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The 12 Gifts of Community in a PBL Classroom*

JoAnn Groh

JoAnn Groh

Christmas songs are in the air so of course if I’m going to make a PBL list it’s going to be a list of 12, in this case 12 gifts of community. Our school sees our surrounding community as part of our learning environment. We are out and about on a daily basis, and visitors are constantly visiting. In Southern Arizona, we are lucky enough to have an incredible, on-line platform that helps to connect community volunteers with schools.  CommunityShare acts as a sort of matchmaker – connecting its database of community resources with teacher requests. But even before there was CommunityShare, Paulo Freire Freedom School always has been knee deep in outside support and community connections. For us, connecting with our larger world is a win-win and, over the years, we have gotten pretty good at it.

That being said, teachers are still learning how BEST to use these resources. Here is a guide for how best to use the 12 gifts of community that are out there for the taking:


Community member hearing presentation on students’ “Space and Scale” project

1.  Guest Speaker – The obvious one, but it is not necessarily clear as to what the purpose actually is for having a particular person come into the school. We tend to use guest speakers in two specific ways: towards the beginning of study to spark interest and launch a project or, towards the end of a project when students’ knowledge base has become more sophisticated and the formulation of questions and grapple with information is more nuanced and deeper.

2.  Judge – With a little bit of training (not everyone is an expert with rubrics) community members can assess student work products and provide feedback to guide revision and further iterations or, at the end of a project, assist in designating a final grade. Not only can this help teachers with their grading load, but often students give more credence to an evaluation given by an outside “expert.”


Local artist and master puppet maker.

3.  Mentor – Many schools now have some form of “genius hour” or “20% time” in which students work on independent projects, based on their own passions. The subject matters of these topics are often wide ranging and so it is helpful to connect students with mentors in the old apprenticeship model. One of our teachers is particularly adept at using Facebook to mine her friends and has connected students to mentors as wide ranging as expert astrologer to aspiring cartoonist.                                                                                         

4.  Pen Pal – Any teacher who incorporates writing into their curriculum knows the burden of the hours it takes to provide feedback on written projects. One partial solution is to bring more adults into the writing space. One of my teachers has asked his adult friends to “adopt” a student blogger. The adult is not there to grade or edit the work, but just to add comments, questions and insights.


Sharing ancient civilization booth with a parent.

5.  Drivers/Chaperones – Yes, I’ve brought parents and grandparents into the mix of my community gift list –because they are often hugely under-utilized assets.  Parents can fall into any of the other categories, but at our school they most often fall into the driver category and we rely on them heavily to support our many expeditions.  I sell the driving/chaperoning role to my parents, by telling them that there is no better way to see their young person in their “natural habit”.  Most of our kids are distracted by their parents’ appearance momentarily until the overwhelming draw of peer interaction makes all the adults fade into the background of the expedition experience. You can learn a lot about your child watching them in their learning community.  Having parents volunteer for an extended period is also a great way to build parent/teacher relationships because of the opportunity for extended talk.


Learning about habitats and environmental, construction techniques in the desert.

6.  Expert Panel – Put together a group of experts that bring different perspectives to a controversial topic. Students will be exposed to civil discourse (hopefully) and realize in an authentic way that most issues are complex and multi-faceted. This can be especially powerful if the panel includes diversity of opinion, race, religion, etc. In putting together panels, it is important to think about the make-up of our student bodies and work to have their diversity mirrored by the experts.

7.  Discussion Participant – Include community members as part of a student discussion to raise the level of discourse and accountability. It is my experience that when an outsider is included in an activity, even as an equal, students bring their ‘A’ game. Recently I facilitated a couple of “Understanding Circles” to discuss topics of race and cultural appropriation and even having only one community member attend made a world of difference.


Surveying pedestrian about his scientific understanding of natural phenomena.

8.  Interviewee – Students can use community members as resources for their inquiry projects.  This can be done in a focused, intensive way (we have facilitated projects where students talk to Vietnam Vets, members of various organized religions, “the oldest person they know”) or, to conduct a survey of a sample of random pedestrians on the street.  Learning how to frame the questions ahead of time, as well as, actually LISTENING carefully to the answers is a hugely valuable and fairly challenging skill to learn.

9.  Performer – Community members can be brought in to perform.  I am continuously (and pleasantly) surprised to learn how eager, artists from different genres are, to share their craft with young people. But better yet, invite the visiting artists to co-create with our students.  For example, checkout what happened on this particularly amazing day:

10.  Audience – Just having community members in the audience raises the stake for final performances and makes them feel validated and heard. We often use students from other grades to be audience members, which has the double benefit of contributing to their learning experience as well.


Visiting a science lab at the UofA

11.  Consultant – Community members can be brought in to not only work with our students, but also to help the adult staff with content and technology that we might be unfamiliar with. This year we brought in a University of Arizona grad student to talk about scientific journals and we are working with our local makerspace cooperative to help us figure out and use our recently purchased 3D printers.


Spending the morning with a holocaust survivor.

12.  Honored Elder – It is a good thing to expose our young people to elders from within our community just so they can be around them.  American society can be as segregated around age as it is around race and exposing our students to the stories and wisdom told by people who have experienced so much history can be eye opening and inspiring.

Every year PNC Wealth Management values the price of the gifts given on the 12 days of Christmas ($34,363.49 this year for the record). But contrary to the ‘no-such-thing-as-a-free-lunch’ trope, the gift of community involvement in schools is free and abundant. We all live in villages where adults are eager to lend a hand to collectively help raise our young people. We just need to reach out and grab ahold.

*A revised version of this blog post was posted on December 19 at under the same title, ‘The 12 Gifts of Community in a PBL Classroom’.

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