Project-Based Learning Across the Curriculum

Fall 2017

By Amy Burns, Sue Miller, and Kathy Rubin

As a music educator at Far Hills Country Day School (FH), I find Project-Based Learning to be a very natural process in the classroom. Project-Based Learning (PBL) is a teaching method in which students learn and acquire skills for an extended period of time through researching and solving essential questions (EQs).1 Students in music class gain knowledge and skills by working diligently on creating, performing, responding, and connecting to music, with the results being concerts, shows, compositions, recordings, and more. When PBL was first introduced, music educators could relate extremely well to the method. However, could PBL be used across the curriculum so that students could experience and research EQs while still keeping intact each subject’s core standards, like creating, performing, responding, and connecting to music?
A few years ago, the second-grade team at Far Hills approached me to ask whether the music curriculum could be included in their PBL study of empathy and global citizenship. I jumped at the chance to include our music curriculum in this PBL study. My first step was to understand the second-grade curriculum better.

Second-Grade Study of Empathy and Global Citizenship

At the center of the Far Hills Country Day School’s education is the goal that each student achieve strength of mind and strength of character. For this reason, the core of FH’s second-grade curriculum is empathy. In order for our students to be successful in life, they need to be able to understand things from someone else’s perspective. As FH’s second-grade lead teachers, Kathy Rubin and Sue Miller, expressed it to the parents, “Empathy is … important because it is the springboard to develop an understanding of people and cultures that might be different from us, or a ‘global awareness.’”

Global Awareness

The students experienced global awareness in a variety of ways. One of the ways was using the Families of the World DVDs ( The students “traveled” to different countries. They created passports of their adventures. With this and other activities, students expanded their global awareness and understanding and became mindful of similarities and differences between people worldwide.

Foundational Skills and Social Studies Grade-Level Objectives

One of the ways the second graders experienced empathy was by studying immigration. This study resulted in students understanding the concept of immigration, identifying basic reasons for immigration, developing sensitivity to a world of diverse people, and comparing and contrasting stories of immigration and heritage. During this process, the children strengthened their foundational skills of reading and writing by creating a scrapbook about their immigrants that answered the essential question: “What is the experience of an immigrant?” In addition, when they were presented with this EQ, the students used their higher-order thinking and researching skills to formulate answers.

“Shoebag” Books

Another way the second graders experienced walking in someone else’s shoes was with “Shoebag” books. Every week during the winter and spring trimesters, the second grade sent home a book for the student and parent, grandparent, or special friend to read and reflect on together. These books were stories about people who were in different situations from our own. The student and his or her co-reader would discuss the book and answer in-depth questions about the main characters’ experiences. Through the lives of the characters, the students and their families understood another perspective and felt empathy.

How to Involve Music, Art, Theater, and Technology

The second-grade team asked me whether they could use music class to teach the students about a musician who immigrated to the United States. First, I reviewed the second-grade National Coalition for Core Arts Standards (NCCAS), which focuses on creating, performing, responding, and connecting to music through artistic processes, essential questions, and essential understandings. I immediately focused on the standard “demonstrate understanding of relationships between music and the other arts, other disciplines, varied contexts, and daily life” (Standard MU:Cn11.0.2a - But, I wondered, how else could I address musical concepts and standards of creating and performing music through this second-grade Project-Based Learning?
The answer came from an idea the second-grade team offered me. Kathy and Sue asked whether there could be a musical performance in the final presentation portion of the PBL. With that in mind, we decided that we needed to choose a musician whose music relates to an audience. In addition, we had to choose a musician whose immigration story exhibited empathy and global citizenship. We all immediately thought of the immigration story of the von Trapp family. Our plan was to study their true story. During music classes, I would teach this story to the students, along with many of the songs from the movie The Sound of Music (1965). Next, I would have the students answer questions as if they were one of the von Trapp children, and they would accomplish the performing standards by presenting their answers and the music at their PBL final presentation, “Coming to America.”

The Story of the von Trapp Family’s Immigration

Researching the von Trapp Family’s immigration story was an eye-opening experience. I learned how different the story was from the version in the movie. For example, Maria came to the family as a tutor, not a governess; Georg, the father (Captain von Trapp), was a very private man and not stern; although he wanted the children to perform in the house (not in public), in 1933, the family faced a financial emergency that forced them to perform in public for money; the family lived under the Nazi regime for years and were offered money and security by the Nazis. When Georg turned down these gifts, he told his wife and nine children to pack a bag as they were going on a singing tour. They walked a mile to the train station and took a train to Italy, where Georg had dual citizenship. “We did tell people that we were going to America to sing. And we did not climb over mountains with all our heavy suitcases and instruments. We left by train, pretending nothing,” said daughter Maria in a 2003 interview with Opera News.2 
The family eventually immigrated to America by boat for their first concert tour, arriving at New York in September 1938 with six-month visitor’s visas. Their first U.S. public concert was in New York’s City Hall in December 1938. That Christmas concert brought the Trapp Family Singers to national attention. They worked for years as a singing group and eventually settled in Stowe, Vermont, where the von Trapp Family Lodge exists to this day.3

Essential Questions

Figures 1 and 2: Students create a scrapbook about their immigrant's journey.

After I shared the von Trapp’s story with the second graders, they used their empathy and global awareness skills to develop answers to the social studies EQ, “What is the experience of an immigrant?” The students also demonstrated those skills to formulate answers to our music class’s EQ: “How would you have felt if you were one of the von Trapp children during the time they immigrated to America?” Students also answered several questions — from how they would feel performing in public to how they would feel when their father made the choice to have them emigrate from Austria. The students’ study of empathy played a big role in their answers. One student said, “I would feel sad because we would have to leave our home with little items.” Another said, “I would feel scared because what if we do not succeed in a new country?” A more optimistic student commented, “I would feel happy because we will be safer.” The students empathized with the von Trapp children and were sensitive to the feelings the children had throughout the story of their immigration.

The Performance

For the final PBL presentation, which culminated with a day we titled “Coming to America,” the second graders imagined an immigrant in their social studies classes and included in their presentation of the immigrant’s story a scrapbook of his or her journey to North America. The students had to answer questions to display in their scrapbooks (Figures 1 and 2). These questions ranged from “Why did your immigrant choose to leave his or her native land?” to “What was your immigrant’s experience at Castle Garden/Ellis Island/Angel Island?” At the “Coming to America” event, the students showcased their scrapbooks and answered questions from the visitors, who were family members and students in grade 3 and higher.
For our music portion, the students and I presented the answers to our essential question (“How would you feel if you were one of the von Trapp children during the time they immigrated to America?”) and the true story of the von Trapp family’s immigration. In addition, to achieve the second-grade NCCAS performance standards, (MU:Pr4.1.2a: personal interests in song selections; MU: Pr4.2.2a and 2b: understanding meter and rhythm; MU:Pr4.3.2a: expressive qualities; MU:Pr5.1.2a and b: rehearsal; and MU:Pr6.1.2a and b: performance -, we learned, rehearsed, and performed song selections from The Sound of Music.

Art, Theater, and Technology

Figure 3: Students create images of the Statue of Liberty.

A visual arts tie-in supported the second-grade PBL when the students created lifelike images of the Statue of Liberty (Figure 3). For this project, the students used their foundational art skills, learned from pre-K to the present, to draw and paint the image. The portraits were displayed above their scrapbooks.
Technology was also integrated into the class’s PBL process. Children used a database of primary source photographs to integrate “real-life” pictures into their scrapbooks. They also used technology to create a short 30-second movie about their immigrant. The second graders then collaborated with the seventh graders to write a script for their movie. The script described the imagined immigrant’s experience. Through theater games, the students learned performance skills to use when they were being filmed. The final result was movies in which the second graders and the seventh graders became their immigrant characters with costumes, accents, and the telling of their stories.

Reflections from the Students

Finally, second graders reflected on the PBL process, using the digital student portfolio application Seesaw ( As Figure 4 shows, they answered or explained the following questions:
1.      Explain the process.
2.      What are you most proud of?
3.      How well did you walk in the shoes of your character?
4.      What was your favorite part of the immigration study?
5.      What could you have done even better?
6.      What did you learn from doing this project?

Figure 4: Students reflect on the PBL process.

A second grader filmed herself presenting such reflections as “My favorite part was when I got dressed up in my clothes and I took a photo and I did my movie. I could have done my drawings better. I learned that they used boats, not planes, when immigrants came across the sea.”
Once the teacher approved each student’s reflection, his or her parents received a notification that something was added to their child’s Seesaw journal. The parents could watch the reflection and write a comment to their child. As John Dewey said, “We do not learn from experience. We learn from reflecting on experience,”4 these reflections, and the parents’ comments on them, solidified the final stage of the PBL project.


Figure 5: Students used a thinking map as part of the assessment of their knowledge of immigration.

The second graders were assessed on their knowledge of immigration through a variety of methods that varied from teacher- to student-directed assessments. The teacher-directed assessments ranged from the activities listed above to the teachers’ observations of the children when they were asked questions about the topic. The student-directed assessments ranged from using thinking maps (Figure 5) to organizing their ideas for the final project. Finally, throughout the entire PBL cross-curriculum process, the students practiced numerous life skills that included self-direction, time management, critical thinking, perseverance, communication, collaboration, and risk-taking. All of these items were included in the assessment of PBL.
Project-Based Learning across the curriculum is an excellent way for students to have a meaningful learning experience. When students relate content they are studying in their classroom to content they are studying in music, art, or other extended classes, they are joyful. They love telling their teachers of these extended classes, “We learned about this in our social studies class” or telling their classroom teacher, “Did you know that in music class, we talked about immigration with the von Trapp family like the way we talked about immigration in this class?” This relationship is what the students remember most about their school year.
When I questioned my second graders at the end of the year to name five things they learned in music class during the spring trimester, two of the responses were about the immigration of the von Trapp family and how that related to what the children were learning in their other classrooms. I hope that this encourages you to try Project-Based Learning with your students and, especially, to include cross-curricular subjects in the PBL’s execution. To read more about this particular project from the music classroom standpoint, please visit the website, and click on “Cross-Curricular Activities.”
Hidalgo, Louise. “The Truth About the Sound of Music Family.” BBC News Service. March 1, 2015.
Larmer, John, and John R. Mergendoller. “Gold Standard PBL: Essential Project Design Elements,” PBL Blog.  Buck Institute for Education.
Rothman, Lily. “Behind The Sound of Music: Why the Real Maria Went to the von Trapps’.” Time, March 2, 2015.


1. "What is Project Based Learning (PBL)?" What is PBL? | Project Based Learning | BIE. Accessed October 18, 2017.
2. Agathe Von Trapp, Memories Before and After the Sound of Music: An Autobiography (New York: HarperCollins, 2010). Joan Gearin, “Movie vs. Reality: The Real Story of the von Trapp Family,” Prologue Magazine 37, no. 4 (2005); online at
3. Gearin, “Movie vs. Reality.”
4. Suzie Boss, “PBL Teachers Need Time to Reflect, Too,” Edutopia, November 28, 2012; online at
Amy Burns

Amy M. Burns ( is a preschool through fourth grade music educator and the Director of the Far Hills Conservatory at Far Hills Country Day School in Far Hills, New Jersey. She is also a clinician, keynote speaker, and author of numerous articles and three books about integrating technology into the elementary music classroom.

Sue Miller

Sue Miller ( has been teaching second grade at Far Hills Country Day School (New Jersey) for over 10 years.

Kathy Rubin

Kathy Rubin ( has been teaching second grade at Far Hills Country Day School (New Jersey) for 16 years. Currently, she is also the second-grade Team Leader and the Lower School Social Studies Curriculum Leader.