The Den & the Project


Part one of a three part series on The Community School, a PBL High School
Part 2: The beautiful and fulfilling task of teaching project-based curriculum
Part 3: Finding your identity through PBL



Driving question: 

How many sticky notes are stuck to the walls in The Den at the Community School at Bancroft?

The driving question begets the benchmarks, which influence the source materials, which support the research, which populates the presentation, which inspires the final product, all of which support the appreciative inquiry process that is the focus of the Community School. The idea is for students to learn how to learn through the lens of a project and to commit to positive community impact. Rather than listening to “the right answers”, taking notes and pumping them back out on a test this project-based method intends to cultivate curiosity, learning, teaching, cooperation and willingness to fail.

Last Thursday I was in "The Den" observing five of the first and second year teachers as they assessed and enhanced their projects in two groups. The room is roughly 20’x 20’, housing nine desks for the nine resident teachers and with a long conference table in the middle. There are shelves everywhere, by design and makeshift, and the walls are covered in poster board outlines of projects past and current. The place was kind of a mess in the dedicated artist way. I saw two bookshelves on wheels with multiple copies of some great titles including All the Light We Cannot See and Life of Pi and The Alchemist. These are my kind of books. I wanted to start an impromptu book club session so I could harvest insight on some of my other recent favorites but they were working. So I listened to their discussions and took notes, and focused briefly on the sticky notes from which no surface was protected.



In answering the sticky note question I had to employ logic, observation and averages. Nine desks, eighteen bookshelves, 720 square feet of wall space. The top three feet of wall is unreachable so I excluded 240 square feet immediately. Excluding the doors, the projector screen, the wall space behind desks and shelves left 272 square feet of wall space. Looking at the space next to me I counted nineteen sticky notes on a project poster and another twelve on the wall around it, occupying approximately fifteen square feet of space. So that’s 562 sticky notes for the usable wall space. Then I added the thirty-five for each teacher’s station multiplied by nine teachers and the estimated total was 877 already-used sticky notes in the room. With a few more hours I could’ve analyzed color and content to discover the function and utility of the sticky note method. To present the data I could then populate a color-coded data table and my conclusions, but I don’t think anyone would want to see it. In doing all this I could’ve sharpened my mental math, observation, computer and language skills, and probably learned some effective sticky note techniques.

There are approximately 877 sticky notes in The Den because, obviously, the nine teachers at the project-based Community School are constantly adjusting their curriculum. Last Thursday’s afternoon meeting is a daily occurrence wherein the teachers assess the progress of their students, analyze the effectiveness of their project design and identify process for improvement. Constantly adjusting curriculum. It’s such a simple description for a monumental advancement in pedagogy. They don’t teach from a textbook. They teach in groups, shifting to combine core subjects, by creating “meaningful projects that require critical thinking, creativity, and communication in order for students to answer challenging questions or solve complex problems” it says on the school website.

The sticky note question was more of a scenario-based math problem. The projects undertaken at the Community School last for weeks and progress through benchmarks and result in a final product. Students break into groups and divide work to research and collect information to be presented publicly; they sign individual contracts stipulating their commitments.

Every teacher contributes specialized knowledge to their project: science, ELA, math, history. The teachers work in groups to design projects aiming to teach the necessary skills and meet required credits to satisfy education regulations while focusing on cooperation and critical inquiry. It may sound pretty conventional when described here but a visit to the school will demonstrate the revolutionary simplicity of the concept. There is no hierarchy of knowledge at the Community School. It doesn’t look like Riverdale - no teacher standing next to the board administering knowledge with students at their desks scribbling notes. The kids call teachers by their first names – Bobbi, Sara, Bryan, Ryan, Cindy. There's no bell, they aren’t called Frosh, there’s no graffiti (unless it’s part of a project), there has been no fighting or bullying in its eight year history, and I couldn’t identify a single clique. It is a cooperative group of students, teachers and support staff focused on developing critical thinking, encouraging social justice and identifying the best path forward for each individual.

And the unifying matrix into which all of this effort is built is the project. Remember in The Karate Kid when Mr. Miagi asks Daniel to paint the fence and the kid is upset because he wants to learn to block, but then it turns out that the repetitive motion of painting mimics blocking and he learned without realizing it? It’s like that, sort of, but way more calculated. The Den is the innovation space where these creative projects are meticulously sculpted to achieve their five learning outcomes:

  • Agency
  • Collaboration
  • Oral Communication
  • Written Communication
  • Knowledge & Thinking



Follow the Money

Driving question: 

How is wealth spread throughout the US, why is it that way, and what should I do about it?


How is wealth spread throughout the US today?

  • Explore primary resource data to understand US wealth distribution
  • Product: a group Data Story presentation 

How did we get here? – US economic history through the lens of the African-American experience

  • Research the history of a demographic that is underrepresented in the wealthiest Americans today when compared to the US population
  • Product: Participate in a Socratic Seminar discussing the causes of wealth equality

How did we get here? – US economic history through the lens of an underrepresented groups’ experience

  • Research the history of another demographic that is underrepresented in the wealthiest Americans today when compared to the US population
  • Product: Declare and chronicle a “year of significance” for this underrepresented group

Final Product: What should I do about it?

  • Take a concrete action to help bring about change – document the action and explain how it impacts wealth distribution through a Justification Reflection.

Assessment focuses less on “did you submit the right answers?” and more on “were you willing to fail?” and “did you collaborate well?” and “did you commit to learning?” In the PBL description, “by making learning relevant to them in this way, students see a purpose for mastering state-required skills and content concepts.” They also absorb the greater lesson of taking knowledge and putting it to good use toward improving the world around them. It’s very powerful, and it all starts at the conference table in The Den.


Here are a few classes related to this topic:

Ike Martinson
Ike is addicted to life in the Pacific Northwest. He enjoys the mountains, the lakes, the food, the people and all the seasons. He is an amateur chef, a commercial pilot and a terrible painter.

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