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.




                                       


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