Every year at this time I am celebrating my successes and reflecting on what I can do better. For many years my colleagues and I have integrated project based learning in our classrooms. These projects are guided by a driving question and incorporate all of the PBL essentials: student voice, collaboration, problem solving, critical thinking, reflection and a time for student presentations.
For the last 6 years my 1st graders have done a Spring project that focuses on birds. This project was designed to meet state science standards as well as allow students plenty of time to research practicing what it means to synthesize information and to put that learning in their own word. This learning culminates in a bird symposium where students present what they’ve learned in a way that expresses all that they know to an audience. Every year Alicia and I have tweeked this project, adding art and music components, numerous field trips, tuning in to bird cams so that students could observe fledglings in their nests. We brought in experts and used twitter to connect with ornithologists. We immersed them in the study of birds and their habitats. We knew that our students were engaged and that their understanding was multi layered and deep. Students were asking questions and helping each other find the answers. Yes,they were learning a lot about birds. But could they do more?
In our 1st project of the year, our students had done a project in which they built a city of the future. To do that they brainstormed a list of what they saw as “problems” in our city. Homelessness, traffic, pollution and loss of green space. All of these were mitigated in the city that they imagined for their future.
It was learning that stuck and when we started talking about birds they were immediately drawn to the problems they had already identified. Pollution in our city had to to be hurting birds too. This time they wanted to make a difference and they asked if they could reach out to the Seattle Audobon Society.
The letters were delivered and we had permission to do a fundraiser. Our neighborhood holds a farmers market in the Spring and luckily they were happy to host our 1st graders who signed up for shifts after school and into the night.
In the end these children raised 575 dollars and 25 cents, money that will be used to help protect bird habitat in our city. But more than that they demonstrated that their voices mattered and together they could make an impact on our world. This urgency and sense of purpose made a difference in their lives. And mine. And as I reflect back it’s what should drive all of our teaching. We must lift expectations and let students lead the learning in real and authentic ways.