Problem-Based Learning and Cross Sector Connections in 12th Grade AP Literature and Composition

Ann Haines, English Teacher, Rochester City School District


Over the years my Advanced Placement Literature students have lagged behind suburban school districts in regard to performance on the AP exam.  Those of my students who attend college often feel as if they cannot compete with their peers who attended parochial or suburban high schools.  My students are at a disadvantage for many reasons, some of which I cannot impact. What I can control to some degree is their exposure to their peers throughout the county, the level of rigor that I expect, their experience using technology as a learning tool, and opportunities for them to learn in a real-life setting.  I also want my students to see issues on a more global level, instead of focusing just on their own experience at Monroe High School.

Additionally, my students have limited experience writing an effective research paper, and they often end up learning how to do this in college, while their peers have a more solid foundation.

Inquiry Questions

How can I help my students feel less isolated from their suburban peers? How can I raise the level of achievement for my students? How can I help my students to become more academically competitive? How can I help my students apply their knowledge to real-life problems? How can I help my students write a well-developed, well thought out research paper?


I teach English to over one hundred students. Currently, I am teaching English 1 (9th grade), English 2 (10th grade), and 1 section of AP English Literature and Composition.   I am interested in exposing my AP students to an alternative form of learning that includes communicating electronically and meeting face to face with students from Monroe Community College and Rush Henrietta High School as they work to solve a hypothetical problem in which Monroe County decides to become one large school district.

Data Collection

  • Written responses to prompts regarding their own experiences with education
  • Written responses to the documentaries they view (“The War on Kids”, “Two Million Minutes”,…)
  • Discussion with two Monroe teachers who have taught in Japan and Mexico
  • Socratic seminar
  • Electronic communication between all involved students
  • Research paper focusing on an issue in education either locally, statewide, nationally, or globally


September 2012:

Students are exposed to varied perspectives focusing on issues in education on a local, national and international level

  • Journal entry:  What problems do you believe exist in American education?
  • Show students several documentaries that tackle the issue of education from different perspectives, have them respond in writing, and discuss in a Socratic seminar
  • Have students question two Monroe staff members about their experiences teaching in foreign countries
  • Practice problem based learning techniques through discussions and written responses

October 2012:

Students begin to communicate via an online forum with students from School of the Arts, Rush-Henrietta High School, and Monroe Community College; they formulate a thesis for a research paper they will complete by mid-November

  • Introduce reading
  • Set up forum in which students communicate with students from other schools
  • Conduct in-class PBL discussions

November 2012:

Students meet with their “forum friends” from MCC, SOTA, and RHHS and complete their research projects

  • Students meet  at MCC with the students they have been communicating with on the forum
  • Students complete their research papers
  • Students present their research results to classmates

Post -Project Results

After the Town Hall Meeting, I gave my students a survey to find out whether or not they thought that the initial goals had been met. Under each question there was a line with “strongly disagree” and “strongly agree” on either end. Students could place a line on any point of the continuum and add comments below. I also provided space for them to make additional comments about their experience.  The questions asked were as follows:

  • I feel uneasy at times around students from other districts (asked before the meeting)
  • After participating in the forum and the Town Hall Meeting, I feel more comfortable with my peers from other districts
  • After participating in the forum and the Town Hall Meeting, I feel more comfortable researching a topic
  • My research for my paper helped to prepare me for participation in the Town Hall Meeting

The results were as follows:

For the pre-meeting question, kids were split between feeling very uncomfortable around their peers from the county and feeling comfortable.  Comments were that they feel judged, are shy, and that suburban kids know more than they do.

For the second question, whether or not they felt more comfortable after the Town Hall Meeting, only 2 students agreed at all.  Surprisingly, 9 out of 11 students had a more negative opinion of their comfort level with suburban peers after the Town Hall Meeting.  Comments included: “Didn’t really talk to anybody,” “…they weren’t so welcoming,” etc.  I believe that two things happened that made this so, both having to do with the fact that there were 45 students from Rush Henrietta, 11 from Monroe High School, and 15 from School of the Arts. Because of this, the Rush kids were segregated from the City kids for the campus tour.  Also, many Monroe students sat with tables of 3 or more Rush kids who knew each other and, being teenagers, did not interact much with the kids from Monroe.

For the question about how comfortable students felt with researching a topic, most strongly agreed, but one student said it made no difference.

For the final continuum question, only 2 students agreed that their research helped prepare them for the Town Hall Meeting.  Many commented that their research had nothing to do with the topics discussed at the meeting.  I believe that the question presented to students wasn’t structured enough and many tables were focusing on topics such as wearing hats in school, and concerns that revolved more around student needs and desires instead of student success.

For the final question in which students could add suggestions, they overwhelmingly suggested that they have more time to get to know their peers. The online forum was supposed to achieve this, but it kept getting changed and “reinvented” and there were just too many students involved for any real relationships to form.


This experience was both rewarding and frustrating at times.  I feel that it enriched my students’ educational experience, although not to the degree that it could have.  However, my students did gain solid skills in researching a topic from many angles.  Reading what their peers had to say on the forum, meeting and discussing face to face, reading various articles and books, and viewing documentaries on the subject appealed to multiple learning styles, while equipping my students with the tools necessary to research on a college level.  Also, I gained knowledge of new resources through brainstorming sessions with my peers, especially Brad Craddock, and through learning what Angelique Johnston expects of English 101 students at Monroe Community College.  Lastly, the experience enhanced my students’ ability to “think outside the box” in terms of cultural diversity and acceptance.  My planning and the lengths that I will go to in order to involve my students in new experiences has changed dramatically for the better.