Project Based Learning: Start Small and Find Your Comfort Zone

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 Starting Small & Finding Your Comfort Zone.

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.

Project based learning can be overwhelming. I mean, just the term project can strike fear into any teacher, student, or parent. Projects normally mean they’ll be completed at home. This means a lot of stalling and procrastination until the last minute. Maybe…if you’re lucky…your mom will do your bug or flower collection for you. I was. Thanks, mom.

Comfort Zones Matter 

Think about what kind of comfort zone will work for your classroom and beginning PBLs. Be proactive in this idea and design the best working environment for you and your students.
-Will it be a class project?
-Will they work in groups?
-What will work best for my class?
-Do I want my kids to have a total free for all?

You are your best critic when it comes to this, so take a little time and think proactively on what will fit in your comfort zone. Be proactive in your self-preservation.

Starting Small Doesn’t Mean Doing Less

You don’t have to reinvent the wheel when you choose project based learning. Starting small means you’re working within a comfort zone that’s appropriate for you and your students. Starting small is just good business. It’ll give you an idea of where your students are, how they work together, figuring out what will work (and what won’t).

Sometimes I’ll take a small piece of a PBL and test it on my students, see how they react, and make adjustments. Do Simple Better.

What Does Starting Small Look Like?
Sometimes it’s as simple as writing a driving question on the board for your students or asking what they feel are important issues that need to be discussed.
-How can we limit the amount of food being thrown away in the lunchroom?
-How could we raise awareness for a specific interest?
-How could the county improve it's recycling program?

I prefer a single sheet of blank drawing paper and ask the students to draw an invention that will help save the world. I LOVE visuals and think they’re one of the most important parts with PBL’s. Then kids explain why and what they did. Quick, easy, and effective.

Sometimes its a team building game. 
One of my favorite games is to see teams of students play a River Crossing in P.E. Teams are given 8-10 items that can be used to help everyone cross a “river” (normally a section of the gym floor) together. All member must make it across and none can touch the ground. It takes problem solving, creativity, team work, patience, and gives teachers a chance to see how everyone reacts. This might not seem like a logical way to introduce PBL, but it’s effective because it’s a metaphor for what they’ll be facing in the classroom. 

Other Options For Starting Small
Another option is to take the topic that you liked (from the previous post) and introduce it to the students. Ask for their feedback and see if it jumpstarts more ideas (because it will).

I’ve found it very effective to create PBL activities that are straightforward in completing the project/solving the problem, but also allow for all kids to independently make their own choices along the way. I ask my kids to design their own ski resort, which is mind-blowing for them at the beginning—but we work through the process together. See it here. 
These self-contained PBL’s allow teachers to have a controlled framework and also allows students the independence when it comes to their level of learning.
Find What Works For You
It’ll take a little practice to find what works best for you and your class. Creating and sustaining a PBL atmosphere in your classroom requires you to find what’s most comfortable. The worst part is realizing you’ve begun something that won’t be finished—because that’s happened to me before. By that time, I've lost it.

Whatever you do, take the plunge and give project based learning a chance in your classroom. Sure, it might be a little nerve wracking, but you’ll find your zone and your students will love it. And then you won’t be able to stop.

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