Project-Based English 12–Semester One


What is English 12?

That’s the question my colleague Ms. J and I found ourselves asking last summer, as we prepared to roll out a brand new version of senior language arts. Our department had found a need for a new way of looking at things as the new Common Core State Standards were being presented, 21st century skills were becoming the most touted measuring stick for student achievement post-high school, and voices in our community were calling for graduates who were more professionally savvy. Our previous English 12 courses were very traditional literature-based classes, with no real identity to ground them as anything other than a basic senior English course. Our vision was to completely revamp the curriculum: Align curriculum to the standards. Create a project-based course that gives freedom and ownership to the students. Find ways to constantly connect learning to the community and to real life experiences. We hoped to see higher student engagement/buy-in, higher achievement, and an emerging professional demeanor in our students.

Here’s what we came up with:What’s English 12? Infographic

As the year unfolded, the students were occasionally mystified or daunted by the new, challenging things we were asking of them. The largest of these is the senior research proposal, paper, and project. Students are asked to select a defining topic that pertains to their interests, skills, or future plans. Throughout the year, they develop research on that topic which eventually results in a project, of their own design, that the students display for the community at the end of the year showcase. During semester one, we’ve planted the seeds for this epic undertaking in several special ways. I’ve given a snapshot below.

September – October: Introduced “big picture” of course, linking to Tony Wagner’s idea of Passion, Play, and Purpose as the most important cornerstones of learning that creates innovation and creativity. Students were asked to begin considering their topic choices, keeping these ideas in mind.

Early November: Over 30 local professionals from many different fields were our guests at the Professional Symposium, an event designed for students to learn more about the real expectations of the different corners of the work world. Each professional had a table where they brought in things related to their career (like a model of a human spine, a laptop video display, architectural drafts, plants…). The students, who were required to dress professionally, then circulated and asked both prepared and impromptu interview questions to prompt conversations. Students also had important roles in the event, such as being in charge of lighting/sound and giving the closing address. This experience offered important insight, and helped several students select a topic.

Late November: Students were required to select their topics by this time. (True to the student-ownership goal, these ranged from the history of comics to Spina Bifida awareness to Bigfoot to sports medicine.) We took the students on a research field trip to the Golda Meir Library at UW-Milwaukee. The staff worked amazingly well with our massive group of students. During this experience, our rural students got to see what a respected university library is like, and they had access to a nearly-endless collection of both digital and print resources to inform their topic. They spent the day taking resource-specific notes and refining their topic choices.

December: In class, we offered instruction on specialized research skills, like how to conduct an email interview, using electronic databases, how to take notes, and choosing what to read in a lengthy  source. During this unit, students wrote a detailed annotated bibliography of 20+ credible sources related to their topics. Students were expected to give periodic reports to the full class about their reading and discoveries.

January: For the semester exam, students were asked to write a formal proposal for their researchEnglish 12 Research Proposal. I was so impressed with my students’ overall excitement and true scholarship associated with their topics. I found myself reading things like…

  • “Philosophy does not get the respect and credit it well deserves. Few people in the world today realize how much philosophy has impacted society and the human race. My stance on this is that philosophy is an invaluable and irreplaceable building block to modern knowledge.” Alex L.
  • “I would say that modern comics are stepping away from old ideas and greeting new ones more openly as well as [showing a] more true step into maturity, unlike the hollow, pandering “maturity” of the 90’s. This is evident in things like superhero comics becoming somewhat less popular, indie and comics that deal with much different subject matters than the mainstream seeing much more popularity, the early 2000’s seeing the abandoning of the comics code almost altogether, and the far more respectful portrayal of modern war and tragic events like 9/11.” Stephen P.

  • “The juvenile system has flourished over time and helps create life saving opportunities for adolescents. Continuing over each generation adolescents will do bad things, but it is the system’s job to help save their lives, and create a better tomorrow. I arrived at my stance through trial and error. First I wanted to research the history of juvenile justice, but then I decided I want to find out what the juvenile system can offer adolescents. What can the system do for kids whose families have given up on them? Samantha S.

Our students have already grown so much in intellectual and professional maturity throughout this process, and I can tell that they are feeling proud to call this class their own. I’m looking forward to second semester, to see what happens as more and more responsibility is released over to them, and they are enabled and empowered to do interesting, contributive things. Students light up when you ask them about the right things–we’re channeling the power of those right things in order to activate remarkable learning.

Things I’ve already observed during semester one of English 12:

-Project-based learning is just as powerful as all the research claims it us! It targets a comprehensive skill set dealing with academics, technology, and professional demeanor.

-Project-based learning is absolutely achieveable in a public school environment, with all levels of students, though those who need to grow in their ability to self-direct have the most work to do to succeed. This type of format requires educators who are able to and interested in keeping close tabs on the progress/development of each individual.

-Project-based learning helps students, even those prone to “senioritis” remember how much they actually do love to learn.

Things I’m still wondering:

-How does project-based learning look in other senior classes around the state and country? Do you teach one or know of one? Please share! Examples have not been the easiest to find.

-What are the best assessment techniques for such a wide variety of outcomes? While many aspects of student acheivement are observable in this format, measuring it objectively and accurately may become a challenge. Are there any educators out there with ideas about this?


  1. Josh Przybylski said:

    How did this class come to be? How long did you spend planning and designing it? Tell me about support you got from administration and the community? How much did it cost to bring in professionals and run a field trip to the library? Is this a semester course or a year-long course? Where is the line between keeping close tabs on student progress and letting them manage their own time and work in their own way? In short, how do I get from where I am to this, which sounds like some kind of fantasy set in a world full of intellectuals, rainbows, and fairy dust?

    • Ms. H said:

      Hi, Josh! 🙂 I’ll do my best to address your questions one by one.

      How did this class come to be? Our whole department agreed upon the need to seriously redesign our senior English classes, which had a major identity crisis, elements of tracking, and lackluster student engagement. We took it upon ourselves to design a new, better concept for English 12.

      How long did we spend planning and designing it? We started two years ago, spending a full day of professional development time as a department and many additional hours of reading and research, to define our ideas about the class. We came up with a proposal and presented it, with accompanying supporting research, to our administrators including the superintendent. After getting their tentative approval, we had to present to the school board, which approved a kind of blended “pilot” in a couple sections of senior English. My counterpart taught the blended pilot last year to test out some of the ideas and see what results came of it. Her results were good and reinforced support from the board and administration, and we were granted permission to officially roll the full class out this year. She and I spend 20+ hours of time this summer collaborating to hash out the basics of our approach/schedule. It… is ambitious.
      Event costs? Our professionals for the symposium were recruited via an invitational letter that we sent to the press, included in our school newsletter, and via personal recommendations from staff and students. They participated on a volunteer basis, though we did provide them with coffee. We designed, hosted, and ran everything in house. It was held in our school auditorium. UW-Milwaukee is kind enough to offer library support in an educational forum at no charge as well. It cost us the bus ride.
      The line between keeping close tabs on students and letting them manage their own time? This is kind of an instinctual thing for me. I know my students pretty well, and I adapt my interference accordingly! That being said, the students are aware that they will gain responsibility and independence as the year goes on.
      How do you get here? Talk to your department! See if they’re on board. If this is an undertaking you’d be attempting on a solo basis, do your homework. (Twitter hashtag #PBLchat is all about project-based learning and may be a good place to start dabbling.) You could also send me an email or Facebook message and I’d be glad to talk shop beyond mere blog comments.

      Happy teaching! 😀 *sprinkles intellectual fairy dust*

  2. Caroline said:

    How did you initially pitch this idea to your students? My students have precious little experience with being self-directed in the classroom, and I can just see the tears of frustration if I started the year with such a broad, open topic. I love the idea… how would I pitch it to the kids?

    • Ms. H said:

      That’s a really good question, Caroline! We did a couple things to ease the transition a bit. The first step was a letter to parents at the end of the school year before implementation, explaining the new structure of the class and the new expectations. Once the year began, we always had the final project in view, and would reference it from the very beginning, even though we were mainly building skills together at that point–we didn’t want the self-directed focus of semester two to come as a rude shock. We also used the visual timeline that I’ve included in this post as a visual guide for the whole picture of the year–we returned to it every few weeks or so. And… there were still some tears of frustration… but we worked really hard to coach each student as a whole person and be strong mentors for them when they felt lost/overwhelmed. It is a hard thing for students, especially those who are used to a very traditional, structured model, to adjust to project-based learning. But the confidence and independence that they gain is truly joyful to watch, if you’re brave enough to weather the tears. 🙂 I’d love to hear more about any way in which you modify or use our English 12 template. Please let me know how it goes if you do! Happy new school year!!!

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