Documentation as an English Language Arts Tool in a Project-Based Learning Environment

Megan Raether, Northern Lakes Regional Academy, raethermegan @


A sophomore student delicately hits the keys on the piano as she attempts to create music for the song she wrote in the poetry workshop. The sound of the drill and buzz saw vibrate through the open concept building as a group of freshmen and sophomore boys build a stage for the upcoming student showcase. A senior sits in front of my desk as she works on writing an analytical essay, and every so often she looks up to ask a question. I help a freshman proofread a short story he wrote for the school newsletter. In the room down the hall, a sophomore and senior take pictures of the biology project they started a month ago. A junior jumps from room to room proudly showing off a product she made on the 3D printer she fixed earlier that day.

To many, this might appear as mayhem or play, but underneath it all is a learning structure that helped me thrive when I was a charter school student at Wildlands School, and it’s doing the same for many of my students. Project-based learning (PBL) is becoming typical at Northern Lakes Regional Academy (NLRA), a public charter school in the Rice Lake School District, because it helps students truly understand the learning process. Through PBL and project documentation, young adults turn into lifelong learners because they have the skills to gain knowledge independently.

The school day is divided into a seminar, workshops, and project-based learning time:

  1. Seminars are similar to traditional teacher-led learning environments. Students don’t know how to approach some subjects, such as chemistry, so seminars provide them with skills they might not acquire on their own.
  2. Workshops can be led by teachers or students. Sometimes students will request a workshop on a certain subject simply out of interest. Those are my favorite workshops because I love that students are using their voices to tell us what they want. A few of the workshops are mandatory, but we try to keep most of them as electives. Students can opt-out of elective workshops to create more PBL time. While in a workshop, students learn a focused area of a subject. For example, I recently finished a workshop where I taught new students how to answer a timed writing prompt about a non-fiction article. We worked on different strategies such as organization, picking strong quotes, and citing the source. That workshop only met a few times. 
  3. During PBL time, students explore their interests and create their own projects while earning credit and meeting standards. The contrast between PBL and class projects is best described by Tweed and Seubert (2015), who explain that “The biggest difference between independent PBL and ‘just doing projects’ in a classroom environment is the goal setting and the personal ownership part of independent projects” (p. 88). Students must be in charge of the demonstrating their knowledge for PBL to work correctly. Projects range from learning how to plant in raised garden beds to writing murder mystery scripts. Freshmen and sophomore students often start with projects that create a foundation for larger and more elaborate projects. Most, if not all, PBL projects are interdisciplinary, so students must use Project Foundry to search for learning targets in many different subjects when creating a proposal: 

search.pngHow students search for and select learning targets on Project Foundry

Freshman and sophomore students will often ask me for help when deciding what targets fit their project, but as they mature, they learn how to pick targets accurately. These project show students that they are capable of learning on their own and inspire them to be lifelong learners. Instructors simply make sure that their students are reaching their goals and to help with blocks occurring during the process.

Project-Based Learning and Reaching ELA Targets
As an ELA instructor, I’m often asked how I make sure that each student is reaching English targets. Stakeholders want to know how our school incorporates ELA when one student is using Solidworks to create his own fishing lures, while another is learning how to laser engrave wood to make homemade test tube holders. My colleagues and I decided that the best way to keep students accountable and to help them reach English targets through all projects was to teach them how to document the learning process. The learning targets specific to ELA in almost all projects are “I will be able to write over an extended amount of time to share and reflect on ideas,” and “I will be able to write to reflect on projects, activities, or assessments.”


targets.pngTargets commonly reached through documentation

For example, one student is using Udemy to learn lofting and, in the process, makes entries about the experience in a Google Site. For example, in one entry she explains lofting to the reader and expresses some difficulty with the process. This documentation can be helpful to other students that might want to use it as a guide, or it can help her remember what to do if the same thing happens again. She deserves to earn the reflection target for creating these helpful reminders:



Before the current school year started, I made a handout for students to reference independently (Appendix A) that demonstrates the documentation process. Their documentation does not need to match the model, but the main elements should be included. In this way, students can take ownership of using their resources. As they complete more projects, their need for the handout should lessen.

Proposing and Documenting Projects
Before students start documenting, they must create a proposal on the Project Foundry website. An instructor reviews the information, including anticipated learning targets, to make sure that it fits the student’s learning plan. Once the project is approved, students can use Google Sites, WEVideo, or another approved format to document their project.

The documentation process is divided into three sections: opening, entries, and closing. In the opening section, students provide their name, project title, driving questions, and a description of what they hope to create as the final product. A freshman student working on an animation project wrote that “My project will include OpenToonz (free software), time, voice actors, and time and practice and time. It relates to my life because I have always wanted to make an animation, this is where I will start.” He continues, “I will create and complete about 3 minute animation.” By writing the proposal, students reflect on what the project will require. This student kept listing “time” because he had gathered enough background knowledge to know that this would consume many of his PBL periods. Sometimes students never reach the final product for various reasons such as time constraint, but that does not necessarily result in zero credit. As long as they prove that they learned throughout the journey, they can hit learning targets. NLRA uses a standards-based grading system so that each learning target can be assessed independently.

The next step is to create entries at least once a week. Nilson (2013) explains the benefit of weekly journaling by stating, “Writing weekly entries in a learning journal helps students develop the good habit of pausing and taking stock of their learning, any affective changes they have experienced, and their self-regulated learning skills” (p. 75). They have the option to voice their entries using a resource such as Audacity or simply by typing. The beginning of the entry starts with the date and an optional title. Successful entries include pictures, videos, or descriptions of what was accomplished since the last entry. Students then discuss what was successful and what needs improvement before moving to the next step of the project. For example, the student working on the animation project created this entry:


This shows that he took the time to look at the picture and think about what could be improved. If he doesn’t make a vanishing point this time, it can be something he keeps in mind for the future. Knowing that he should have remembered to create more vanishing points can prompt him to do it the second time around to create a more polished product.

Mistakes are never final because we at NLRA encourage prototyping. If students learn that grades are final, they have no incentive to improve. The learning process is more important than the final product because we want to create independent learners. Documenting allows students to critically think about what is happening and spot patterns so that the same errors are not continuous. Tweed and Seubert (2015) argue that “If the student can become his or her own best critic, know how to check for accuracy and quality, and have an ethic of getting things done right–even if they have to be done over–then we are on the right track” (p. 57). Instructors at NLRA want to help students learn how to push themselves to do better. Teaching students how to become their own critics will help them create better products.

The entries also include how much time is spent on each step. This is important for instructors and other students to see because the effort placed in a project is sometimes hard to understand. For example, the student animator created a storyboard that was only for a short section of the animation project. It would not seem complicated, but after viewing the documentation it can be seen that the student spent a lot of time on it.



Since the time is logged on Project Foundry, and he explained why it was best not to continue with this step, we see that he is making the right decision. It also lets instructors know that even though it isn’t something that will be useful, that step is still deserving of time counted towards the project. Just writing about the experience in the documentation will give him learning targets for reflection. He learned how to create characters, write storylines, and other ELA skills. The art skills that he already now grow through this project, so we will check off learning targets while the student is being creative and doing the types of things that he loves.



This project might not be complete by the end of the school year since many hours go into the steps, but having an incomplete project does not mean that it is a failed project. He will receive credit for what he finishes because he still demonstrated that he knew certain skills. For every 10 hours students spend productively, they will receive .01 credits in the subject area they were working on during those hours. If the student spends 10 hours working on creating characters and writing storylines, he will receive .01 credits in English 9-10. One credit he will receive for this project is, “I will be able to effectively complete a creative writing workshop or similar experience.” If the student also spends 30 hours drawing and animating the story, he will receive .03 credits in core electives. Some of the core elective credits include, “I will be able to create animations utilizing animation software,” and, “I will be able to organize files and materials in order to be able to easily complete projects.” To me, this is an impressive project even if the ending is not seen before summer.


How Can These Projects Fail?
Projects fail only when the students neither learned nor enhanced their skills. There are a few ways that we can spot a failing project. One way is to look at the driving questions. If the questions can be answered easily by an internet search, we know that they will not dive deeply into the learning process. This is proof that the plan is not complex enough. To help, I will ask if they can make the project bigger or if there is a way to put their own spin on the final product.

Another way a failing project can be spotted is to look at students’ past projects and their completed learning targets. If they have already proven expertise in the area, they will not learn anything. This can be difficult because students love to return to projects that they enjoyed. Instructors do not want to suppress their passion, but we cannot have them repeat the same lesson without hope for growth. At that point, instructors need to push them to look at the subject from a different angle. Maybe a different area they can explore still fits their passion. For example, a student who loves to write is now in charge of creating a book that highlights art and texts created by peers. This will help her stay in the writing world that she loves but pushes her to do more related to editing, layout, and marketing since she has already proven that she knows the creative writing process. As a junior, she did not need to be pushed to find a different angle; she did it on her own.

Projects also fail if students lose interest shortly after starting, which will be noticeable because they will not put in the effort to correct mistakes or document the project. If they have been reluctantly working on a project for three weeks, I will go into the documentation and look at what has been completed. If the documentation is blank or has only a title page, we will see it as a failure and help the students move toward projects they can love. Students should feel passion when they approach PBL because if they are excited they will learn to associate the learning process with those positive emotions. Those feelings are the first steps to creating lifelong learners.

Completing Projects and Entries
After logging time, students end the entry with an outline of what they would like to accomplish next. The outline reminds them of their goals and allows them to create new goals as the project progresses. They do not need to complete the entire goal-making process alone, for staff often check-in to help mentees create new goals and assess past goals. During mentor meetings, one or two of the goals might relate to independent learning, but they can also be about workshops and seminars. Every so often, I will do an informal goal check-in with my mentees at the end of project-based learning time. I will ask them what they accomplished that day and what should be done next.

When the project is complete and all the entries are finished, students can begin the closing section of the documentation. During the last step, they take a picture of the final product and write a list of used materials. After those simple tasks are finished, they reflect on the process. The handout lists questions such as

  1. What challenges did you encounter
  2. What skills did you need to finish this project
  3. How did your project answer the driving question(s)?

I ask students to find evidence for each question they answer. Asking for evidence ensures that they take their time while reading the entries. This is an attempt to break away from a “learn it and burn it” mindset. Nilson (2013) advised that instructors “Focus on whether your students actually devised and followed a problem-solving process, how they went about defining the problem, what information they did and did not consider relevant, how they determined the quality of the outside sources (in PBL) and how they evaluated and ranked possible solutions” (p. 50). When going through the documentation with a student, adding a question such as “how did you determine the quality of your sources” can help you understand the process students went through while working on the project. It is important to make sure that students understand the learning process and can explain it to others. When they understand the learning process, they can become independent learners. Knowing the material is only the first step. They need to be encouraged to recognize the learning process and know what steps make a successful learning experience.

Project Foundry is used to evaluate the learning targets that students worked toward. If they successfully showed their knowledge of a target, they receive a five out of five (similar to an A). If they did not reach at least a three (C), they do not receive the learning target. How we evaluate work is the same as other teachers. We are careful about giving learning targets because we want to make sure that students learn each skill. If they check off the target with a two, then they will leave school without truly understanding that skill. Some students will ask fellow students or a staff member to edit their work so that they can receive targets for grammar and other writing skills. If students receive an unsatisfactory score, they can make improvements to earn a higher score. When they are willing to improve and learn, we want to reward that mindset.

While working on PBL projects, I have noticed that my students enjoy taking the lead. If I start to do something for them, they will say something like, “Don’t hijack my project.” They recognize when they are no longer in charge of their own learning and they wish to reclaim ownership. It fills me with joy to see them move into independence. During teacher-led workshops, when I present students with an idea they will start to propose their own questions and ideas. They have learned how to ask questions, which has taught them to look for more meaning. When they reflect on their own learning, I notice that they are honest about the experience. On a reflection about a goal, a student might write something like, “I didn’t reach this goal.” To follow up, I will ask, “Why not?” and often the answer is, “because I was distracted.” This allows me to help make a plan for not getting distracted the next day. The plan might include not sitting next to friends or near a window. If that student had not reflected on that learning, I would not have stepped in. Together, we strengthen their independent learning skills.

Another great thing that has come out of having students reflect on their own learning is that presentations are stronger. They easily walk through the different steps because they can look back at each one before giving the presentation. They can articulate what went well and what needed to be improved because they have already spent the time thinking about those things. When classmates or community members ask questions, those who reflected on their learning create answers in moments. They know their projects well and are confident when explaining different elements. They were mainly independent throughout the process, and now they can proudly show off their hard work. The reflections turn students into specialists.

ELA plays a key role at NLRA, and I believe that those skills will be strengthened by the documentation of independent projects. ELA doesn’t end with these projects, though. We also have daily SSR time. Students read at least six books a year and complete an analytical project about each text. Twice a year students in every grade write a research paper. They regularly write paragraphs or complete handouts about articles they read about a wide range of topics. NLRA also has a newsletter and slam poetry team.

Although this is our first year trying this type of documentation, I can already see the benefits. Through the process of documenting, students acquire summarizing and reflecting skills. With the help of instructors or on their own, they explain connections amongst their entries. Many will present their finished work and documentation during the whole school morning meeting or at a public showcase, which polishes their public speaking skills. Instructors get a realistic sense of the time and dedication students place in their work. Documentation is an excellent tool for any nontraditional instructor looking to add accountability or English skills to their lessons. When students are accountable for their learning and know the learning process, they become independent.


Nilson, L. B. (2013). Creating Self-Regulated Learners: Strategies to Strengthen Students’ Self-Awareness and Learning Skills. Sterling, VA: Stylus.

Tweed, P., & Seubert, L. (2015). An Improbable School: Transforming How Teachers Teach & Students Learn. CreateSpace Independent Publishing.


Appendix A. Documentation Requirements
All projects (group or individual) must be documented throughout the duration of the project. Projects that are not properly documented will result in credit reduction or no credit. Documenting projects will help you, classmates, and instructors see your process; the process is often more important than the final product. Documentation should be done at least once a week.

Pick a format for documenting your work. Documentation can be done through WEVideo, a physical photo journal, Google Site, or other approved format. The reflections can be written or voiced.


The opening needs to include these basic descriptions:

______ Name (your name and the names of any group members)

______ Name of your project

______ Driving question(s)

______ Explain what you hope the final product will be for this project.


There should be an entry at least once a week during the duration of your project. Each entry is required to have the following items:

______ Date of entry. An optional title can go with the date.

______ Pictures that show what you worked on that day or a video showing the process, if that is not possible then write a few sentences that explain in detail what you completed.

______ Explain what went well and what needs to be improved at this point. Make sure that you explain how that result (good or bad) occurred and what you learned from it.

______ Document how much time you spent working on this phase of the project.

______ Provide a clear outline of what you would like to accomplish next.


At the end of your documentation entries, you will need to answer the following reflection questions. The answers can be voiced (Audacity), typed, or expressed in a different approved format.

______ A picture or video of the final product.

______ A list of materials used during the project.

______ Look back at the document, what did you learn along the way? What challenges did you encounter? What skills did you need to finish this project?

______ How did your project answer the driving question(s)?

______ List which of the 7 C’s (collaboration, creativity, citizenship, commitment, curiosity, critical thinking, communication) were most important to this project (at least two) and briefly explain how those C’s were demonstrated.

______ Explain what you would do differently next time and/or explain how this project will grow and be used in future projects.

This is just a simple example to show you the basic outline of documenting. Your documentation will be more detailed and include more entries. Projects being documented should be on a larger scale than this example project:

Project Title: Art Layering

Driving Questions: How can I learn how to include layering in my artwork? How will my artwork improve by the addition of layering?

Final Product: I’m hoping that my final project will be a hand created picture that includes recognizable layering.



August 22nd, 2017 – Pinterest and a pencil

On the first day, I decided to use Pinterest as a tool to look for examples on how to create layering in artwork. I found a post by Art Projects for Kids titled “Van Gogh’s Wheat Field” that looked helpful. I clicked on the link and used the example that was provided on the Art Projects for Kids website to draw the basic outline of the picture with a pencil. It was easy for me to find a layering project on Pinterest because there are many art resources on that site. I had some difficulty drawing the horizon because I’m not always the best at drawing a straight line. Next time I will use a ruler to make the line look professional. I spent about five minutes on those two phases of this project. Tomorrow I will work on adding color to the outline of my picture. If I have time, I would also like to add the wheat and crow details to the picture.


August 23rd, 2017 – Colored pencils or crayons?


Today I added color to my outline. It started by conducting a simple experiment to find out which type of material I should use to color the picture. First, I gathered colored pencils and crayons. I knew that I would have to color brown over yellow in the picture, so I tried it out with both materials. I liked the way that crayon looked best because it blended better. The colored pencils created a sharp look to the colors. Using crayons, I colored in the outlined items in the picture. This step took about 5 minutes to complete. Tomorrow, I will add the brown lines over the yellow to create the appearance of wheat in the distance. I will also draw crows.


August 24th, 2017 – Wa-lah!


This was my final day working on the picture. To end the project, I used brown crayons to add lines that would look like wheat in the distance. Over the blue crayon I drew wide v’s to appear like flying crows. Around the moon, I outlined it thickly with white in an attempt to make it look like the moon was glowing. This step of the process did not go as expected because the extra white around the moon was hardly visible. If I do this project again, I will consider using paint instead of crayons because that would make it easier to add color on top of other colors. This part took about 5 minutes. Tomorrow I will start the closing section of my documentation.


Final Product


Materials: Paper, colored pencils (for a test), crayons, pencil, and Pinterest

Along the way, I learned that I prefer crayons over colored pencils, but that I should have also tried to use paint. Using paint might have allowed me to layer colors with ease. A minor thing I learned is that when drawing lines I should use a ruler or else they will appear crooked. In order to complete this project, I needed to have patience because art looks sloppy if you don’t take your time.

My layer picture project helped me answer the driving questions: How can I learn how to include layering in my artwork and how will my artwork improve by the addition of layering? I learned that Pinterest is a great tool for learning how to complete layering projects. The website offers many step-by-step tutorials. My artwork improved because now I’m able to include layers within my artwork. The layers make the picture a little more realistic and gives the viewer more to look at. Before doing this project, I would have just had the yellow block of color instead of adding the brown lines for more detail.

The two C’s that I worked hardest on during this project were creativity and critical thinking. I demonstrated creativity by working on an art technique that I hadn’t used before. Creativity was also showcased because I’m not an artist but I pushed myself to try drawing freehand. Critical thinking was demonstrated when I used a simple experiment to decide what type of material I would use to color the picture. I could have randomly picked a coloring material, but instead I tested both out to see which would have the best look for the project.

This project was a great beginning to other art projects. I learned that I enjoy being creative, so I will continue by adding different art techniques to my layering technique. First, I would like to do another layering project with paints to practice this new skill.


Barbro, K. (2014, September 28). Van Gogh’s Wheat Field. Retrieved August 24, 2017, from

Corner Rock–The Phoenix of Park Falls: A Social Justice Action Venture for Project-Based Learners

Paula A. Zwicke, Class ACT Charter School, pzwicke @


Chitter-chattering as they swing open the glass door, skateboards under arms, and backpacks strapped tight, Jason and Paul quickly greet Sam and Emily with high-fives.

“Hey, whatssup!” Jason and Paul say, nearly simultaneously as they slide into the booth with Sam and Emily, backpacks ditched to the floor in a heap next to the seats.

“We’re just having a Pepsi while we wait for our Littles to get here,” says Emily. “Littles” are Hannah and Josiah, two 8th graders that Sam and Emily tutor in math and reading for 30 minutes every Tuesday and Thursday. Once they finish their session, Sam and Emily treat their Littles to a quick game of checkers and a vanilla ice cream cone from the soft-serve dispenser.

“Cool,” says Jason. “We’re poppin’ in on our way home from school for some foosball and a Mountain Dew. Zek and Brian should be here any minute.” These four boys, regulars at The Phoenix, spend hours each week playing foosball and organizing tournaments for high schoolers and community members as club fundraisers. Part of the group responsible for re-inventing the old Corner Rock Boys’ and Girls’ Club, they furiously protect this much-needed hangout for all their fellow high schoolers, right down to scrubbing the toilets.

They aren’t alone. Next to the booth, Mandy and Jasmine sit on the couch with a hodgepodge of cardboard signs, wide-ruled paper filled with notes, and open computers. “What do ya think about hiring Jason Fish to DJ the Dance-athon?” asks Mandy as she grabs a red marker from the plastic coffee can serving as a bucket.

“Absolutely,” exclaims Jasmine. “If he’s booked already, we could try John Benetti, the guy who did my brother’s wedding. He just lives across the river. Had really cool music, too.”

“Yeah. Good idea. I’ll call Fish first then Mr. Benetti if I have to. Let’s hurry up with these posters, so we can join the kids in the back building Pompeii. Well, not literally. I guess Mrs. Channing just got back from Italy, and she got to walk on the ancient streets of Pompeii. Can you imagine? She’s helpin’ a group with their model and answering questions about it.”

“Hey look,” says Jasmine. “The BART bus just pulled up to drop off some kids. I wonder if they’re here for the Pompeii model or maybe they’re joinin’ the kids headed out to Wintergreen Park for a hike.” To be continued…


Rise of the Phoenix: Introduction
The Chequamegon School District in northern Wisconsin, consolidated in 2009 (the former Park Falls and Glidden districts), joins two communities located 20 miles apart, in two different counties, and with the Butternut School District right in the middle. Our buses travel through the Butternut district when they go between the Park Falls and Glidden campuses. The Glidden campus has K-3 and middle school (6-8), and the Park Falls campus has 4YK-5, the high school, and Class ACT Charter School. Park Falls and Glidden are small rural communities, with Glidden being the more northerly of the two. Immersed in 858,000 acres of public forest land, hundreds of lakes and waterways, and other recreational opportunities, Park Falls and Glidden are sparsely populated areas of the beautiful Northwoods, with State Highway 13 joining southern Wisconsin to northern Wisconsin and dividing these two communities in half. Park Falls boasts that it has just two stop lights, which arrived only a decade ago. Both communities rely mainly on tourism, although there are local manufacturing and medical facilities, the school district, and many service-focused employers. According to the U. S. Census Bureau’s 2012-2016 American Community Survey (ACS) 5-year Estimates and Community Facts, Park Falls has an estimated population of 4,056, while Glidden has 494. There are also many smaller communities in outlying areas whose children attend Chequamegon, making bus rides and family transportation sometimes as much as 45 minutes one way.

According to this same survey, the median age in Park Falls is 52.9 with 89% of its residents having received a high school diploma, while Glidden’s median age is 45.5, 84% of whom are high school graduates. The median income for Park Falls is reported to be $41,504 with 14.9% of the population below the poverty level, while Glidden’s median income is $31,000 with 10.7% of the population below the poverty level. Specific to families with children under 18, the U. S. Census reports that 23.5% of Park Falls families live below the poverty line, and for those households headed by females alone, 34.5% live in poverty while raising children. For Glidden families with children under 18, the U. S. Census Bureau reports that 21.1% of all families live below the poverty line, and for those households headed by females alone, 35.3% live in poverty. This means that, while being predominantly middle-aged communities, about one-fourth of both communities’ families served by our District (Park Falls 23.4% and Glidden 21.1%) live below the federal poverty line. Also, about one-third of these Park Falls below-poverty families are headed by women alone, also raising children. The same is true of Glidden. This is a significant number of families with limited resources who live in communities with limited resources because of both geography and low income. In the end, these families rely heavily on the school district (and by extension the community) to provide social-emotional and academic support for their children, such as safe gathering places.

Purpose and Importance
While my research did not include current support our communities offer these families, I will, however, focus this action project on the adolescents of these marginalized families and participation in their community (Witt, 2017). In addition, through Freirian-style dialoguing, this project will educate citizens and students in marginalization factors such as stereotypes and lack of awareness of unwelcoming actions toward teenagers and the teenagers’ unawareness of the ramifications of their unwelcome public behavior (Freire, Ramos, & Macedo, 2016).

Engaging Class ACT students in this project will take them “outside of the classroom and into activist spaces … to engage their immediate needs for social change through political action that is not regulated by school-based interests” (Bishop, 2017, p. 377). It will explore, for community members and officials as well as student-learners, a destructive contradiction prevalent in our communities: “All our young people leave after graduation and never return. How can we get them to come back or to stay?” The adolescents say, “There are no places to hang out. This town is boring, and they don’t like us. I can’t wait to get out of here.”

According to Freire’s emancipatory pedagogy, teaching and learning are relevant, critical, and transformative so that learners are empowered to overcome irrationality, domination, and oppression. To do this, teachers implement an inquiry-based (problem-focused) approach to learning that engages learners in their world and incorporates their lived experiences in such a way that they have the courage to “change the social order” (McLaren, 2017, p. 72). In addition, teachers not only treat difference as human variation, as Anderson (2017) suggests, but they also call upon the learners to draw from their lived experiences in order to address diverse perspectives in solving problems or attacking oppression and domination (p. 479). In the end, learners are creative, innovative people who collectively challenge dominant culture rather than mindlessly follow the status quo of “churn[ed] out workers” (McLaren, 2017, p. 69).

Applied to this particular project, students will create a problem-posing question similar to this one, which will drive their work: How can we [the adolescents and Class ACT] create a collaborative plan with the City of Park Falls and its community to open a boys and girls club similar to The Corner Rock, which will improve the relationships between adults and teenagers while also giving kids a safe place to hang out?


Research and Methodology
The narrative opening this paper illustrates the activities and conversations guests might observe after just a few minutes in The Phoenix. To make these images a reality, a team of Class ACT learners will begin dialoging about their personal experiences:

–how they use their free time;

–where they go to socialize;
–whether they “hung out” at The Corner Rock or another boys and girls club and what they liked or disliked about it;
–conflicts with law enforcement, business owners, or residents;
–criminal activity such as loitering, curfew violations, skateboarding on sidewalks, or destruction of property;
–how they define civic responsibility, social justice, equality and inequality;
–critical awareness as it relates to the responsibility citizens have to work together for the benefit of all groups of people; and
–any other concerns, questions, or responses they may brainstorm.

This introductory approach is advocated by Freire and noted in the “Introduction to part five” of The Critical Pedagogy Reader (2017), which says that, when people use dialogue to understand and incorporate each other’s experiences, they have the “capacity to read the world critically” and can effectively navigate the uneven “relations of power, which structurally reproduce inequalities and social exclusions within schools and society” (p. 367). The power structure of the City of Park Falls Government and Law Enforcement has socially excluded an already-marginalized group of people (predominantly below-poverty, single-parented teenagers) by failing to partner with the school or other civic organizations to host a community center so that all of the community realizes the benefit of a productive social gathering place for young people. Perhaps an even more egregious error is to assign blame to the teenagers for local criminality, which further alienates them.

Because this learning group (“The Phoenix Team” or “the Team”) “does school” using project-based learning (a form of problem-posing education supported by Freire), they will end this project having educated themselves in areas such as civic responsibility; governmental structure; capitalism and socialism; healthy community attributes; and communication principles, addressing social studies and English standards. Before any dialogue specific to a new club can be addressed with the public or city officials, The Phoenix Team will do extensive research, which includes brainstorming lists of questions or topics, or what they think they know and what they know they don’t know, surrounding the introductory dialogue and generative theme. Just as Horton and Freire (1990) indicated, the learning environment should be one that “share[s] … it by doing it and not by talking about it,” which in this case means that the Team is in charge, making decisions about how to proceed with conducting research in the areas they’ve identified as new knowledge (p. 153, p. 164). Always present will be their lived experiences from which they filter their research (See Appendix A for Task List for Youth Center which students created collaboratively).

Part of their research will be about how citizens participate in democracy, including marginalized groups such as teenagers. In discussing the basic principles of capitalism, The Phoenix Team can explore the contradiction that “‘individuals’ were to … reap the rewards of their hard work,” yet if “everyone … could succeed,” then why was “failure to succeed … taken to be a sign of poor character?” (Noddings & Brooks, 2017, p. 98). The research and dialogue about this key contradiction of capitalism will lead them to Dewey, who said that the individual “is not a preformed creation but, rather, a socially formed product … thus the quality of individual lives depends on the quality of relationships in associated living” (Noddings & Brooks, 2017, p. 98). As I intervene in their discussions to ask questions and build connections between them and these concepts, in particular as an individual and the product of the community and/or society in which one lives, they will realize that their “seats at the table” are imperative because the community is also responsible for molding them into what Dewey called “socially formed product[s]” or people (Noddings & Brooks, 2017, p. 98).

As further support, The Phoenix Team will study key concepts of socialism. In particular, they will discover a connection between Dewey and a principle of socialism, that is, “members of a democratic community [who] participate in that community” (Noddings & Brooks, 2017, p. 104). Noddings & Brooks (2017) describe this as a community that cares for each other: “We do not ‘let the failures fail’ and only the successful thrive” (p. 104). The Team can use this principle to show community leaders that they should want to invest in seeing teenagers grow and that their growth not only makes the teenagers healthy but demonstrates a healthy, thriving community. Dewey supported this point when he specifically noted that a healthy community interacts with various groups and that “a community is formed by the shared aims and activities of its participating groups. If a group pulls away and considers only its own needs and interests, the community to which it might belong is disrupted” (Noddings & Brooks, 2017, p. 105). This forms the basis of the Team’s reasons for seeking common dialogue and language with city officials and community leaders to include teenagers in community growth discussions. In addition, The Phoenix Team will reflect on its own interactions with community groups and change them if necessary.

Once the structural components of civics research is completed, The Phoenix Team will work in a more local civics nature pertaining to city ordinances, parks and recreation funding, partnerships with other organizations such as churches, and actual property locations and ownership. This research phase will include the team educating itself on how and where The Phoenix will open its doors in Park Falls, including any governmental rules that may regulate it. In addition, the Team will plan and conduct three site visits to boys and girls clubs in our region to learn how they are structured and why they are successful (See Appendix B for student-generated Youth Center Site Visit Comparison & Reflection).


October 31, 2017. Class ACT: The Phoenix Team visits Boys and Girls Club of Wausau

Lastly, they will plan three local property site visits to assess the feasibility of these locations for The Phoenix: One is the old Corner Rock building on Highway 13, and the other two are downtown, vacant (blighted) buildings. The two buildings downtown are the last to be renovated in a revitalization project that incorporated new infrastructure. It is possible the City may seek a partner to renovate one of these buildings, and The Phoenix Team could collaborate with other school teams and disciplines to design and renovate the space. As noted in the “Introduction to part eight” of The Critical Pedagogy Reader, one of the legacies of Freire’s work is that this type of collaboration among community groups creates “solidarity and kinship within communities” (p. 562). It is further stated that “an array of untold possibilities can emerge as children, youth, and adults create opportunities together to grapple with meaningful issues and identify solutions that make sense in their world” (p. 562).


November 15, 2017: Youth Center Team meets with Mayor Leitl


Chequamegon School District and Class ACT continuously search for positive ways to communicate and collaborate with our communities, and a project such as The Phoenix will improve relationships and dismantle barriers more quickly than any newsletter or public meeting. An example of one such school-community venture that proves this can be successful is Emily Pilloton’s 2009-2010 work in Bertie County, North Carolina, the poorest and most rural county in that state. Pilloton’s TED Talk (2010) shows how she and her team taught design within a public school; however, they took design thinking outside the brick and mortar school and applied it to community development projects. Design became education as the students built projects in the community such as renovating old buildings. By redesigning for education, she created the conditions to make changes in education that brought low-performing students from apathy to pride for their community and their work as a whole. Her TED Talk will serve as a visual image of what can be done when a community rethinks Education and Community. It could be used near the beginning of The Phoenix project, so students can visualize results, or it could be used as evidence that “this has been done before.” Additionally, students could contact Pilloton’s non-profit organization for more expert advice to proceed with their own project.


After learners evaluate the three proposed buildings and decide which will best serve guests and the community as a whole, they will design the physical site and the guidelines, expectations, or “business model” of The Phoenix based on research, including discussions with many interested parties and the site visits to successful boys and girls clubs. These tentative plans and drawings should solidify their goals and objectives for a healthy teen center. As research during the STEM design process of The Phoenix, the team will investigate the three often-named reasons for unequal representation of women in STEM professions as noted by Noddings & Brooks (2017): “a lack of early encouragement and role models, perceived lack of aptitude and consequent lack of preparation, and stereotype threat” (p. 70). In particular, the Team will study our District’s ACT standardized mathematics scores against the national or state scores in mathematics to analyze the relationship between gender and scores. They will also review enrollment data for our STEAM courses for the same relationship. As this data analysis is constructed, I anticipate that The Phoenix Team will participate in lively discussions about inequality, equality, gender stereotypes, and solutions to concerns that may arise from this data. It should be noted that, while all of this data is available to the public and to staff, I am unaware of anyone analyzing it in this way. The Team’s analysis of gender and mathematics may not only impact The Phoenix Team’s design thinking and construction, but the analysis may impact our new STEAM and engineering programs in very positive ways. Finally, The Phoenix Team should reflect on their gender equality/inequality participation and take action to make improvements if they determine they unintentionally have unequal representation in their own team.

With their research mostly completed, including anticipated community positions, goals, and objectives, learners are well prepared for explicit and intentional dialogue with city officials and residents. Dialoguing with these additional groups will undoubtedly lead to additional questions and revisions to plans. All of this is essential to design thinking and critical consciousness. Freire (1970/2016) explains that, while people are empowered through emancipatory pedagogy, emancipatory pedagogy must also include critical consciousness, and literacy involves consciousness. To create consciousness, teachers (and students) begin with the problem-posed method (p. 109). This problem should be something that, as a group, they feel needs resolution. For example, Park Falls lost its boys and girls club called Corner Rock. Now, teenagers are struggling to find an appropriate place to socialize. Freire says that, to be successful, the group must consist of “people who are attempting, together, to learn more than they now know” (p. 90). The Phoenix Team’s “transformative vision of education and society” will lead to reflection and action, not just by them but by community leaders, too (Darder, Torres, & Baltodano, 2017, p. 368).

Through emancipatory pedagogy and critical consciousness, learners experience a transformation that empowers them to collaborate more frequently and positively with their community, ultimately participating in democracy rather than remaining marginalized citizens.


This is an ambitious, complex, multi-year action project that is entirely emancipatory; however, Class ACT’s learning community is experienced and ambitious. With regard to The Phoenix Project, the Team makes decisions collectively; approaches challenges as opportunities for reflection and action; collaborates effectively at many levels within numerous power structures; and is accountable to each other, themselves, and many adults with whom they will work. They achieve common goals and visions together, and in so doing, they reflect on how they are oppressed and engage in seeking freedom from it (Freire et al., 1970/2016, p. 48). Their freedom means the community is also liberated as the oppressor, and Park Falls can be that healthy community that Dewey illustrated (Freire et al., 1970/2016, p. 44). These teenagers regain their humanity, and they do it through interdisciplinary knowledge that immerses them in academic and social-emotional learning through community development building.

What greater outcome could there be than teenagers who no longer feel marginalized by their communities and instead feel welcomed. They will recognize how oppression can swallow them with their own inaction, and they will know how empowerment feels when they take action. They will have planned and acted on their own education, all while earning high school credit and valuable employability skills. For me, I see Jason, Paul, Sam, Emily, Hannah, Josiah, Zek, Brian, Mandy, and Jasmine. I see the powerful, educated citizens they’ve become and “the road they made by walking,” leads straight to The Phoenix.

Anderson, R. C. (2017). Teaching (with) disability: Pedagogies of lived experience. In A. Darder, R. D. Torres, & M. P. Baltodano (Eds.), The critical pedagogy reader (3rd ed., pp. 476-484). New York: Routledge. (Reprinted from Review of Education, Pedagogy, and Cultural Studies, 28, 367-379, 2006)

Bishop, E. (2017). Critical literacy: Bringing theory to praxis. In A. Darder, R. D. Torres, & M. P. Baltodano (Eds.), The critical pedagogy reader (3rd ed., pp. 370-381). New York: Routledge. (Reprinted from Journal of Curriculum Theorizing, 30(1), 51-63, 2014)

Community facts. (2017). Retrieved April 6, 2018, from

Darder, A., Torres, R. D., & Baltodano, M. P. (Eds.). (2017). The critical pedagogy reader (3rd ed.). New York: Routledge.

Freire, P. (1974). Education for critical consciousness. New York: Continuum.

Freire, P. (2017). Pedagogy of the oppressed (M. B. Ramos, Trans.). New York: Bloomsbury Academic. (Original work published 1970)

Horton, M., & Freire, P. (1990). We make the road by walking: Conversations on education and social change (B. Bell, J. Gaventa, & J. M. Peters, Eds.). Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

McLaren, P. (2017). Critical pedagogy: A look at the major concepts. In A. Darder, R. D. Torres, & M. P. Baltodano (Eds.), The critical pedagogy reader (3rd ed., pp. 56-78). New York: Routledge. (Reprinted from Life in schools: An introduction to critical pedagogy in the foundations of education, 1989, New York: Longman)

Noddings, N., & Brooks, L. (2017). Teaching controversial issues: The case for critical thinking and moral commitment in the classroom. New York: Teachers College Press.

Pilloton, E. (2010, July). Teaching design for change [Video file]. Retrieved from

Poverty status in the past 12 months of families. (2016). Retrieved April 6, 2018, from

Witt, L. (2017, August 18). District Poverty Rate [E-mail to the author].


Appendix A. Task List for Youth Center
These tasks align with the Action Project Paper and are generated by The Phoenix Team.  Paragraph numbers coincide with the “Research and Methodology” section of the paper.  Students were responsible for critical reading of these paragraphs and detailing the suggested tasks of each.  They were encouraged to add tasks that should be considered where relevant.

Standards: (9th – 11th grades)
1. English Language Arts: 9-12 | Integration of Knowledge and Ideas RI.11-12.7
2. English Language Arts: 9-12 | Key Ideas and Details RI.11-12.1
3. English Language Arts: 9-12 | Production and Distribution of Writing W.11-12.5
4. English Language Arts: 9-12 | Research to Build and Present Knowledge W.11-12.7
5. Social Studies | Advocates/Lobbyists : SS.C.12.9, SS.C.12.11
6. Social Studies | Local political topic : SS.C.12.10
7. Social Studies | Local government structure: SS.C.12.1

a. Critical reading of informational text (journal article)
b. Writing: Note taking, reflection, business plan, business communications, research writing (multiple sources)
c. Oral: Collaboration & discussion with peers, formal and informal presentations
d. Artifact collection as evidence of learning


Paragraph # Tasks Dates Completed By Whom?
PHASE ONE of project
Paragraph 1 Discussions: personal experience with the Corner Rock; what did we like and dislike; if not the Corner Rock where else did we go to “hang out;” conflicts with the law, businesses, etc.; structure of city government. 1/03/18


1/05/18 READ; Taken notes

Paragraph 2 Doing project-based learning in which we learn civic and social skills, and do plenty of research. Learning capitalism and socialism. Communication principles. Healthy community attributes. Brainstorming lists of questions and topics. What we know and don’t know and make decisions about how to proceed with research Ongoing

1/05/18 Article

1/09/18 Read & notes






Paragraph 3 We need to show the community leaders that we do need some teen groups the lead so they know how the teens are affected in this community for they may not know themselves in this day and age.  We need the groups not only for their health and entertainment but for them to stay out of trouble with the police and community members. Study key concepts of socialism. Ongoing
Paragraph 4 We need to look at potential buildings and find out information and fundraising.      

We need to look for a partner to help fundraising and renovating or looking for a building downtown.

We need to consider visiting a third youth center different from the boys and girls club and the YMCA because those two were too much alike (the Chippewa YMCA which is different than most Y’s).





Paragraph 5 Analyze the STEAM gender inequality research

Analyze math scores and compare/gather data to analyze relationship between gender and scores

Evaluate the buildings and decide which will best serve our needs

Paragraph 6 Design physical site

Business plan (expectations, guidelines, etc.).

Analyze ACT scores & gender equity; stereotypes; relationship to our team

Paragraph 7 Dialogue with city officials, partners, etc. regarding business plan

Ask additional questions

Revise plans, designs

Design PHASE 2 of project (2018-19)



Appendix B. Student-Generated Youth Center Site Visit Comparison & Reflection

Name Boys and Girls Club YMCA
Student 1 No soda/energy drinks; vending starts at 2:00

Track students, make sure they have numbers and sign in and out of activities

Age limit with designated hours (HS 7-9 & MS 4-7)

Buses drop kids off

Student 2 Designated activity rooms

Game room in entrance/great room

Small gym for team games

Meeting room for student leadership, guest speakers

Meals/snacks 2xs/wk

Very small area

TV/Video game

18’ climbing wall

Pool access

Parents must be members of Y

Open 3-8 weekdays

Student 3 Hands-on activities like art & music

Board games, team games

Homework room with tutors; earned 1 point/per 15 min of work; top 10 at end of month pizza party

Staff talks to teachers for homework help

Rock wall

Computer/homework room

Very small area

Hang out for kids while parents at the Y

Student 4 Absolutely loved the structure but yet not too strict

Games (pool, ping pong, carpet ball in the lobby

Gym in the back

Small kitchen (lots of regulations if do food)

Cubbies for backpacks

Not much hands-on or active area

Good place to study

Small place for socializing after school

Student 5 Vending machines

Lounge area

Art room

Air hockey table

Ping pong


Skate park in the basement

Carpet ball/miscellaneous games

This one was the one we should try to strive to be like.

Rock climbing wall (should we? CAN we?)

Computer lab

Staff not kid-friendly


Student 6        Game room in front of the building

Staff add new ideas all the time

Liked the gym because it lets kids get off energy and get active

Skate park great but may be liability issues

Not much hands-on

Staff not kid-friendly

Student 7 Optimistic look; like living in a recreational vehicle

Always updating and thriving on being better

Had adult supervision; every room staffed

Cost $20/calendar yr; $45/Family; scholarships available

Racquetball and pool as part of Y

Depressing and underwhelming

Student 8 Pool table

Ping pong


Carpet ball

Skate park

I like how kids can leave an activity they don’t like and go to something else


Rock wall


Lounge area

Computer lab

Not as intriguing as Boys and Girls Club