Project Based Learning in the Primary Classroom


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.  


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.


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.


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

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.



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.



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.