Professional Learning for PBL Champions

Hanging on the fence outside the entrance to Walt Whitman High School is a banner with a quote by the school’s namesake “Happiness is not in another place, but this place… not for another hour, but for this hour.” Students who attend Walt Whitman High School or any of Los Angeles Unified School District’s (LAUSD) Local District West “Option” schools have an extra dose of happiness added to their schedules this year: a cohort of their teachers are working to become Project-Based Learning (PBL) Champions. 


This semester-long program involves teachers from Walt Whitman, Richard Alonzo Community Day, Phoenix, Duke Ellington, and Chaviot Hills High Schools along with their principals. The program goals include moving towards an integrated curriculum that uses PBL to drive integration, as well as building PBL capacity and culture through each school. In year one, teachers from each school committed to a 4-day in-person cohort program led by Defined Learning mentors, creating a multi-school Professional Learning Community (PLC) that serves as an internal network of support. This network works together to build capacity across the schools and district in the work of project-based teaching and learning with a focus on student engagement, authenticity, and success.


Components of the program include the use of the Defined learning platform and on-demand PD modules featuring author Jay McTighe, as well as in-person professional development in the summer and fall of the 2021-2022 school year with virtual check-ins as needed between sessions. In addition, each participant will complete 11 micro-credentials to achieve an LAUSD PBL Medallion, which can be used for salary points as part of LAUSD’s district-wide professional development program. 


From the first day of in-person PD, this group was excited to get started! Teachers and principals worked together to design backpacks for a variety of southern California use to learn how to design authentic tasks. Then the groups worked together to design aquariums that could be placed in a school lobby, a Las Vegas Casino, or as a traveling tank that goes from school to school. Teams quickly converted these experiences into projects for their students this fall, earning additional micro-credentials from Communicating With Families to Providing Scaffolding and Planning for Student Voice and Choice, to work toward their LAUSD PBL Medallion.


The LAUSD PBL Medallion is made up of Defined Learning micro-credentials that are categorized into stacks that align with and are a synthesis of the big ideas from the Charlotte Danielson and Robert Marzano teacher effectiveness frameworks often used to evaluate teachers and leaders. Within the stacks are opportunities for teachers to demonstrate their understanding of PBL practices and processes, encouraging a common language and strategies to support teaching and learning through a PBL lens.


As staff at each school work to create a PBL culture, students are learning project-management skills, developing growth mindsets and expressing creativity as they collaborate with their peers. Teachers are learning to provide scaffolding for English Language Learners, practicing mindfulness, and presenting to authentic audiences. School leaders are reorganizing school schedules to include “PBL Fridays” where students work on interdisciplinary projects for an entire school day and inviting community partners to participate in activities like debating the pros and cons of Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) or investigating local crime statistics in connection with a novel study on The Hate U Give.


One Phoenix High School teacher shared, “Our official school-wide launch on our first PBL was a success! You could see our students were really engaged, and it felt great (personally) that our whole school was on it.” 


Simone Charles, principal of Walt Whitman High School who organized the cohort and is completing the Medallion alongside her staff describes a project she is working on: “I am working with my students in collaboration with my science teacher on a tranquility garden to promote the social-emotional well-being of students, faculty and staff following school closures.” In one product (an essay), a student wrote, “This project can benefit us so much in the near future because we might not know what other kids are going through and people like them might need somewhere to work or feel relieved just by having the garden.” alongside a list of suggested plants and herbs to create a “relaxing aroma”. 


After completing the Using GRASP (Goal, Role, Audience, Situation, Products) to Frame a Task micro-credential, one participant shared that, “The GRASP model provided the teacher and administration to create a PBL goal for students. Students were assigned or chose a role in the project and applied their learning to a real-world situation, applying kinesthetic, tactile, auditory, and communication learning. The product created a holistic learning experience.”


This combination of in-person professional development, ongoing support, and independent application of skills is quickly creating a culture of teaching and learning that values investigation, creativity, student voice, and interdisciplinary application of knowledge and skills. Students know the work they do in class is meaningful and connected. They also know their teachers and administrators care deeply about their success in school. Another Walt Whitman quote captures the work of these dedicated educators and their students, “We convince by our presence.” The work of the LAUSD PBL Champions cohort certainly convinces that investing in job-embedded professional development leads to high levels of engagement and application of skills for adults and students!

About the author:

Meghan Raftery is a curriculum consultant with special interests in authentic learning, literacy and content integration, and student engagement.  She can be reached at


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