Adding Purpose to a Student Centered Classroom – A Reflection on PBL

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. fullsizeoutput_3a1c

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.

~Molly

 

The Choice Driven Classroom

If there is one thing that drives our teaching, it’s giving our students choice in the classroom.  My students pick where they want to sit, they choose who they want to work with and with minimal exceptions they are all working on different skills, strategies and goals during reading, writing and math workshops.  They show their learning in different and creative ways and they understand that every single choice they make impacts their learning.   Alicia and I teach  6 and 7 years old and yet they understand what it means to be a self directed learner.   In our classroom this 21st century skill is explicitly taught.                                                                                                 img_4574.jpg

I understand and follow classroom routines. This sets the foundation.  My students walk into a fairly bland classroom on the first day.  There are no assigned seats, no name tags, there are no colorful bulletin boards,  no jobs posted, there are no anchor charts on the walls with guidelines for behaviors. In the first 4 to 6 weeks we will create all of this together. Students will help craft our classroom routines and make agreements so that we can spend each day with one goal in mind and that goal is to learn.  And because they have input into  how our classroom functions there is a lot of student buy in.  6 year olds want to learn and they want to have fun.  And surprising they want structure too.

I work independently for short than longer periods of time.  Alicia and I believe strongly in the workshop model and we teach reading, writing and math workshops.  The structure is predictable.   A short mini lesson on the carpet, followed by ample time to practice independently and then time at the end for reflection.  At this point in the year my students are reading self-selected texts for 25 minutes each morning.  They are writing for close to 40 minutes a day.  They pick their own books based on interest and their ability to read it.  On any given morning you would see students independently working on spelling  patterns, writing a blog post,  using bananagrams or spellominoes to make words or using their iPads to record a video blog in which they summarize a text of their choice.   blog phoeve

I understand that my choices impact my learning.  (and sometime the learning of others)    This is key to making a choice driven classroom work.  My students learn through trial and error, who they work best with and who they don’t.  And just like we do, as adults, they figure out that sometimes there  best friends are not the ones that help them most in the classroom. (And/or when they are supposed to be listening on the carpet.)

I am setting learning goals and persevering to meet them.   All of my students set learning goals.  These goals are sometime set with me and very often set on their own.  Because creating a mindset for learning is also a big part of our curriculum, many of my students will pick a goal around perseverance and persistence especially in subjects that may be hard.  Learning to not give up and to be resilient  are life long skills that will serve them well.

But becoming a self directed learner doesn’t mean anything if students aren’t allowed some time to explore their passions.  My students look forward to Wednesdays because they know that on this day they can pick anything they want to learn about.  As their teacher,  Wednesday means they are reading and writing and researching topics of their choice. But to them in means they are in total control of their learning, they pick the topic, they ask questions, they make a plan to share their learning.

They are empowered.   They take risks. They make mistakes. They begin again.   It’s what school should be.

 

 

 

Optimism

For many years, I began the first day of school reading books to my class  about being excited and nervous for first grade. As the days progress  there are even more books  about how first grade might be different than kindergarten, fairly typical  start of the school year literature.  Two years ago I decided to change all of that. Over the summer, Molly had recommended the book A Mindset for Learning by Kristine Mraz and Christine Hertz–this book has had the most impact in my classroom of any teaching book I have ever read. It outlines growth mindset learning traits to use with both primary and intermediate students. If you have not read this book yet, do so!

 

The first stance I decided to teach my class, starting the very first day of school, was optimism. The book gives student friendly definitions to use with each stance.  The definition of optimism fits perfectly with the first day of school.  “When you do something new, you think “I can try”  and give it your best shot because that is how your brain grows.”  Many times coming into first grade, students are nervous and scared and unsure they will be able to do it. Many are just beginning to read and are intimidated by peers who are already reading. While there is nothing wrong with starting the first day of school with books about the first day, why not empower students with tools they can use for the rest of the year and their life?

 

We began that day coming into the classroom after the usual goodbyes to moms and dads and maybe few tears and gathered nervously on the rug. After sharing a little bit about ourselves, I introduce the definition of optimism and explain that in the text we are about to read, we are going to watch for when the character displays optimism. I do not have the picture of the text under the definition yet, I wait until after we have explored the text several times and then print a small image of the cover out to for reference. The text I used this year is Jabari Jumps by Gaia CornwallIMG_2261Jabari Jumps is a story about a little boy who wants to jump off the diving board but is scared to do so. Again, if this book is not yet in your library, run don’t walk to get it! As we read, we stop and discuss where Jabari is showing optimism. The discussion that follows this text was very powerful. Students really saw themselves in Jabari and made connections to times they had used optimism in their own lives. Throughout the week, we revisited Jabari and the learning stance of optimism.  Within a day or two, I heard students complimenting each other for “trying optimism” when they did something new.

 

Growth Mindset is a popular term in education currently and deservedly so. By teaching students learning stances such as optimism, we empower students to take charge of their own learning and lives.