Brianne Gidcumb | April 2015

Project to Project-Based Learning: Extreme Makeover

Talking Project-Based Learning Makeover

I was so thrilled to present EdCloset’s webinar, “Project-Based Learning and the Arts,” this week. What a wonderful experience to connect with other educators looking for ways to meaningfully integrate the arts and project based learning experiences!

It is important that we, as arts educators, ensure that educational initiatives developed with other content areas in mind, allow authentic, meaningful instruction in our content areas. The idea of taking on a project based learning approach can seem quite overwhelming at first. Here’s an example of how you can take a traditional visual arts project and, with a few tweaks, turn it into a true project-based learning experience.


It’s tradition that the 5th grade students of Benjamin Franklin Elementary School collaborate on a painting presented to the school at the end of the year. Throughout the course of their 5th grade year, students brainstorm painting themes within a specified topic and vote on a theme. Then, students collaborate on this topic, decide what to add to the painting, and individually contribute artistic elements to the painting. Students engage in discussion on how to make the painting more cohesive, on elements to add or change, and how to more clearly communicate the theme. This entire project lasts 22 weeks and is completed entirely in the art classroom.


Pose an essential, driving question, such as “How can we create a piece of collaborative artwork giving viewers some information on our home state?” Allow students to brainstorm topics related to their home state of Illinois (i.e., landmarks, historical figures, species, etc.). They agree to create a collaborative piece on endangered species of Illinois, inviting the collaboration of the science teacher and the librarian. In small groups, students research endangered species of Illinois and, in their groups, decide on a type of animal to add to the painting. You might be able to secure a guest speaker from a wildlife conservation agency, or plan a field experience to gather more information on the subject.

As students collaborate on their artistic work, they also journal on this experience. What it is like to be a small part of a collaborative art work, the choices they have made in their own artistic additions to the painting, to what they have learned, to how it has impacted them. These journals may be reviewed and/or assessed by any of the students’ teachers, depending on what has been agreed upon among the team of teachers collaborating. Students will be assessed in the group by the art teacher on their collaboration, as well individually on a chosen element of visual art. At the end of the year, the painting is presented to the school to be displayed.

Tips for turning projects into project-based learning:

  • Frame the project with an essential question, open-ended enough to allow students some freedom and choice.
  • Look to the final artistic product or performance and work backwards, allowing students to drive the direction and/or content of that product.
  • Start small- there is no need to start a PBL with every section of every grade level you teach. Start with something manageable.
  • Take what you are already doing successfully and make adjustments to allow for more inquiry and student voice and choice.
  • Allow for cross-curricular integration where it occurs naturally.

If you missed this webinar and would like to check it out, head over to Education Closet’s events page for more information on when you can tune in for a broadcast! You can also purchase the resource guide created for this event by clicking here. This guide includes templates and strategies for organizing and implementing project based learning, as well as examples of project based learning lessons/units in the arts.

Have you implemented project based learning in your arts class? Are you a classroom teacher that has integrated the arts into your PBL? Please share your experiences with us!

About the Author

Brianne is a former music educator from Chicago and current graduate class instructor with EdCloset’s Learning Studios. She earned her Masters degree in Music Education from VanderCook College of Music and has over a decade of experience in the elementary general music classroom. With her experience in the performing arts, Brianne is dedicated to building connections between the arts and Common Core Standards, 21st century learning skills, inquiry and project-based learning. In addition to her work with EducationCloset, Brianne is a yoga instructor in the Chicagoland area. You can also find Brianne here: