The American Teenager Project
San Pasqual High, San Pasqual, California | Designing Teachers: Jen Franey and Sarah Gase

In the American Teenage project, students interviewed a peer using a question set modeled after the book, It’s Complicated: The American Teenager by Robin Bowman. We hoped to build empathy in the classroom, developing students character and soft skills as they grew academically. Through this project, we aimed to build a strong sense of community in the classroom as students grew academically.

Key academic skills: English Language Arts—reading, writing, speaking and listening, use of technology for interviews, and narrative writing from the perspective of the subject who was interviewed.

Final product: An anthology of stories written by, about, and for our peers.

Suggested duration: Four to six weeks. A longer timeline allows for greater depth in drafting, critique, and revision, and for greater mastery of writing strategies.



Created with the support of the California Department of Education California Career Pathways Trust

Final Product: What The Students Made
Final Product: What The Students Made

Students wrote an anthology of short, non-fiction pieces inspired by interviews they conducted with each other. In the book, these pieces were paired with self-portraits taken by the subjects of their stories.

The critical piece in this project was that the students wrote their narrative in first person, so they needed to do justice to the voice of the student they were interviewing (and they, in turn, were the “narrator” of somebody else’s writing piece).

Core Practice 1: Mentor Text
Core Practice 1: Mentor Text

Overview of Core Practice #1: Mentor Text

The inspiration for this unit was It’s Complicated: The American Teenager by Robin Bowman.  We used this book as a “mentor text” for our students. One goal we had with this unit was to build empathy in our classrooms and throughout our school; this was to be achieved through interviewing (core practice #2) as well as the drafting and publishing of the book for the school (core practice #3). This mentor text served as a guide for each step of the project.

We asked students to read selected stories from the book in a jigsaw format and analyze the stories with the lens of storytelling/ narrative text. We asked them to consider the following:

  • What are the elements of the narrative/student’s story?
  • What is the structure of the narrative/student’s story?
  • What is essential to include?

This enabled discussion about traditional narrative structure and non-traditional structures. Additionally, as project based learning is newer to our school, it gave students an idea of what the end product could be individually (i.e. the individual stories) and collectively (i. e. the book as a whole).

We also took a close look at the photographs in the book and used them as a model for what pictures of students in the class could look like. A teaching resource can be found in the Core Practice 3 folder for analyzing the visuals/ photojournalism as this is something we cycled back to later in the project.

Why is this Step Essential?

Studying a mentor text gives students a picture of what our end product could be.


Core Practice 2: Interviewing & Transcribing
Core Practice 2: Interviewing & Transcribing

Interview Questions:

  • Even in this step, the mentor text described in Core Practice #1 is essential. Students were given a list of questions that they could ask their partners; these questions were taken from the mentor text. From there, students were able to select the questions that they felt comfortable answering. They planned the details that they wanted to share as their responses to their questions to make sure they were providing their interviewer with enough information.
  • Student pairs were assigned and a class period was devoted to them interviewing each other. They were asked to take notes as they interviewed as well as record the interview. Partners also shared their pre-planned answers with the interviewer. This is essential because it helped students build their listening and speaking skills.

Transcribing Interviews:

  • Students then transcribed all of the information they collected (recording, notes, and pre-planned answers). This was in effort to help students have all of the information from the interview in one place. Students were then asked to code/ annotate their notes with the idea of looking for the story (i.e. What is the exposition? What is the conflict? The climax? The resolution?). This reinforced the idea of narrative text structure.

Why is this Step Essential?

This step is essential because it is how students collected information from one another. It gave them “real world” experience (i.e. they will interview for jobs someday) and allowed them to work on their speaking and listening skills. It also gave them the opportunity to work with recording applications that they may not have use before.

Reflections/ Additional Thoughts

This part of the project students most enjoyed. Some of the feedback included that they liked getting to know their peers, that they learned something about someone that they didn’t know, and that they felt more empathetic toward the person they had the opportunity to learn about. That said, students struggled with providing enough detail in their interview; when the interviewer went to write, they didn’t have enough to construct a complete narrative. This enabled us to circle back and discuss how to draw information out of another person when they are providing little detail. Teachers could have students practice by interviewing the teacher, however, the learning in having to go back and do more work is likely more powerful. Additionally, students wished they could have written their own questions which we will likely implement in the future.

Core Practice 3: Drafting and Publishing
Core Practice 3: Drafting and Publishing


  • After completing the coding activity in Core Practice 2: Interviewing and Transcribing, students drafted copies of their narratives. We looked to the mentor texts as guides for how the stories could be written. Students also were asked to share the narratives with the person subject of the piece for final approval.
  • As students drafted, we emphasized the fact that they were honoring the individual and that this piece was a representation of that person.
    We also required students to write in first person; this was in effort to allow the writer to take on the persona of the subject and hopefully build empathy for them (by walking in their shoes).
  • Students were able to work on technological literacy here as well by taking a photo and inserting it into a document. They had to discover how to wrap text and format a page to be consistent throughout the book.


  • Students submitted the work and the teacher compiled it into a book.


Why is this Step Essential?

This step is essential because it is the culmination to the project and is one step toward bringing the project to life. Without the publishing component, the students are again writing the text solely for the teacher, what can be considered an inauthentic audience; publishing allows the writers to have an authentic audience.

Reflections/ Additional Thoughts

The responsibility of publishing this book should fall on the students. In our case, being new to PBL the teacher took on this role; however, it may increase the learning for students if they are charged with figuring out how to publish the book for the class/ school.


More English PBL Essentials: