By Mary Ryerse and Emily Liebtag

The best projects—those that truly engage students in high quality experiences that are authentic and require a public product—often incorporate the visual or performing arts.

Time and time again, we have seen project-based learning (PBL) schools integrate the visual and/or performing arts into the project processes or products. Just a few examples include:

We acknowledge that not all students may initially believe they are artistically inclined, but once they engage in some form of artistic expression—be it performance, visual representation or interpretation—they often surprise themselves and others by tapping into another level of depth and understanding in their projects.

Student Composer and Conductor

One of the coolest examples of PBL and the arts that we’ve seen recently took place at a high school choir concert, and was the manifestation of a student’s desire to go deeper, express herself further, and engage her classmates more.

Aashna Ray, now a junior at East Ridge High School (MN) created a vision, composed a song, taught it to her classmates, and then conducted the choir during a school concert. It all began with a small idea that Aashna shared with her choir director, Liz Gullick. Mrs. Gullick reflected on the process, “It was cool how organic the process was. It started with Aashna coming to me and asking if she could teach our choir a brief phrase from her culture. After singing just one phrase, the class responded really positively and it continued to grow from there into a full song.”

The first phrase Aashna taught became the title of her song: “Aavya Amra Hraday Ma Aavya,” which translates from Gujarati to English as:

“You have come into our hearts”

Photo by: George May

Collaboration and Teacher Support is Key

While Aashna did much of the writing of the music and lyrics on her own, this was certainly a collaborative—and iterative—process. Over the course of several months, she tested the tune and the words out with her classmates. She engaged them in providing accompaniment, solo opportunities, and feedback.

One of the most amazing things about high quality PBL is that, particularly when there is a teacher who meets students with enthusiasm and support (as Mrs. Gullick did), everyone learns. The power of an open and supportive teacher can’t be underestimated.

As you’ll read below, Aashna learned a ton herself. Equally as important, her classmates learned and were inspired as well. Mrs. Gullick reflected on the positive impact on classroom culture, “When students see a peer doing something ‘next level,’ it inspires everyone.”

Learning through the Process

To continue to draw connections to PBL, Aashna not only created an amazing product, she learned throughout the entire project process. Reflecting on her learnings, Aashna said, “From the day I started to write the song to the day of the performance, I learned so much!” She continued, “I learned the importance of patience, the importance of hard work and the importance of faith. I had to have faith in myself (that I knew what I was doing), in my classmates, and in my guru, Mahant Swami Maharaj, who inspired me to write this song in the first place.”

The public nature of these performances engages students, provides them real-world feedback, and brings incredible authenticity that inspires communities.

Aashna concludes by saying, “This was an incredible experience, and I am so grateful to even been given such an opportunity!”

For more, see:


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Mary is a Director at Getting Smart, where she leads the team’s strategic advisory practice. She helps learning organizations grow and extend impact. She is known for her work in strategy and design; personalized and competency-based learning; readiness; and SEL. You can connect with Mary on Twitter @maryryerse.
Emily is Director of Advocacy at Getting Smart. She believes every young person deserves a world-class education and partners with educators and education-focused organizations to try and help make that a reality. Emily usually is researching and reading about project-based learning, global education, teacher preparation and place-based education. Connect with Emily at @EmilyLiebtag.

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