Project Based Learning: Picking A Topic You Like

31 January 2016

This post is part of a larger series based on beginning Project Based Learning (PBL) in the classroom. You can find the original post here. This post focuses on the importance of picking topics you like. 

Picking a Topic You Like
If you’re excited about a topic, there’s a pretty good chance your students will be too. That’s why I suggest finding a topic you really like. Maybe you want to do something that involves animals or building/designing a city. Whatever it is, make sure you’re invested. Your students will follow you.

Why It's Important
Normally you’d hear people say “do what’s best for the kids,” but when it comes to getting started with PBLs (which could be a completely new concept) it’ll be important to choose topics that you like. REMEMBER: we are just like kids…we need to be engaged! Choose something you are invested in! This is not anti-student, it’s just pro-teacher. Picking something you like is a smart business for your classroom.

How Do I Pick A Topic?

I pick PBL topics two very different ways: 
1. I start with a standard or lesson.  
2. I start with an interest I have.  

These are two distinct differences, but both ways can help you achieve PBL success in your class. It just depends on what you feel most comfortable with.

Starting with a Standard
The standard is the end goal, so I have to work backwards.  From there, I tend to think of how this goal is applied into my everyday life.  Money, fractions, and geometry are some of the easiest to think about because we have them in our lives all the time. I ask myself, "what real life situation could this be applied too?"  

When I start with a standard I tend to feel like my PBL's will be much more contained (in size) because I know end goal.  Starting this way can be helpful because you get to start small, but that is a separate topic.

The first full PBL I created focused on designing a zoo, BUT it began with a focus on AREA and PERIMETER. Even though it takes planning skills, rough drafts, and more --the foundation is rooted in area and perimeter.  Once I had the standard I had to think of how kids could create a project that showed their complete understanding of the concept. So I went with a zoo.

Why a zoo? I’ve loved them since I was a kid. I wanted to be a zookeeper growing up. So I decided students were going to make a zoo. Quickly, I realized area and perimeter were going to be the key learning standard within this project. And the rest is history. Now my students design zoos every year and showcase their understanding of area and perimeter.

Starting with a Interest
Recently I had the idea that I wanted to do something with camping. So I started there and worked forward, thinking of goals they'd need to work towards. Typically, these PBL's tend to be more open-ended and hit a variety of standards and goals.  By the end of the camping  PBL, I realized I had my students taking nature walks, designing a campsite, and problem solving multiple situations. When it was all done, I had Let's Go Camping.

Starting with an interest is important because you're more likely to bring in issues that might not necessarily begin with an academic.  Maybe it's about building the community, learning about another culture, or raising awareness.  The end goal isn't math or reading, rather real-world immersion and/or problem solving.  Math and reading don't need to be the focus all the time.

The end result of the Let's Go Camping PBL.
The question isn't "I can't".  
The question is, "How can I".
Ask yourself how you can turn this topic into a PBL opportunity. It's all about our mindset.

I’m thinking of actual topics you love and enjoy…like Starbucks.

Say you love Starbucks (because I love my coffee). Somehow you want to brings Starbucks into your classroom.  How would you do it? 
Immediately, I imagine the possibilities of making a coffee barista come alive in the classroom.
-Designing the layout and space
-Creating a menu
-Working the register
-Working on a Budget

None of these ideas are life-altering, but I can quickly begin to see how aspects of a coffee/coffee shop require academic skills/standards.

Be A Ten Year Old When It Comes to Topics

What would a 10 year-old me have wanted to do in school?
Animals, Adventure, Monster, Dinosaurs, Movies, Humor, Action...this list goes on and on.

This is how one of my goofier PBL's Shark Security Force came to fruition.  It's basically an A-team of sharks that travel around the world saving the world from evil-doers who want to destroy the oceanic environments. It's what I would have died for as a kid. I know it's goofy and silly, but it's pretty awesome and my students love it.

Project based learning can come in all shapes and sizes, and everyone does it differently based on their class and teaching style. If you're looking to start it, but aren't sure where to begin check out my top ten tips to get started in your classroom.  

If you'd like to check out some of the projects that I use with my students, click on either link below.  It'll take you to my store, where each PBL is displayed and you can find more information.



Project Based Learning In Your Classroom

23 January 2016

Project based learning has been a part of teaching forever. It’s nothing new, but we’ve seen a resurgence within the past few years and it's a buzzword we all like to use. I get quite a few questions from teachers asking how they can start and what they can try. 

That’s why I’ve put together some of my favorite tips for getting started and what to expect when you decide to take the plunge…and I think you should.  Sure, some of these might be simple, but they're worth repeating and thinking about.

Pick a Topic You Like
If you’re excited about a topic, there’s a pretty good chance your students will be too. That’s why I suggest finding a topic you really like. Maybe you want to do something that involves animals or building/designing a city. Whatever it is, make sure you’re invested. Your students will follow your lead. 
Full article here.

Start Small To Find Your Comfort Zone
When it comes to PBL in your class—do what makes you most comfortable. This might mean beginning with a small project or just a sample with your students. No one knows your classroom better than you and no one knows your teaching better than you. Don’t worry about scale, length of time, and complexity. Just start small and find your comfort zone. Full article here.

Paper Projects Are Excellent Options
Sometimes the best PBL only includes paper. Sometimes all the problem solving, designing, and hard work is contained on a couple of sheets of paper.  It can be simple.  Many of the PBLs I create use this paper-based frame work because it works well in the classroom.  Ease-of-use is your friend. Full article here.

Students design a zoo using while focusing on area and perimeter. See It Here.
Use Materials You Already Have
Make it simple on yourself and focus on using classroom materials that are readily at your disposal. Do not go and buy the latest gadgets or drop a hundred bucks at Target. Most simple PBLs can be conquered with classroom items, a little ingenuity, and the recycle bin.

Let Go (of some control)
Ana and Elsa are correct—Let it go. You’ll have to give up some of the control. You can’t control every aspect of PBLs because each student (or group) will have different results. This doesn’t mean it’s classroom chaos—it just means we have to hand the reins over to the students. Let them learn how to learn.

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Be Open-Ended With The Students
Many times students will want definitive answers for EVERYTHING! I tell my students that if they ask me what they can do (within a project) I will always say “YES”. I don't like to limit options and thinking. Too many times kids are told to hide their imagination inside (sadly)—not with PBL. 
This can be difficult concept for kids (which make sad), but we're working on it.

Share Awesome Ideas With Your Class When You See Or Hear One
When I walk around the room checking in (and spying) I hear and see the coolest things and thinking taking place. Those ideas need to be shared with everyone. All the kids need to hear about them because it'll spark other students' imagination. It might seem simple—but it works. Kids need to use each other as jumping-off points, without always having to rely on teachers.

A third grade class created an entire city using only geometry skills, paper, glue, and scissors. See Geometrocity here.
Include All Levels Of Learners
Project Based Learning IS NOT just for talented and gifted students. It's for EVERYONE! In fact, I’d argue it’s just as important for lower leveled learners. Why is that, you ask? Well, many of our struggling learners have learned incredible strategies for staying afloat in the classroom. They apply these same strategies here and it works in an incredible way. These projects are incredible engagement tools for reluctant/hesitant learners.

Multimedia is the Best Hook
Videos, images, music, Netflix, YouTube--use them all. Show students the multiple avenues of ways to learn. These are all hooks for the students and they love them.

When my students build their ski resorts, I like to show them an 8 minute movie on ski resorts around the world. They are amazed and excited to start. When we learn about the rainforest I play an 11 hour loop of jungle sounds (found on Youtube). It’s filled with rain showers, buzzing bugs, monkeys playing the in trees.

Get Physically Comfortable When Working
Let students move wherever they need to in the classroom. Floor, tables, small groups. A quiet room means NO ONE is really learning/discussing/collaborating. I want my kids intermingling, sharing ideas, and stealing ideas to create better ones.

Those are some of my top tips for getting started. If you have questions, just let me know. Or if you’re a just a fan of PBLs, I’d love to hear what you do.  To see more just click the images below.


So In Love With Books Giveaway

17 January 2016
I'm teaming up with eleven excellent bloggers for book giveaway/blog hop/free things bonanza! We did it back in November and we're at it again! Read the entirety of this post to find out how you can WIN! 
My family has an affinity for dinosaurs and the How Do Dinosaurs Series is one of our favorites.  What better way to celebrate Valentine's Day than with dinos saying "I love you."  Even the T-rex can give you a hug with it's little baby arms.  The illustrations are excellent and the stories set the perfect tone for expected behaviors for any occasion in school, at home, and in life.
Grab my newest free poster set, Show Some Love!  It's a positive thinking poster set for the classroom, hallway, or bulletin board.

Before you leave don't forget to grab my number below! Each blogger has a number at the end of their post--you NEED to collect all the numbers along the way, add 'em all up, and enter the total number (use those addition skills) in the Rafflecopter for your chance to win all twelve books!
1. Read all the blogs.
2. Collect all the numbers.
3. Add all the numbers up and find the total.
4. Enter the Rafflecopter (include the total number) between January 17th and the 23rd.

a Rafflecopter giveaway

Now--head on over to Tales From the First Grade and visit Abbie to see her book, freebie, and find out her number!


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