Project Based Learning in the Primary Classroom

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Four years ago I was hired at a newly formed Project Based Learning ( PBL) school. I remember sitting in my interview being asked about a project I would develop and struggling through the response. I was vaguely aware of PBL but had no idea how to develop and plan a project. Luckily, that summer our whole staff went through a multiple day training on how to develop and implement a project. Project Based Learning involves creating a multiple week project based around an open ended question, called a driving question. During the project, students become researchers, testers, makers, writers and take on collaborative roles in groups to develop a final end project that they present in some manner.

More and more I read about high schools and middle schools turning to PBL, in my own district is it touted as a way to differentiate in the advanced learning programs. Recently there was even a movie put about High Tech High which is entirely project based. If you haven’t seen Mostly Likely to Succeed, I can’t recommend it enough. All of this is great and I know and believe that PBL can engage and benefit our youngest learners. PBL is a way to access and engage ALL of our students regardless of age or ability.

Four years ago when Molly and my other teammates developed our first projects, we relied heavily on information from the Buck Institute. We still go back to this resource time and time again when we get stuck because even after four years PBL can be challenging as a teacher.

A critical aspect to PBL is developing a strong, concise driving question. This question guides the entire project and needs to be open ended and allow students multiple access points into the curriculum.This fall, we developed a new project with the driving question: How can we build a city in our classroom? This project is based on Washington State Social Studies Learning Standards and incorporates Common Core Language Arts and Math state standards. The big ideas behind it are that cities are places where people choose to live and work together.  And that cities are made up of many different systems that function for the greater good.  

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After introducing the question, and brainstorming what we already know about cities,  we began building in our classroom. At first students were fixated on our cities landmarks, the sports fields and the Space Needle. I let them build these  within their PBL groups with  various tools ( legos, keva blocks, magna tiles, knex etc..) and then I called them back to the rug and introduced the concept of a system. From that definition, my students realized their cities were not complete systems-they had parts  of a city but most of the group’s work lacked roads, stores  and other critical aspects of a city system. They began again and went back to their groups and began to build more complete cities, talking all the while about the work they were doing to ensure their city was a complete system.  Through these conversations, students are learning how to collaborate,  how to have  learning conversations that involve speaking and listening  as well as how to work  through conflicts together. They then wrote about their cities on their student blogs after we had finished building for the day.  

The Construction Crew mid design and build of their first city

While core academics such as literacy and social studies  are easily integrated into projects, Molly and I both  believe the most imporant skills students learn through these projects are 21st century learning skills such as collaboration, researching, critical thinking and perseverance.  They learn how to be flexible when their plan doesn’t work the first time.   And they learn how to revise their ideas as they gain new information and input from peers.  During our debriefing after our first day, one student explained “Well I had to be flexible because I couldn’t find the pieces I wanted to make my hospital so I kept  looking for others that would work as well.” I was impressed by this comment but not surprised, these sort of conversations happen naturally during PBL.  In Molly’s classroom, students did self reflections on paper and you can see that students came up with many different ways to be more successful in the future.  

 

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Our city project is just beginning and every one of our first graders is excited and about this project.  We will be learning from many guest speakers and are hoping to visit many parts of our city for research.  My class this year, like every year has a wide range of abilities and needs.  Every morning when my students enter the classroom, they eagerly check our schedule to see when we will be working on PBL.  Project Based Learning is a powerful learning tool that should done in every classroom with every student.

–Alicia

Life Lessons

It’s been a hard week.   Our school community learned that our principal and the founder of our school was leaving.  On Wednesday afternoon, district leaders told our staff that our principal, David Elliott had decided to take a leave and would not be returning this year or next year.    He was gone.       For Good.        Period.   

Alicia and I both knew that that the principal we knew  wouldn’t leave Queen Anne Elementary without saying goodbye to his staff and to his students. So on Thursday, all of us came to school with heavy hearts wondering how we would tell our  kids that Mr. Elliott, the principal that knew them all by name, that did lunch duty because he wanted to have real conversations with kids, and that led our school with passion and courage was not coming back.  I had only been in my classroom for about 5 minutes when one of my students and her mom walked in with this-  

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Obviously, our district  had sent our parents a letter the night before and  it was clear that most of them were in shock too.  It seemed that very few in our community believed that our leader, the man who built our school would leave without a word.  And since I had already been touched by one child’s act of kindness, I wanted to make sure our community knew that these were the students we were growing. So I sent out a tweet with the hashtag  #ThisIsTheSchoolThatDavidBuilt and despite the typo, people saw it and responded.  Soon our families were connecting in person and on social media. I now had less than 10 minutes before the first bell and my head was spinning with questions, “What would I tell my students? Would they be feeling the same sadness?  Would they also  be wondering if our school was going to change?  Who would be in the lunchroom and who would be leading our school?”  And then I did what I do on many days when I’m unsure of my next steps. I walked down the hall to look at our pillars that greet every visitor that comes to our school. These pillars are the foundational statements that guide our teaching and learning.I snapped a picture and sent this tweet out to the world tweaking my hashtag so that it read #DavidBuiltThisSchool.

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Our school is a special place.  Queen Anne Elementary is an option school in the Seattle Public School District.  Our families choose to come here.  QAE opened it’s doors just 6 years ago and was originally envisioned as a school where, simply put,  children would learn how to learn.  I was not here in its first year but joined the staff in year two.  Alicia joined in year three.  It was that year we started using iPads in our classrooms, sharing a rolling cart between classrooms.  And it was the next year in a staff meeting when David,our principal, said that he would like to pilot a 1to1 program in our school.  Alicia and I raised our hands.  And with David’s strong encouragement, that  December our first grade team had iPads in the hands of all our kids and the learning for both us and them was transformational.  Now all of our kids, kindergarten through 5th grade have 1to1 devices. But these devices are just tools to show the world what is at the heart of our teaching and learning, our pillars:     

  • We are self-directed learners
  • We encourage each other to think critically and learn more
  • We are concerned, confident and compassionate citizens of the world
  • We learn everywhere, we learn together
  • We are creative

And when things get hard at our school, students and teachers, come back to these pillars and know that they can and do hold us up.  All of us held classroom meetings so that students could talk and ask questions about Mr. Elliott’s sudden departure.  In first grade, I think both Alicia and I would say that our kids really helped us remain strong.

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 And in fifth grade, the students who came here when Queen Anne Elementary  was brand new worked through their feelings together.   There were lots of tears and many memories shared.   Life Lessons.  

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And while we were inside the building, our community was outside working to make sure that the school that David built was going to move forward. I know it will. The work here is to important. Of course, there is much more to this story.  And the end hasn’t been written yet. Our principal isn’t perfect. In a letter to our community he admitted that he did make a mistake by not completing teacher evaluations last year.  But we are standing with him anyway because he is more than his mistakes. So thanks to all of you who are fighting the fight to get our principal back. It’s my belief his work is not finished.   And thanks to all of you who are fighting in schools everywhere for the chance to teach kids more than just academics, It is the life lessons, good and bad, that matter most.

–Molly

  

Small Steps

The day before school, I was ready. Ready to jump into the adventure that is first grade. And then we went on strike. When we eventually went back to school, I felt scrambled and rushed, it was the middle of September already!  Today was our tenth day of school and suddenly I realized what was going on in my classroom.  I was rushed and my students knew it, so they were rushing to keep up with me.  I knew what I needed to do.  I needed to slow way  down and start taking small, focused steps.

Last week I tried a math lesson with iPads. It was not a complicated lesson at all, in fact the concept of making tens with unifix cubes was developmentally right on for my first graders. My plan was for students to create an Educreation project with three different slides showing the different groups of ten they created. In my haste, I forgot got that my new first graders had limited experience with Educreations in Kindergarten. Needless to say, the task was much too complicated for most of my students. This project had way too many steps and tools to navigate for students to begin with.  So I took a step (or two) back. And began again.

Today after my mini lesson in word work, students had the choice to graph sight words from a weekly sight word list, make words with letter tiles or write words using white boards. Whatever they chose, they needed to show their learn through pictures and words. I asked students to use the app Pic Collage to take three pictures and write a sentence about their word work. This was a simple task, however, it reinforced many skills my students will need for larger, more complicated projects. Students practiced taking clear photos, selecting a font, typing in a text box and saving their work to the photo library. Pic Collage is a very simple to app to navigate and every year it is one of my students favorite apps to use.

 I realized today that what I had forgotten in my  rush to develop independent first graders was  the small steps we take daily  to lay the foundation for the future work ahead.  And the need to start with simple tools that help are students be successful from the beginning.  That’s how we grow the independent, self directed learners that leave our classrooms in June. My goal going forward  is to slow down and remember to keep taking small, focused steps forward. We shouldn’t be in a hurry.

–Alicia

Student documenting the words they built to use in a Pic Collage
Student documenting the words they built
Graphing sight words from a favorite book
Graphing sight words from a favorite book

Speaking, Listening and Viewing – A Must See Project by Guest Blogger Katie Cryan Leary

photo 6Three years ago, my kindergarten team and I started launching our school year with a project called Who Am I ?  There are three speaking, listening and viewing student goals for this project. The first goal is ‘to look at and acknowledge the speaker’. The second goal, ‘speak audibly and express thoughts, ideas and feelings clearly’ and the third goal, ‘describe familiar people, places, things and events and, with prompting and support, provide additional detail.  These goals’ are directly aligned with the national kindergarten CCSS for literacy. It is critical in kindergarten to set up a supportive learning environment in which students feel comfortable speaking and are respectful listeners, so starting the year with this project makes so much sense to us.

From the first day of school, we focus on helping our students use their bodies, voices and brains to listen as they learn the routines of kindergarten. We talk about how good listeners use a still body, a voice that is off and an engaged brain to listen. We post a Listening anchor chart as a visible reminderlistening poster.

 Each day, we assess our listening using a thumb signal. This helps our students internalize what their brains, bodies and voices need to be doing when they are listening. We use our listening to learn how we are the same and different and to explore who we are in our community. We practice our listening constantly and consistently during mini-lessons, class meetings, peer sharing sessions and weekly school assemblies.

During these first few weeks, we observe and assess these important skills.  We use checklists to track the level of proficiency and comfort our students have when communicating with each other and identify students who need extra help and provide them with additional support.  In early October, we transfer our thumb system to a paper student self-assessment rubric. photo 5We use these self-assessment rubrics throughout the year to help students self-assess their learning and set goals for future learning.

After our classroom positive discipline routines are in place and our collective listening is solid (usually early October) we officially launch our project. We read the book Whoever You Are, by Mem Fox and start thinking about the question ~ What Makes Me Me?.  At a station, students reflect on this question, creating drawings that communicate to their classmates information about who they are and how they fit in their community.

We continue to read great books  and share our thinking on our classroom blog via drawings and blog posts that reflect on the questions: What do I love to do?, and What do I want to learn how to do that I don’t know how to do yet?

At this point in the project, we start to deepen our self-exploration by asking ourselves ~ How am I the same? and How am I different? than my new kindergarten friends. As we identify the similarities and differences between us and discuss how these differences are what make us each so unique and wonderful. We talk about our families and create a Where in the World have our Families Lived? map learning about our families’ history and backgrounds and providing more ways to think about how our families are the same and different. photo3

We then summarize our listening learning and transition to speaking instruction with a Museum of Us gallery walk activity. (See http://cryanleary2014.weebly.com/class-blog/launching-our-1st-project-based-learning-pbl-project-who-am-i) Each student brings an object from home that represents who they are. During the gallery walk activity, students have a turn to be both a speaker and a listener. When they are a speaker, they have a safe opportunity to present their object to classmates one at a time, using their speaking to teach others who they are. When they are a listener, they use their listening skills to learn new things about their classmates.After the gallery walk, speakers give compliments to classmates that they noticed being really good listeners while they were speaking. Listeners were complimented for standing still, for not touching the speakers object, and for focusing on the speaker.

After the students have had a chance to participate in the gallery walk as a speaker and listener and assess how they did, we give our first speaking lesson, teaching our students that effective speakers use their bodies, voices and brains to speak, the same three things we use to be good listeners. We add speaking to our existing listening poster, helping the students make this connection. photo 2 

For the next week, we dive into noticing speaking. We talk about what good speaking looks like and watch videos of kids speaking, some effective and some not. We talk about what a still body looks like, we practice using clear voices, and talk about how we know speakers brains are engaged – the speaker looks at the audience, their fluency and pace of speech allows the audience to understand. We look around us for examples of all of these things and point them out when we notice them.

While we are exploring speaking in class, the students work in art class with our art teacher to create pieces showing who they are and how they are the same and different from other members of our classroom community. These art pieces include a self-portrait, a plate showing favorite foods, a shape collage showing the student’s home, a thumbprint family portrait and a drawing of the student’s favorite activity. These art pieces are used to create an All About Me presentation board. photo 4

Before the final posters are created, students are given station time to use the cameras on their iPads to record each other speaking about their favorite activity, practicing their speaking for their final presentation.

Then, after the posters are pasted together, students do a final practice, this time presenting to their small table group at a station. Before this practice, we review our effective speaking criteria: to have a still body, a clear voice and an engaged mind. After each student presents, the audience provides feedback about what they observed the speaker’s body, voice and brain doing during the presentation. The speakers also gives the audience feedback about their listening. After this small-group practice, students view their video, assess their speaking using the student self-assessment rubric and then set a goal for how they plan to improve their speaking for their final presentation.

As a culminating activity, each student uses their speaking skills to present his or her presentation board to their peers via an oral presentation. Specifically, they are asked to:

~ introduce themself

~ introduce their family members

~ tell us something about their home

~ tell us about their favorite activity

~ tell us what their favorite foods are

They also listen to and view the presentations of their peers. This provides each student an opportunity to showcase his/her speaking skills as well as multiple opportunities to demonstrate their listening and viewing skills as a member of the audience.

After presenting, students view a video of their presentation and self-assess their speaking skills on a final speaking rubric. Final presentations are videotaped and uploaded to student e-folios, along with students’ final self-assessments.

Each year, I expect students to be hesitant to do their final presentations. Each year, I am surprised that almost every student volunteers to go first. For the three years we have done this project, all of my students have successfully used effective speaking skills to share their poster with the class. I am amazed at the excitement and confidence my kindergartners bring to this activity ~ every one of them bravely speaking. They also work hard as audience members for their classmates’ presentations, using their listening skills to learn about their new kindergarten friends. I am proud of how well they do with both of these challenging tasks.

* A few of our favorite books that explore this concept

Whoever You Are ~ Mem Fox

It’s Okay To Be Different ~ Todd Parr

To Be A Kid ~ Maya Ajmera and John D. Ivanko

Only One You ~ Linda Kranz (and You Be You)

The Skin You Live In ~ Michael Tyler

Shades Of People ~ Shelly Rotner and Sheila M. Kelly

One ~ Kathryn Otoshi (and Zero)

Spoon ~ Amy Krouse Rosenthal (and Chop Sticks)

Here Are My Hands ~ Bill Martin Jr. and John Archambault

What I Like About Me ~ Allia Zobel Nolan

The Color Of Us ~ Karen Katz

-Katie Cryan Leary

A huge thanks to Katie for sharing this blog post with us.  Katie leads our school’s amazing Kindergarten team and is a mentor teacher to all of us at Queen Anne Elementary. Her students come to us with such enthusiasm for learning! And of course they come know what it means to be a good speaker and a good listener. This foundation makes our job so much easier!  Thanks Katie!  You can follow Katie’s classroom on twitter @msCLqae

Missed Opportunities

Tomorrow was supposed to be the first day of school.  And let’s face it, teachers spend a lot of time thinking about that day.   Not in June, when we are saying goodbye to the students that we have come to know so very well.  But surprisingly, very soon after, when we finally have the time to reflect, deeply reflect, on our accomplishments and on our missed opportunities.  Because there are always some.  For me, it’s always the “did I do enough question” especially for my students who struggle.  The students who were just shy of reaching grade level in reading or math.  The one’s who struggled with friendships or anxiety and the ones who struggle with their identity even at age 7.  Teachers face these issues each and every day and we hope that “in the moment” we say and do the right thing,  We teach and reteach,  problem solve and counsel.  We do our best.   And then we look to the future and wonder, how can I do it better next year.

In Seattle, teachers went back to school a week ago.   There were three days of professional development before the Labor Day Weekend.   At my school, we talked about math, writing and reading, focusing on a new phonics curriculum.   We welcomed new staff and had the  rare opportunity to talk about curriculum with colleagues that teach in other grade levels.  I work in a school with an amazing staff and for those 30 to 45 minute sessions, I was engaged and even inspired.  But most of the time, I felt like our students must feel when everyone is expected to learn the same thing in the same way.  So when those 3 days were over, it was what I didn’t hear that bothered me most.  Even though our school  just finished our first year, half year for some, as a 1to1  school, we didn’t talk about technology.  We didn’t talk about giving kids the opportunity to drive their own learning. We didn’t talk about Wonder Wednesdays or Maker Spaces or Edcamps.  I believe this was another missed opportunity.

And so today, I returned to my classroom and spent the day getting ready for my 26 new first graders.  As always I was imagining the possibilities.   Alicia and I want to engage students on that very first day.  We want students working in groups and creating tutorials that will showcase what they know.   Last year students created digital books with titles like “How to Grow a Plant” or “How to Be a Good Listener”.  These tutorials created a baseline for learning.  Our students quickly latched on to the idea that we are all experts at something and that each and every one of us can be both teacher and learner.   It set the tone for our year.   We were going to try it again tomorrow and this time trust that we could act as facilitators as we watched our youngest learners work together to create new learning and share it with one another.

But there will be no first day for us tomorrow.  Seattle teachers are on strike.  Tomorrow, Alicia and I will be on the picket line with thousands of our colleagues.  All of us, dedicated educators,  united by our passion that teachers and students deserve better.  Would we rather be in our classrooms?  Of course, but it’s time for us to take a stand, otherwise it would be just another missed opportunity for teachers to make a difference.

How to use BookCreator in Writer’s Workshop

Molly and I are Writer’s Workshop teachers. We have both taken the Writer’s Workshop training at Teacher’s College (TC) and both of us feel passionately about our students seeing themselves as writers. When we began our 1:1 journey, the possibilities did and still do feel endless with our devices, however, sometimes this endlessness can be daunting. I’ve written about how we use both Educreations and Book Creator in our classrooms (Book Creator and Educreations in the classroom), in this post I want to focus specifically how we use Book Creator in conjunction with our Writer’s Workshop.

We do three-four writing units a year based on the TC first grade Writer’s Workshop curriculum. During our daily Writer’s Workshop, students spend around 30-40 minutes writing and editing. This past year I focused on using BookCreator during the informational writing unit and realistic fiction(2nd and 3rd units). I plan to integrate Book Creator into the small moments (1st unit) curriculum this coming year because it was incredibly engaging to students and allowed them to easily publish their work digitally.

There are a many ways to use Book Creator during the workshop. Sometimes students would publish books they had already written using Book Creator. This was exciting to them because not only did they have a paper copy but they also had a copy they could read and access through iBooks on their iPad. This also made it easy to share their writing through their kidblog as you can save books on Book Creator as a video on the camera roll and upload to a variety of platforms. They also were able to Airdrop their stories to each other’s iPads and create a class library filled with their peers stories.  

What struck me about using Book Creator as a writing tool was how engaged and excited students were to use it even during free choice time. In this first sample, the student wrote about how to care for the classroom fish using skills the student learned during the workshop however, the student wrote the story during free choice. The skills the student was learning in writing naturally transfer to using the Book Creator app.

In this second example, we had been writing realistic fiction series for several weeks when we decided to use Book Creator to write and publish one of the stories in the series. I created a anchor chart to guide students through the process.  

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Using Book Creator in our Writer’s Workshop allowed our students to create and publish their stories digitally, share their work easily on their blog and apply writing skills they had learned in the workshop to a digital medium. I cannot recommend using Book Creator in conjunction with your Writer’s Workshop enough!

-Alicia

Why We Don’t Have Chairs

 

 

 

 

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It’s usually the first thing anyone who hasn’t been in our classrooms before asks, “Why don’t you have any chairs?”   It’s a good question and there are many reasons Alicia and I have given up chairs to support student learning.   First things first, our youngest students like to move and they don’t sit anywhere for long.  Our classrooms are small and if there were 26 desks and 26 chairs we wouldn’t have room to do anything but sit.  Learning would look extremely different.

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Without the more traditional classroom set up we can  easily move tables around so that we have a wide open working space. Sometimes we push all the tables to the sides of the classroom to create a larger working space. These photo’s show how students have plenty of room to work as they explore how balls move and begin to build ramp systems in science.   Sometimes our tables become stages for group presentations. Without chairs and desks, we have a great deal of opportunity to change our classroom layout in a moment’s notice to best fit our students learning needs.

You’ll notice that we have tables and not desks.   We believe this is the best way to get our students used to working together.  Both of us have no assigned seating in our classrooms and on the first day of school we begin teaching kids how to make choices that work for them. First graders like to fidget and sometime being a self directed learner means you sit at a table or lie down on the carpet with a clipboard.

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It’s rare that you would see all of our students sitting at tables.  First graders love to mix it up.  We firmly believe that students learn better when they are not glued to their seats.   It’s important that they are able to engage physically and creatively while they are learning.   Even so we still take many brain and body breaks to get out kids up and moving around during the day.  And if you need anymore convincing, you probably already know that with our youngest learners, chairs can present their own unique issues. They can squeak, tip over frequently and cause a great deal of noise. Not to mention, how hard it is to get first graders to push chairs in when they’re not sitting in them.  In fact, it was tripping over a chair that caused me to take the last chairs out of my room for good.  For a long while, I had a mixture of low tables and traditional desks and chairs.  So, after tripping  and while  planning a writers celebration, I decided I would move the chairs into the halls so we would have more room to move around.  The celebration was super successful. But when I told my students that  I would be putting our room back together in the morning, they replied, “Why would you do that – we love the  low tables and  it’s so much better this way.”  As usual, my students understood what worked best for them before I did.  And they make it clear that our classroom was too crowded.

I will say that in the beginning, Alicia and I felt some resistance.  Parents worried that their children would be uncomfortable or they would get dirty sitting on the floor.  We bought many carpet squares and pillows but found that while children will reach for them occasionally, they really prefer sitting or kneeling on the floor.  There have been times when children’s physical limitations or other reasons have warranted bringing a desk and chair into the classroom.  And of course, we do what is right for every student.  In a perfect world, we would love to have a mixture of all kinds of seating, but for us, at this time, in the space that we occupy, our furniture helps support the  learning community that we believe is most important for our kids.  A classroom where everyone is making a choice that allows them to be successful.  And at the same time creating a classroom environment where collaboration and conversation is always part of the learning process.

-Molly