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

 

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