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Glenwood Springs school moving toward project-based learning

By Debbie Bruell
Sopris Sun Correspondent

(This article is the second of a two-part series on the transformation process at Glenwood Springs Elementary School).

While the Re-1 school district’s visioning process has encouraged community members to begin dreaming about possible changes in our schools, Glenwood Springs Elementary School has already embarked on a path of significant change.

GSES is being transformed into an Expeditionary Learning (EL) school — a model of education that aims to incorporate many of the ideals that were given the highest priorities at Carbondale’s visioning meetings, including character development, critical thinking skills, collaboration skills and project-based learning.

Last week’s article in The Sopris Sun looked at the initial changes being implemented at GSES. So far staff members have focused on developing the school’s culture and climate. They have worked on developing a sense of belonging, shared purpose and teamwork among students and staff. The next phase of the GSES transformation will delve into learning “expeditions” or projects.

According to the initial draft of the report from the district’s visioning process, parents and community members in Carbondale and Basalt expressed particularly strong support for “hands-on, project-based, experiential learning.”


Project-based learning

Although GSES Principal Audrey Hazleton has never worked in an EL school before, she arrived at GSES this year with extensive experience in project-based learning. She and her husband, Chris Hazleton, founded a project-based charter high school in Duluth, Minnesota in 2000. She also helped develop and taught at the Olander School for Project-Based Learning in Fort Collins from 2008-2013.

Hazleton explained that project-based learning connects students to the local community and real community issues, and provides students with authentic audiences for their work. Rather than working to please a teacher or get a good grade, students are motivated by the fact that their writing, for example, will be printed in the local newspaper or they will be presenting their report in public. 

One of the reasons project-based learning is so effective, Hazleton told The Sun, is that kids take an active role in terms of defining problems and developing solutions. “We all learn more when we’re actively doing,” Hazleton said.

In an interview with The Sun last June, Re-1’s Director of Curriculum, Instruction and Assessment, Rick Holt, said that project-based learning is widely accepted as a “best practice” in education. Because kids are working with their peers on issues and ideas that they truly care about, projects tend to be highly engaging and full of purpose, Holt told The Sun.

Hazleton also noted that project-based learning is very effective when there are a wide range of abilities in one classroom. While working on the same overall project, kids are able to engage at different levels and take on different challenges. She also noted that in her experience, projects can be “so highly engaging that you see kids doing things you never thought they would be capable of doing.”

Another benefit of such highly engaging work, according to Holt, is that there is generally much less of a focus on enforcing rules. “When kids are engaged in a project with a real purpose,” Holt said, “you hardly even need rules.”

In the EL framework, Holt explained, projects always include three essential elements: academic rigor, character development and contribution to community. Projects can vary in length from less than a month to one year, but they must incorporate a planning process and revising process. Beyond that, Holt said, projects can be “anything you could imagine.”

The EL website displays countless examples of actual student projects, including a student-created manual on the art and science of keeping chickens and a book on the Great Depression based on interviews, photographs and drawings of community elders.

Holt explained that there’s a common misperception that project-based learning stands in opposition to direct instruction. According to Holt, effective instruction includes time for exploration and developing students’ sense of empathy and teamwork, as well as time for explicit instruction. “You can have five minutes of structured, direct instruction,” Holt said, “and then an hour of exploration.”

Holt said that if a school or our district as a whole decided to move toward project-based learning, we could develop our own unique project-based learning framework or we could hook into an existing project-based learning network, such as Expeditionary Learning.


First steps

While the shift to project-based learning at GSES will be initiated later this year, some teachers are already beginning to incorporate some of the practices.

Kindergartners who would have been reading books or watching videos last year are now holding chicks in their hands after watching them peck out of their shells, and measuring worms that are squirming around on their desks. Kindergarten teacher Cathy Spence told The Sun that when they do these kinds of activities her Spanish-speaking students have been incredibly motivated to learn the English vocabulary.

Spence said that in previous years teachers felt that there was little time for these kinds of hands-on experiences. Now these kinds of experiences are being encouraged and recognized as powerful learning opportunities.

Hazleton noted that many teachers this year and in past years have done projects with their kids. However, when a whole school is centered around project-based learning, Hazleton said, the impact is much more dramatic.

While GSES is making changes in its approach to education, it is not being exempted from any of the district- or state-mandated assessments.

Holt told The Sun that no matter what approach a school uses, we need to continuously evaluate its effectiveness through assessment; we need to be able to “benchmark” students’ progress in relation to other students in the state and the nation. Holt said that there is extensive research demonstrating that EL schools “rock those assessments.”


(To read both installments of this two-part series, please visit The Sopris Sun website archives at