One common objection to project based learning or arts integration* is this: “You’re wasting time on non-essentials! Students aren’t learning how to read and write as it is. Why confuse them with additional subjects? Let art be art and grammar be grammar.”

In large part, the critics are correct! If you’ve failed to make connections for students (and parents and admin and the community and…and…and), then time is wasted and students are confused.

Let us, though, assume you have thoroughly indoctrinated your audience in the joys, nay, the necessity of arts integration, and they have even embraced the notion. You’ve made constant connections in class between a project and a learning objective. Yet, there’s still resistance on the part of the students, and you feel uncertain. Maybe the project is taking too long. Making everyone’s having a grand time, but you realize half-way through that the connection you assumed isn’t quite on point.

This is quite possibly the outcome of perfectly awful idea # 2:

2. Don’t allow enough time for proper scaffolding.

Scaffolding is a natural part of all learning: standing before walking before running. Alphabet before reading. Simple sentences before complex essays. The problem arises when combining disciplines. How do you properly breakdown class time into manageable chunks that cover two disciplines in ways that engage, make sense, lead to learning, AND cover everything you need to cover WHILE leaving a sense of completion?

This scaffolding issue has been one of my greatest weaknesses in my teaching, and one which was mostly solved by a surprising source: a theatre.

STORY: I taught for six years in a school in Hawaii that, while I was there, gave time and resources toward project based learning. I, as a former student who had been easily bored, embraced the theory whole-heartedly, and then spent several years, in the words of my business mentor Jennifer Kem, “throwing spaghetti at a wall.” I had decent ideas, but the execution of a project, the scaffolding, was too scattered and too overwhelming at times to be as useful to the students as the project could have been. When I returned to SC, I became part of a teaching artist program at The Warehouse Theatre in Greenville, SC. In three years, all of my teaching, from dance to literature, was revolutionized.

What made the difference? 1. The WHT’s method of teacher artist training

2. The theatre’s way of scaffolding theatre in with literature

Before my introduction to the WHT, my approach held several weakness: I talked too much through a project. I separated the literature learning from the project almost entirely, teaching a literature component and then giving a large chunk of time to projects (a perfect way to give slackers a nap). I tried to cover too much in both disciplines. I didn’t adapt well OR I dropped a project entirely if it wasn’t “working.”

Since my training, I’ve learned many ways of bringing my visions into reality, but these are five lessons I’ve deeply learned.

  1. Decide on one or two main ideas: You can’t cover everything in a class or even in a unit. Look at where your project and reading are within the year, and focus on one or two big ideas that can flow over the course of multiple days or a week. If you’re focusing on characterization in a novel, spend a day dedicated to character development in one or two characters and how the development can be shown physically (theatre) and a second day on visual representations. You may only cover one or two people in class, but show HOW students can apply these analysis ideas to other characters and brainstorm a paper based on characters you haven’t covered.
  2. Warm up: One lesson we’ve been taught is that resistance is often inadequate warmup (a paraphrase of a Mel Trimble saying). When introducing a new concept, either in the core discipline or the secondary discipline, allow time for exploring the discipline in a group in simple, non-threatening ways.
  3. Break it down. Break it down some more: You think your lesson on alliteration is awesome. You’ve broken down several poems, you have movement, stomping, clapping incorporated, and you have connections to pop culture all over the place. Then you discover your class has forgotten what a consonant is, and several can’t keep a stomping pattern going while speaking. At this point, the problem isn’t your plan. The problem is needing to add a little more: introducing a warm up clapping exercise and a warm up vowel/consonant exercise that leads into your main plan.
  4. Allow more time than you think a project ought to take, but make sure you have extra work for quicker students.
  5. Allow time for reflection and discussion about the project itself:  This is where you discover what students learned and where they discover what they’ve learned. Even have a set plan for how you lead into the reflection and discussion.

Bonus: Take classes in theatre and other arts and see how the instructors scaffold YOUR learning. Remember what it’s like to feel awkward, and take that empathy back to your students!

How do you scaffold your projects? Do you have a memorable failure or success? Let me know in the comments!

If you want to see how I scaffold Beowulf in my summer camps, sign up HERE  to receive a free reading guide to the epic.





*I interchange PBL and arts integration. They aren’t entirely the same, but, in my classes,the projects are based on some sort of visual, theatrical, or (occasionally) musical production.