Uncharted Tesol

From Project to Project-Based

I never anticipated falling into the alphabet soup of academia until I found myself enrolling in a T-E-S-O-L training course. A healthy dose of curiosity and a quick Google search found me a place in an introductory course at U-M-B-C, building my foundation of S-L-A knowledge that led me to an M-A and ultimately a position as a grammar instructor in the E-S-L+ program at The New School.

The past three years have taught me not only a plethora of acronyms, but also a few things about my professional self. The most entertaining of which is that I find a great and almost goofy sense of empowerment in transforming students’ thoughts about grammar from “Y-U-C-K!” to “Y-A-Y!” Since that first Google search, I have worked to hone my craft in encouraging this challenging shift in thought, my toolbox growing to include a series of “real-world projects” integrated into the curriculum to pique student interest and turn grammar into a tool for communication and creativity, rather than just a set of rules in a textbook, as so many students tend to see it.

The projects took on many forms but they always involved a creative component that required students to develop a visual product, describe it to the class, and discuss the process of refining it using course grammar structures. For a “Personal Representations” project, students interviewed one another about the effects of global culture on their lives and the changes that moving to the U.S. brought about in them, and then created a visual representation of their partners’ journeys for presentation to the class. For a “Public Service Announcement” project, students worked with a partner to create a PSA campaign regarding a social issue of their choice, using grammar structures to nuance the meaning of their slogans and influence their target audiences.

As I was developing my use of projects in the classroom, I began to hear a few more letters floating around in The New School’s bowl of ESL alphabet soup: P-B-L. The faculty and staff of the program were showing a growing interest in these three little letters, which I eventually came to realize referred to Project-Based Learning. Great! I thought. I have projects in my class! I have learning! I’m right on trend. As a then-new instructor, this thought gave me a lot of relief. What I quickly discovered, though, was just how wrong I was. Yes, I had projects, and yes, I had learning. But no, I didn’t have Project-Based Learning. I began to wonder why and my curiosity must have shown, because I found myself being approached going into my fifth semester in the program to participate in a PBL mentorship with Tamara Kirson, which would have us working together to guide our respective classes through a semester of PBL.

Tamara very quickly turned me into a believer of this pedagogy, meeting over lunch to explain the components of PBL and brainstorm how they could apply to grammar classes. In that first meeting, Tamara helped clarify my understanding of the difference between projects and project-based learning by explaining to me that PBL includes (as outlined by Gold Standard PBL):

  1.  a challenging problem or question, which is used to unite the units or stages of a course and ground students’ and teachers’ thoughts throughout the process
  2. sustained inquiry, which involves cultivating ongoing curiosity and critical thinking from start to end, especially in a “research” phase
  3. authenticity, in the form of using trusted sources of information on the topic and connecting to real-world communities in order to develop students’ knowledge of the course content and theme
  4. student voice and choice, which means that the students work intimately with the teacher to develop the trajectory of the course, the project, and the presentation of the project
  5. reflection, which should be ongoing, frequent, and teacher-facilitated but student-led, and which should focus on the students’ reviewing and critiquing their own work and learning throughout the course
  6. critique and revision, which also should be ongoing, frequent, teacher-facilitated and student-led, and
  7. a public product, which the students develop as an answer to the challenging problem or question through sustained inquiry of an authentic topic, taking form through student voice and choice, and with the aid of ongoing reflection, critique, and revision.

With these criteria in mind, I shifted from integrating small projects into my curriculum, to using a larger-scale project as the basis of it. Before the semester began, Tamara and I identified the topic of “Health & Wellness” as the theme, as it is a topic that transcends culture, age and background in terms of relevance and importance. We next decided to adapt the Public Service Announcement project that I described earlier to a larger scale, and to use it as the backbone for the course. We built our challenging problem or question and identified authentic sources of information to share with our students, including written texts, videos, and guest speakers from the university’s Student Health Services office.

From the first days of class, student voice and choice took over. Once introduced to the concept of PBL and how it influences their role in learning, students eagerly helped to develop the guidelines and expectations for the final project. They brainstormed the logistics of the public presentation, challenged one another to solidify their grammar and content knowledge through ongoing critique and revision, and integrated grammar into their reflective writing pieces, descriptions of their final projects, and critical thinking-filled discussions throughout.

By the time the final presentation rolled around, students spoke with authority on health & wellness topics from sexual health to drinking water to eating habits.They confidently guided their audiences through discussion and analysis of grammar and content, inspired entirely by their efforts and PSA posters. Speaking to groups of 10 audience members at a time, students described the images and language on their posters, including the course grammar points integrated into their designs. They additionally explained why these grammar points were chosen to complement and enhance the message of the poster, and invited the audience into conversation about their health and wellness topics by posing self-written discussion questions. The entire event was a success, and a celebration of health, wellness, grammar and hard work.


At the end of the semester, I saw the same shift in the students’ thinking about grammar that I always hope to see: Y-U-C-K to Y-A-Y. But what was so special about this semester – something that I recognize as a direct result of PBL – was that it was the students who guided themselves through this change in thinking. On their own, they gained confidence in their grammar knowledge, and on their own they came to see it as a friend and not a foe.

W-O-W. What a great shift.


Author’s Biography: Emily Burnett, a 2015 New School MATESOL graduate, is an ESL/ESOL instructor and professional in New York City, currently serving as grammar lecturer in the New School’s ESL+ Intensive English program, and as Instructor and Assistant Coordinator in LaGuardia Community College’s Family Literacy and English adult ESOL program.




If you are interested in more information about Emily’s experience, or Project-Based Learning in general, we look forward to seeing you at one of the following events this year:

  • Making the Move: From Projects to Project-Based Learning, a free webinar hosted by Emily Burnett on July 19 at 6 pm. Registration can be completed here.
  • Project-Based Learning: Collaboration & Competencies Beyond the Classroom, a one-day workshop with Tamara Kirson on November 11 from 10 am-5 pm. Additional information can be found here.

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