Project-Based Learning: An Investigation of Justice in the United States

During the last trimester of the 2021-22 school year, our Upper School students investigated our justice system in their project-based learning (PBL) class. Their learning was driven by these essential questions: What is justice? How does our justice system work? Where and to whom does our justice system fail? How can we make our system more just? 

Bennett Day Upper School students spend half of each school day engaged in project-based learning (PBL), the theme of which rotates on a trimester basis. The model is based on the Buck Institute for Education’s “High Quality PBL Framework.” You can read all about the framework on their site.

Trimester 3 PBL Theme: Justice & Crime

The focus of our Trimester 3 (2021-22) PBL was the United States Justice System. Upper School students asked essential questions like: What is justice? How does our justice system work? Where and to whom does our justice system fail? How can we make our system more just?

In search of answers, students met public defenders, forensic scientists, attorneys, psychiatrists, police officers, FBI agents, and other crime experts who each helped them to piece together what justice looks like from different perspectives. By the end of the Trimester, students created Justice Maps to show the tornado that is our justice system. They also wrote and recorded testimonies on issues they wanted to change, such as the implications of race, class, and mental illness on criminal treatment, the practices and policies in an investigation, and the rights of victims, families, and the accused.

Trimester 3 Demo Night June 7, 2022-19

Demo Night

Each trimester culminates in a public demonstration of student work called “Demo Night,” in which parents, members of the community, and other project-relevant guests are invited to learn from Upper Schoolers.

For the Trimester 3 (2021-22) Demo Night, attendees were invited to walk around and ask questions about each small group’s “Justice Map,” the visual tool students used to track the process of the Justice System as they learned about it from experts, field trips, and research.

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In addition, attendees explored an immersive Art Installation that showcased sketches of each expert that our students met, plus each student’s testimony and definition of justice. 11th Grader Jasmin Hernandez is the artist behind the incredible sketches. Here is her Artist Statement:

“The concept of justice is one that has no real definition, for it manifests in different ways. This trimester, we had the opportunity to speak to several people who have careers that participate in the justice system. We have spoken to public defenders, lawyers, forensic scientists, psychologists, police officers, FBI agents, even a judge. Each had a different definition of justice. During their presentations, I sketched the speakers in real-time. It began as a one-time practice mimicking the job of a courtroom sketch artist, and eventually became something I did every time we had a visitor. This exhibit is the culmination of all of my sketches combined; life-sized cardboard cutouts of our visitors, lit up by lights, accompanied by their personal definitions of justice. I could not do this on my own– I had the help and encouragement from all of my classmates and teachers. This exhibit would not have been possible without them.”

– Jasmin Hernandez

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Read on to learn more about the project-based learning process.

Project-Based Learning (PBL) Process:

Each trimester, our project-based learning course moves through five different phases. 

Phase One (1)-1

Phase One: Provocation

During this phase, the goal is to expose students to our thematic topic from as many different angles as possible, to spark curiosity. This might include things like taking field trips, viewing documentaries, visiting with expert speakers, seeing live productions, analyzing artwork, and so much more. Students are asked to use their five senses to intentionally notice and note their surroundings, as they will later use those observations for further investigation.

Phase Two: Question Storming

In this phase, students reflect on their observations and develop questions that drive their research. Students are asked to consider both quantitative and qualitative types of questions: quantitative having more to do with statistics and facts, while qualitative questions consider more nuanced and perhaps, opinionated questions. Students also aimed to ask questions across the STEAM spectrum (science, technology, engineering, arts, mathematics).

Phase Three: Preparation & Research

After students identify the topics they are most interested in researching, they break into small groups to frame the key driving questions around those topics. Teachers then develop guided lessons around student-generated questions and skill-based instruction on the research process.

Phase Four: Project Design

During this phase of PBL, students are then asked to take what they have learned and demonstrate it in a tangible way to educate an authentic audience. This can take many different forms—activism, building, crafting, writing, painting, audio/video work, and so much more. They are asked to collaboratively design with their group members for at least part of their demonstration.

Each group then goes through the design-thinking process of empathizing with their audience, defining the task and potential problems, ideating, prototyping their best ideas, and finally testing and refining their products. During this process, students learn invaluable lessons about group collaboration, communication, and keeping a growth mindset to push through challenging iterations.

Phase Five: Demonstration & Reflection

Each trimester culminates in a public demonstration of student work called “Demo Night,” in which parents, members of the community, and other project-relevant guests are invited to learn from Upper Schoolers.

Students take ownership over every aspect of Demo Night planning and execution, including but not limited to: logo and program design, introductory speeches, event coordination and operations planning, room setup, food orders and deliveries, technology assistance and set up, music and visuals, seminar exhibit planning, and so much more. They spend the evening educating attendees about their work and its importance. 

Presentations of Learning (POLs)

Following all Demo Nights, students end the trimester by deeply reflecting upon their growth throughout the prior 12 weeks. In their final Presentations of Learning (POLs), students deliver a filmed presentation to classmates and teachers describing the highs and lows of their learning journeys and what they have learned about themselves as individuals and collaborators.

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Click here to read about our Upper Schoolers’ Trimester 1 (2019-20)project-based learning (PBL) around “The Shape of Chicago.”

Think project-based learning could benefit your child? Join us at an upcoming Admissions Event to learn more about our program!