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By Jason Lui, teacher, Langley

Teaching during this pandemic has taken its toll. It’s been difficult to find the silver lining, but one of the positives I’ve experienced is collaboration with my colleagues on project-based learning (PBL).

As an elementary English language learner (ELL) teacher, I work in a non-enrolling position. Before COVID-19, I was primarily providing tier two and tier three support under the Response to Intervention framework. This means I mostly worked with small groups and individual students in providing specific literacy support. 

When COVID-19 struck, many of our educational systems had to pivot in accordance with new and necessary safety protocols. I can no longer invite students from different classrooms to work in small group settings. Nor can I cross cohorts and work with students individually. My familiarity with the pre-COVID approach of providing tier two and tier three ELL support was no longer feasible. Hence, the idea of co-planning and co-teaching in the classroom as tier one support (support for the entire class) came to the forefront.

This tier one approach allowed me to work with four different divisions of Grade 4 and 5 students. I was able to work with the specific ELL students on my caseload while respecting COVID-19 safety protocols. Even better, I got a chance to co-plan and co-teach with four fantastic homeroom (enrolling) teachers. At the start of the school year, I met with each teacher individually and proposed a PBL approach that would help all students develop their language and literacy skills.

My journey with PBL started in August 2017 when I reluctantly gave up one full week of summer break to participate in a PBL course. That week turned out to be a blessing in disguise. It invited me to more fully understand PBL and create a PBL unit that I could use immediately.

The course provided guiding questions to address while planning a PBL unit. By integrating these guiding questions into the planning stage, PBL can better enrich and empower student learning. Here are some examples of guiding questions:

  • What “big ideas” do you want students to deeply understand?
  • Which competencies (core and curricular) will students practise?
  • How will students have choice and voice?
  • What are the final products students will produce?
  • Who will be the audience for the presentation?
  • How will the PBL be launched in order to hook the students?
  • How can it be authentic and contribute to the community?

With this new knowledge, I created a project called the Nicomekl News. The Nicomekl News is a year-long passion project that integrates ELL instruction with other subject areas. As a final product, students create online passion stories that include images and narrations. 

Nicomekl News is far from being a perfect PBL unit, and I constantly look for ways to re-adjust and make it better. Each of the four teachers I am working with this year has helped grow and improve this unit. For example, in one class, we tied in the teachers’ lessons on inference. These lessons were useful for students at the research and script-writing stages of the project. In another class, we co-taught lessons on paraphrasing and avoiding plagiarism. Overall, teacher collaboration has been vital in improving and progressing this PBL unit.

Most students in all four divisions have been very motivated throughout this project. That being said, I am grateful for our flexible timeline on this project—it allows time to navigate with those learners who feel unmotivated or need additional supports. In other words, the span of the year gives time to formatively assess and intentionally celebrate the short-term student successes along the way. For example, when a vulnerable learner feels pessimistic about participating at all but, through PBL, becomes encouraged to complete their work.

Over the next several weeks, as we wrap up the school year, students’ final projects will be uploaded to the Nicomekl News website (bit.ly/nicomeklnews). With a solid system and structure in place for Nicomekl News, my hope is that this PBL unit will continue to inspire and encourage students, staff, and parents in future years, even as we move into a new normal in a post-COVID world. The growth of this unit, and the collaboration that helped get it to where it is today, was a highlight in a year filled with challenges.