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How Project-Based Learning Energizes Students and Educators in One District

Tuesday, June 4, 2024

This is the fifth article in a series of articles on Innovation presented by the DPI’s Teaching and Learning Team.

Read Previous Innovation Series Articles:
For One Teacher, PD Leads to Zero G
Pathways to Hope: Innovation Starts Right Where You Are
Educators and Students Are Clamoring for Change and Making It Happen
What Arts Educators Can Teach Us About Cultivating Creativity and Innovation

This article was written by Laura Roeker, Director of the division of Teaching and Learning at the Wisconsin DPI.

A few months ago, several of our DPI staff members had an opportunity to visit West Allis West Milwaukee School District to learn about the innovation they have engaged in around project-based learning. Our visit began at Nathan Hale high school where we sat down with our guide for the day, Adam Hengel. Adam has been an educator in the district for 19 years and has worked as a classroom teacher, assistant principal, principal, and now as the Coordinator of Elementary Instruction.

Adam walked us through the District’s evolution of project-based learning. The District's elementary schools first offered an opportunity for students to self-select to participate in project based learning, and it was so successful, they expanded to offer universal project-based learning throughout their elementary schools. They started with predominantly traditional high school teaching modalities and now have two high schools that host project-based learning communities (Hale and Dottke High Schools).

While innovative school practices are often afforded to predominantly white, affluent communities, the West Allis West Milwaukee School District serves predominantly students of color. The District’s student body is 44.8% white students, 30.4% Latino students, 11.7% Black students, 9.4% students that are two or more races, 2.8% Asian students, and 0.8% American Indian students. Additionally, 63.7% of students are economically disadvantaged.

West Allis West Milwaukee elementary schools are exemplary when it comes to interdisciplinary teaching and authentic learning. During our visit, we saw photographs of students creating boats out of cardboard, testing their buoyancy and capacity in the high school swimming pool. In another grade level, students learned about multiplying fractions by creating a menu for a food truck and determining how much they would need to make in order to have the highest profit margin. This culminated in a night of local food trucks coming and serving the menus the students had created.

In yet another classroom, students partnered with the local ice cream shop to create a “flavor of the day” that would be popular and use ingredients that didn’t cost too much money; the flavor of the day was then featured and sold at the ice cream shop. All of this learning was standards-aligned, rigorous, and differentiated to meet the needs of all learners. However, perhaps the most important aspect of the learning was that it was highly engaging because it was interdisciplinary, rooted in real-world learning, and relevant to students’ lives.

At this point, you might say, “Interdisciplinary teaching at the elementary level is a lot more feasible than in the older grades; how am I supposed to do this when learning is so siloed in high school?”

The West Allis West Milwaukee School District has worked hard at breaking down old structures of scheduling and teacher preparation periods to do just this. At Nathan Hale High School, we joined ninth graders who were conducting their Presentations of Learning on affordable housing in Milwaukee. In this unit of study, the students learned about the affordable housing crisis which disproportionately affects people of color in Milwaukee. Students traced the roots of the affordable housing crisis from the Industrial Revolution, to redlining, to the lack of affordable housing in their very own neighborhoods today. They then learned about Frank Lloyd Wright and how his modern style of architecture could be used in redesigning the neighborhoods that needed more affordable living for the school’s community.

In math class, they used geometry and algebra to redesign local apartment buildings into single-family homes, using knowledge of sustainability and lower-cost building materials to build the homes. In English class, they wrote about these affordable homes, arguing that Milwaukee and West Allis could make living more affordable without costing the cities too much money.

This interdisciplinary approach to learning required the teachers to work collaboratively to ensure their content areas were meeting the necessary standards for students. It also gave the students an opportunity to partner with architecture students at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, who also presented about the project in their collegiate courses. The project ultimately helped students to think critically about a problem facing their community and to take action to remedy the issue. News crews and the mayor of West Allis came to their presentations of learning to hear students’ findings. How much more relevant can learning get?

When we sat down with teachers and students across the district, we were struck by how enthusiastic they were about this mode of teaching and learning. One teacher told us that she could make more money by relocating to another district, but that this style of teaching is so effective and rewarding that she chooses to remain in the school district. Other teachers spoke of the deep engagement they see with students, stating that behavior issues are minimal because students enjoy what they are learning and want to be in the classroom. When meeting with high school students, students spoke about how much they love coming to school and how this model of learning helps them see options they have for the future, options they did not see when they were engaged in traditional models of learning.

These testimonials are important evidence of the impacts of the thoughtful pedagogical process of project-based learning has on students and staff in the West Allis West Milwaukee School District . We are so grateful for the innovative work of the educators and staff at the District and the positive impacts it is having on their school community!