Supporting the Implementation of PBL: An Instructional Coach’s Success Story

Learn how Lisa Burns, an instructional coach at Dean Rusk Middle School in Cherokee County, effectively fostered a STEM and Project Based Learning (PBL) mindset among teachers and students through leveraging relationships, providing comprehensive training, and introducing Defined Learning, leading to enhancing instruction and student engagement.


Lisa Burns always wanted to be an educator. Her dad was a principal and her mom was a special education teacher, so she grew up in a school setting. While she started as a classroom teacher, she knew from the start she wanted a leadership role and ultimately wants to lead her own school. Her first assistant principal pushed her to be an instructional leader and now, in her fourth year as an instructional coach at Dean Rusk Middle School in Cherokee County School District slightly north of Atlanta Georgia, she is meeting that call to lead.

Initially, like many teachers, STEM was not something that Lisa was “super passionate” about. But she tells the teachers she works with that STEM doesn’t just stand for Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics. It also stands for Students and Teachers Energizing Minds. STEM means doing what’s right for kids, which includes teaching the Engineering Design Process, English and Language Arts, Social Studies, and Career Technology. She uses her relationships with the teachers to help enhance their instruction to make it engaging for kids. It’s not just about making instruction fun, but ensuring they are creating products on their own and learning to be their own advocates.

Lisa loves data. She loves instruction, helping teachers in the classroom, and presenting new things, but also lightening teachers’ loads and enhancing what they are already doing in the classroom. “Teachers don’t need one more thing,” she says. Everything the district rolls out, “We Dean Rusk-ize it”. So when Cherokee County School District adopted Defined Learning, Lisa had a plan to help.

The school selected 8 lead teachers to train. Lisa went to each Professional Learning Community (PLC) and said “We are not mandating this. It is something to put in your toolbox. It has the lessons, the resources, and everything you need to implement Project Based Learning (PBL). You can edit things. If you don’t like the rubric, change it.” As the district changed standards and went through an accreditation process, she looked for ways to make Defined Learning look like a solution to a problem rather than an additional tool to learn. Lisa believes that everyone was so easily introduced to Defined Learning as the district went through the STEM accreditation process that teachers took it and ran with it. The teachers started with the 4 C’s: communication, collaboration, critical thinking, and creativity plus engagement, embedding them in four tasks in each unit in ELA. Each little task builds to the final task. Before final submission, students have lots of opportunities to receive feedback. For example, students may participate in argument-driven inquiry labs in science. The students create labs to explore phenomena and do the final lab write up, collaborating together. They hung posters in every classroom, talked about the Engineering Design Process all the time, and kids could be found planning, creating, doing the work, and revising throughout the school. 

Lisa’s support also seems to have gone a long way toward supporting the success of the implementation. “I was new to the role. Nobody knew me. They saw me and said, 'Who is this person? Why is she giving us instructional strategies?' But they saw small successes with individual teachers. Then those teachers told someone. They saw it work, then they wanted to try it and asked for help. Small fires became a blaze.

After training the core 8 teachers the first year, each teacher was tasked with getting their first follower. It could be someone in their PLC, a classroom neighbor, or anyone who might join them in using Defined Learning. They hosted gallery walks for core teachers in STEM to present an instructional strategy for each teacher to come see. Lisa recalls that the rollout was slow. With students, they changed their assessments first. Then they noticed the instruction didn’t match the rigor of the assessments using the project design process. It took time for the collective whole of teachers and students to develop a STEM and PBL mindset. Once the instruction matched the rigor of the assessments, it was relatively easy to implement Defined Learning. The students took ownership of their projects and were proud of their final work because they had already made the mindset switch.

Lisa defines that mindset switch as “sparking the curiosity of students at the beginning of a lesson or unit, getting them interested, and having them see the relevance.” She believes that once that curiosity is sparked, the kids want to know more, they want to find out and investigate their curiosities, participate, and present a final product.

Lisa says, “Overall, our growth in ELA and math was the highest in the county last year. We like to brag about that, but we are not sitting back on our heels saying ‘We’re good, let’s move on.’ We still have a lot to do. A lot of that has to do with PBL and EDP.” She credits the ease of the rollout of Defined Learning to the faculty’s preparation, as well as the ease and layout of the tool. “The teachers don’t have to go to a bunch of places to find resources. It’s all in one spot. It’s done for them. The videos, everything. It’s perfect how it’s laid out.” Now, when she goes into a classroom where students are working on a project, the kids are engaged, and working with their groups. The teacher is helping here and there, but the students are mostly doing the work on their own, Dean Ruskiz-ing Defined Learning and PBL.


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