Big PBL Dreams: How one class got Medal of Freedom recipient, Sylvia Mendez, to their first exhibiti

It all started at a PBL Workshop not long ago. Ruben attended the workshop thinking he might catch up on emails, do some shopping, etc. "We’ve all been to that PD session. You know, the kind where you can kinda tune out," says Ruben. But to Ruben’s surprise, he was immediately hooked! “I couldn’t take notes fast enough,” he says.

That was the beginning of a journey that’s now taken Ruben through two highly impactful projects. Ruben says, “I felt a level of excitement in the PBL workshop. I brought that same level of excitement to my classroom. As a workshop facilitator, you drew a line in the sand [for PBL]. I thought to myself, I’m going to rise to this occasion.” And he did.

During the workshop, Ruben planned a project. Driving question: "Who are the heroes in our community, and how can we tell their stories?” Ruben says, “During the design process, I had to find a good context. I found the “hero” project idea and I thought my students would be interested in that.”

From these humble beginnings emerged a project that resulted in an exhibition attended by the school community, local leaders, parents en masse, community heroes, the current mayor of Huntington Park, a philanthropic local doctor, local firefighters coming straight from the scene of a local fire, Rosario Marin who was the first Latina Secretary of the Treasury, Jessica Mais who was the first female mayor of Huntington Park and Sylvia Mendez who paved the way for Brown vs. Board of Edu in one of the most influential anti-discrimination lawsuits in the US.

How was SO much achieved? We’ll look at his implementation process – the project launch, building background knowledge, teaming and tasks and exhibition.

Designing the Project

Ruben Hernandez teaches at Henry Gage Middle School, ranked 2/10 on He shared that students often report feeling underestimated and left unchallenged. Ruben saw this as an opportunity to strike at his students’ doubts and engage them in an experience that would enable them to rethink teaching and learning. He always knew he wanted to be transformational. He wanted to be an agent of change and mobilize his students in a way they never have been before. He wanted them to open their eyes and broaden their minds to the endless possibilities of effecting change and creating a better world. He knew his students were very capable, and that this project would help develop their potential. Ruben’s inspiration struck at a workshop for Project Based Learning.

Ruben designed his first project with the streak of inspiration he had gathered from the workshop process. During the workshop, Ruben had stumbled upon the idea of heroes. He took the time to develop the idea into the context of modern-day heroism. He hoped to give his students something they could relate to. After the workshop, on the first day of the project, he hooked students with an entry event to build a clear need to know. Then, he structured teams and tasks. Building background knowledge was the next key phase of project implementation. Finally, students created their products, presentations and outcomes to present at the final exhibition.

Launching the Project - Entry Event & Need to Know

The project began by presenting an entry event. In this particular case, it was Ruben showing a superhero film in class. He said, “I want to talk to these folks and ask them how they are helping our community.” Of course, the students responded that he couldn’t do that. Instead, they engaged in a discussion and exchanged ideas. Finally, they said, “We’ve got to find these heroes and tell their stories.” Thus, their driving question emerged. Through this, they were able to merge their concepts with their acquired research skills and found about 20 heroes worldwide.

The “Need to Know” procedure brought out the students’ positive personal sentiments on learning and helped them act on it. It was important for them to probe into the idea and come up with their own goals and questions so that they could understand the situation firsthand. Avoiding spoonfeeding and allowing them to think for themselves also made sure that they were investing their ideas and efforts as a concerned community member, and not as a student looking for a grade.

They shared the stories of their researched heroes in class until the selection dwindled down. The remaining 14 were retained after a formative assessment. These were the people who were featured at the exhibition at the end of the class. Never underestimate the power of a strong entry event that captures students’ interests at the beginning of a project. If students perceive that they need to know or “care to know” the content at the heart of the project; they will drive the process forward in ways that inspire us all.

Teaming and Tasks

The two classes, 6th and 7th grade, were strategically formed into 14 groups (Learn more about Forming Teams here.) to make sure that each one was well-composed of different skill sets. The group elected one member to represent them for each meeting called by Ruben.

Ruben made a list of the common PBL group positions that had to be filled, and told the groups they could include more along the way. They also used a large butcher paper to put their ideas together and exhaust all possible tasks that would need to be taken care of for the exhibition. These tasks were for photographers, scriptwriters, adult contacts, and software managers (for programs such as Adobe Photoshop, Adobe Illustrator, iMovie, Keynote, and Microsoft Word). Team members chose their own task, which made everything easier. We referred to this as voice of choice. “Some wore more than one hat,” Ruben added. The downside to the voice of choice was that some of them would finish early and have nothing else to do.

“I was teaching less, and facilitating more.” Since the students were mobilized and engaged in their work, Ruben didn’t have to teach unless prompted by students. And by then, what he taught was honing skill sets. Here, applied learning tasks were employed, where the students were able to learn by doing. They then used their skill sets in software and writing tasks to support their answers to the driving question.

Ruben also created two lists to facilitate the workflow of each group. He had Must-Dos, tasks required for each group, and May-Dos, tasks that groups could opt to do or not do.

The Must-Do list included:

●This was particularly important for the group to find connections to their hero. This person had to be verbose and quite familiar with networking tools such as phones, e-mail, and social media.

●This representative would attend the meetings on behalf of the group. Whenever Ruben had to address a specific group, the representative would be his direct contact.

● Assigned the position of the software manager was someone who was well-rounded with software tools. This was helpful during their explanation to the driving question.

●This position was especially important because it was responsible for record-keeping and transcribing the interviews with the adult contacts.

The May-Do list included:

● There were times that supplies had to be handled systematically, which is why they needed a custodian for all purchased (or collected) materials.

●It was hard to lose track of accounting, especially for unexpected expenses such as printer toner, stamps, and envelopes. A funds manager would be helpful in keeping everyone on their toes when it came to money talk.

By assigning everyone a particular position, the important tasks were not overlooked. In fact, it made it easier to monitor the workflow. Keep in mind that an organized task force produces organized output. It may sometimes produce errors, but at least with this system, the errors will be easy to find and easy to fix.

Building Background Knowledge

In order to get the background knowledge necessary to kickoff the PBL, Hernandez arranged for the local librarian to help out his students. On their first day, the librarian showed the ropes on sifting through their database. For the following visits, she organized workshops on the steps of researching for quality information, citing references properly, and validating credible sources. With her help, the students were able to go through records as far back as the 1940s.

As the students began to write down their preliminary line-up of heroes, they also listed down the criteria they believed could qualify a hero. The stories they read about their heroes helped write their first draft, but as they gained more information, they were able to list the heroes that matched the criteria they suggested. After that round, the researchers also defended their heroes in front of Ruben. If he wasn’t convinced by their pitch, their list would slim down. Luckily the four-member grouping helped in making the decisions for choosing a hero much less personal and more objective

When it came to the final 14, some of the heroes chosen were: