Andrew Miller

Using Project-Based Learning to Engage Parents in the School Community

Project-based learning (PBL) is a fantastic way to increase parent and community involvement in your school in a truly authentic way. Instead of finding lots of little strategies to engage parents, PBL provides an opportunity to use one part of your school identity, the curriculum and instruction, as the leverage to have parents present at the physical space. Here are some tips and strategies on how to use PBL to increase parental involvement.

Public Audience

One of the essential elements of effective PBL is a public audience. Every PBL project must have a public audience. This can look like a lot of different things. The public can be judges or audience for the final culminating work or presentation. The public can come in during the middle of project to help coach students on their work as experts in the field. There are a lot of options. All of these could be parents. Every parent has some area of expertise to share, from health care to technology. I recommend creating a roster of parents, their areas of expertise, and how they would be able to volunteer. Parents will want to come to school if their knowledge is leveraged in a legitimate way.

Educating Parents about PBL

Because PBL is nontraditional, it is imperative that parents understand what it looks like, what the grading expectations are, and why the school believes it works. Parents are going to ask the same questions other community stakeholders will ask. "How will this help my child do well on the standardized test?" "Why are you grading 21st century skills?" "How will you help my child who doesn't like to work in groups?" You will get these questions, so be prepared, and have education available for parents about the components of PBL.

Transparency of Projects

Every time you do a PBL project, it is important to let parents know what work your students are doing, and also to excite them about it. Communication with the home about schoolwork is nothing new, but this provides a focused, timely moment to communicate. In addition, it also provides an opportunity to debunk any misunderstandings about the PBL project that is occurring. If you are doing a project on health and AIDS, you can take the time in the letter home to parents to assure that the project is not sexual education. A quick e-mail or letter home about the PBL project can excite parents, solicit their expertise, and clarify expectations.

Culturally Responsive Projects

Find ways for the products you have students create to be culturally responsive. Find ways to weave student culture into the project so that parents see that it is being valued in the work students are doing. If you are having students do a project on world religions, then have each student reflect on his or her family and personal beliefs. If you are having students investigate hidden histories of the oppressed, have them investigate the cultures of their families and communities. Make it intentional.

Because the public is an integral part of PBL, it is a real way to engage parents in the school and work that students are doing. It is not without challenges, but with these tips, you can make parents partners in an important part of your school identity.

Andrew K. Miller is an educator and consultant. He is a National Faculty member for ASCD and the Buck Institute for Education. Connect with Miller on Twitter @betamiller.

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