Project Based Learning in the Primary Classroom

IMG_4627

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.  

IMG_4614

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.  

 

IMG_4640 IMG_4639IMG_4632IMG_4629 - Copy

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

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