org. How can I know whether I have achieved my desired objective? I need authentic assessments to evaluate target language proficiencies, while offering opportunities for greater engagement, for working in collaborative teams, for developing critical thinking skills, for managing precious time and resources, for emphasizing global themes, and for preparing students toward the new AP exam in French starting next year! On top of that, I want them to learn how to use proficiently the wonderful technology tools now available. Sound familiar? We work hard as teachers! Darn hard! Oui, monsieur, dur, dur!

The Rationale for PBL

And so I come to project-based learning as a way of bringing it all together. Projects provide opportunities for students to engage in real life communication, in context, with real people, and across the globe. I try to align my projects according to the California WL Standards, and the fluency stages of the Language Learning Continuum found in chapter 2 of the California World Languages Framework. I also keep the 21st Century skills in mind, along with the more familiar five C’s from ACTFL, and the many things I have learned about literacy, and cross-cultural issues. I have found that the projects address all these things and more. I have tried to make sure that they also offer students the opportunity to be creative and to explore their potentials and aspirations. It is a lot of fun to see this in action. How about some examples?

Stage 1 Fluency Example: The Menu Project

In this project, students play the role of a restaurant owner who needs to develop and create a menu for his/her restaurant established in one of the target language countries of the world. Their menus must have at least five categories, and twenty-five items, all authentic dishes of the target culture of their choice within the Francophone world. They must decide on an appropriate name, create an address, phone number, website and twitter account name, consistent with examples they find on-line from authentic restaurants of the target culture. Their menu items must be priced in the local currency, converted in an appropriate manner for the target culture. The students then do a speech either in small groups or for the whole class in which they speak to the group as the restaurant owner, suggesting good dishes, specialty items, etc. They must say at least 15 sentences, and can either present live or on video. I have a rubric for the menu and one for the speech, and am looking for Stage 1 fluency, namely, formulaic language (memorized chunks of discourse combined with lists of works). I find that the kids learn a lot about a country of their choice, while having fun being creative!

Stage 2 Fluency Example: The Children’s Story Book

We refer to stage two fluency as created language. The premise here is that students take the formulae that they have learned so well in stage one, and combine them together into their own created sentences. These statements no longer sound like memorized sound bites given back in the same formula, but rather in individualized, self directed expressions of thoughts and ideas. The sentences are frequently complex, but do not contain subordinate clauses of the kind requiring specialized verb forms. They also do not necessarily have to be strung together in a particular order to make sense – if we were to reorder them, they would make just as much sense in the new order. In other words, these are lists of sentences, but the order of the lists are not significant.

I have developed a project to measure this stage of fluency which I call the Story Book project. Students create a set of characters who live in one of the target language countries. They write the story as if the main character were describing his life when he was five years old (which requires the imperfect tense in French). The students then describe a big event which occurred in the life of the character, such as his first day of school, and then the things which happened in that day (requiring the use of the passé composé in French). They need to research what a child’s life is like in the target culture and create an authentic and visually rich situation for the story’s setting. I usually ask students to write about 5 sentences per page, and about ten pages total. They do rough drafts and peer editing. I also look at the drafts and highlight what is correct, and make some suggestions for corrections. The editing process is a learning experience of its own.

As students write their stories, they cannot help but compare their own lives with those of the characters they have created. The compare and contrast paradigme creates a good context for created language. It also allows students to try out their knowledge of how to narrate in past time frames, and demonstrate that they know how to use the various past tenses typical of the second year language curriculum. We often find that students reach what we call “linguistic breakdown” as they use various verb forms, but they do not necessarily do so at the syntactic level. They are able to make the sentence structures fit together well, even when their verb forms are not always correct. Frankly, I think this is great! When my focus is on the fluency stage, and not on distinct verb forms, I find that my students are actually progressing very well in their journey toward language acquisition. In time, they will perfect their use of verb forms, but in the meantime, they are clearly able to communicate at a higher level of fluency even if their accuracy is not yet up to par. We do want accuracy, of course, but in terms of fluency, this is a lesser problem for communication than is the sentence structure.

Stage 3 Fluency Example: The ABC Book Project

In stage three fluency, the text type I am aiming for is planned language, ie, paragraphing, in which there is a topic sentence, supported by concrete details and commentary, and a concluding sentence to sum up the important ideas. In French, this requires that students know how to create complex sentences, using main and subordinate clauses, requiring the subjunctive, or “if/then” type sentences, requiring imperfect/conditional tenses, among others (other languages may require knowledge of other paradigms as well). I have done this project over the course of a whole semester, breaking it down in smaller parts over time, and with the focus being Québec. We study many different aspects of Québécois culture: short stories, poems, song lyrics, historical texts, current events… The students do smaller projects along the way, but as a result of their inquiry, they write a page on each topic of their choice. I have them write 20 pages, one for each of 20 letters of the alphabet, according to their choice. An example page might look like this in English:

Q is for Québec City (title sentence). Québec is the capital city of the province of Quebec, and sits on a bluff overlooking the Saint Lawrence River (topic sentence). It seems to me that the people of Québec have much for which they may be proud (detail). It is necessary that they invest wisely in the maintenance of their historical monuments, because it preserves the diversity of their historical heritage (commentary). If I were to visit Québec, I would want to look out over the Saint Lawrence from the Terasse Dufferein so I could enjoy the beautiful view of the river and of the Ile d’Orléans (commentary). If I went to Québec in winter, I would go during the Carnaval so I could participate in the many activities (commentary). It is interesting that the local accent is different in Québec than in France. (commentary). If I go to Québec, I will practice speaking French with the local people and hope that I will be able to understand their accent without any problems (conclusion).”

This is a fair amount of work for one page, let alone twenty, so I provide a page template for students to use to be sure they keep on track. I have them do rough drafts of each page. When they turn in the drafts, I highlight what is correct and return the pages. The students may resubmit the pages with corrections until they have perfected their work. In this way, I am reinforcing their own editing process, and helping them to focus on the details they might otherwise overlook. This project has proven to be great fun, and I have found that by the end of the semester, they have mastered complex sentences and paragraphing quite well.

Future Plans

Next year, I plan to augment my project-based approach by connecting my classes with classes in 3 Francophone countries – France, Canada, and Sénégal. I want the students to collaborate with their peers across the world in writing digital stories which they will post on the web for their friends to read, and so they can offer comments and engage in conversations about the stories. I plan to have the students explore many story genres, including comic strips, manga, short stories and poems, and other kinds of writing as their interests are piqued. The many web 2.0 applications which are now available will be a big help in giving students the tools they need to write and create their stories. I expect the project to provide greater opportunities for engagement, creativity, problem solving, and collaboration ? ie, they will learn to communicate in French while learning 21st century skills!

Let’s have some fun, too! Join the conversation. Post an idea on the Edutopia WL group. Need an idea? Got a question? Found a cool website, app or tool? Let’s collaborate as well! Shall we get started? Thanks in advance for sharing your ideas ? together is better!