Project Based Learning, Dissected

I wanted to take some time dissecting how I use project based learning in an elementary classroom. I'll break down the process I use for project based learning (PBL) and ease that overwhelming feeling you might have.

I'll preface this post by letting you know I'll be referencing my own resources throughout because it's how I use project based learning in my class, specifically this one.  

One of the initial issues I had with project based learning was how unstructured it was for young students. Remember, I'm talking about elementary students.  Giving kids an idea or driving question then asking them to try and solve it doesn't work very well. These students need structure AND the ability to solve complex issues. It was that reason why I started creating my own project based learning resources for students (and other teachers). I wanted a simple, effective, and laid out approach to introduce PBL activities that could be easily differentiated to students. I teach special education and I wanted materials that would engage students and push them into new territory

Just so you know, I love project based learning.

I'm going to refer to this incredible chart (below) that I've made throughout this post because it's important to understand that project based learning COMPLETELY depends on the kids (or class) you teach (based on my own professional opinion). Let me say that again: PBL looks different for EVERY SINGLE teacher and class. The depth and complexity will be different for each student--and that is okay. It's just like any other concept or piece of curriculum--your students will drive how you teach.

Four main issues (structure, independence, technology/research, and literacy & numeracy skills) will determine how I have to work with each of my students. This is the case for teachers around the world, it's why PBL varies so much from class to class and student to student.

The younger the students, the more hands-on the teaching must be (see my handy chart). Primary and intermediate students need the most structure, which is why integrating PBL into elementary grades can be tough. They also need more guidance with the technology. You don't want them playing Minesweeper on "accident" the whole time.

But let's back up and start at the beginning-

Why do I use project based learning with my students?
(Professional Answers)
-Authentic learning, real-world learning
-It works for all levels of learners
-Kids use their own prior knowledge and skill sets
-Social Aspects (collaboration, solving disagreements, asking for feedback)
-I want my students to experience something different.

(Fun Answers)
-It's messy and filled with surprises.
-I get to tell kids "yes" to all their questions.
-Constant discovery and conversation
-Kids want to go home work on it then come back the next morning and tell you.
-Art is always involved.
-It's always different.
-I see students connect in ways typical lessons wouldn't let them.

What are the problems I face when doing it in class?
-Time frame and constraints
-Students don't know how to pick topics
-Student independence levels with technology and research
-Figuring out how to share it with an audience
-Literacy and math skills needed at primary age

What are the benefits I see?
-Engaged and motivated students
-Increased student independence
-Kids recoginzing their strengths and skills
-More risk-taking
-Willingness to fail...and try again
-Do you want me to keep going?

Depending on where you look there can be anywhere from 5-9 steps for project based learning, so I'll try to stick with what I think are the biggest and baddest.

The Essential Question, The Driving Question
I like to give younger students the idea, question, and/or topic. It takes the bad groupthink out of the mix. I've given students choices and options, but have found that to be ineffective for younger students. The driving question or task comes from me.

And this is also where I go off-roading rather than following the typical project based learning formula because the essential or driving question isn't always a single question (to me). Sometimes it's a task or objective that include tons of moving parts. I know, it's a little different.

The example I'll use is this: The students have been asked to run a music festival in their town.

"But that's not a question," you're thinking. I know. But it is a complex issue that can be related to communities or interests of students which requires a high level of thinking and problem solving. It's also open ended so every kid can choose their own adventure. I want students to create something completely original and unique that solves an issue.

Starting with a single idea or task for everyone also give the kids more structure. They need to run a music festival, but they don't know how they're going to do it. And they're all in the same spot (as a class).

For an introduction I like to show a video or film clip to get the kids interested. We talk about what we saw, what’s involved and see what kinds of information we can learn from it. Current events work really really well and kids see the immediate connection. Also—never underestimate the power of pop culture in the classroom.

-Introduce with a video but don't give an explanation.
-Find a read aloud book that matches with the PBL.
-Complete the brainstorm as a class.
-Use the white board or resource (projected) and complete with the students.
-Share your own personal experiences.
-Ask your students to predict what the PBL activity will have.

Research and Planning, Sustained Inquiry
How do I get elementary students to research and plan when they haven’t been taught? How do I send them to research on the internet when they don’t know where to look? These are issues that are still tough for middle and high school kids.

I consider Research, Planning, and Feedback to the be ultimate circle of life (cue the Lion King Music). Most tasks within these PBLs require it.

I incorporate a classroom brainstorming session where we all share what we think we know. We like to ask a lot of questions. Sometimes I like to ask a lot of questions. Sometimes I start to see little sparks and it all begins.

  • What do you know about music festivals?
  • Who plays at a music festival? Do you know any bands?
  • Where have you seen them?
  • What kinds of music are there?
  • What kinds of music do you listen do?
  • Have you ever been to a concert? What was it like?
  • What else was there?
  • How big was the stage? 
  • Who worked there? What was being sold?
  • Who schedules the bands? 
  • What kind of stage is there?
  • How is this planned and organized?
This is the place where I want students to begin to pulling from their own experiences and unique backgrounds. If kids don’t feel represented or can’t represent themselves in their work nothing will stick with them.

Primary: Researching and planning requires books, videos, and teacher’s accessing the internet. I don’t let young kids go crazy on the internet, it’s ineffective and time consuming.

Intermediate: Same as above but I can start taking the training wheels off because their independence is growing. By this age most students are beginning to understand how to read/research/use tech and find information on topics or interest. I’m still guiding them as they do this.

-Go to the library and pick out books for the students to use (have them ready)
-Start a Symbaloo page with links to sites they might need (photos, videos, maps, articles). This is one of my favorite ways to make technology resourceful.
-Allow kids to work independently OR collaborate with others. Let them choose.
-Tell students, "yes" all the time. 
-Have technology ready, but don't rush to it. I'm amazed at how far we can go with a project because each student has something great to offer.
-Stop Everything and SHARE! Stop the class and ask for students to share what they've learned, picked up on, or thought of. These ideas are priceless because they help the rest of the kids.
-Give them time. You will feel the need to rush research and planning...don't do it. Relax and get yourself a cup of coffee.

When it comes to planning, break it all down into small pieces. 
I break my resources down into small manageable bites that normally focus on accessing prior knowledge, planning, organization, design, and reflection. These PBL elements are crucial for students. I've also designed them to work in a cross-curricular format because when we're doing the PBL dance, we're working on all skills. Below is an example of how 18 activities fit into into one PBL. Within each of these activities are math, ELA, writing, and art elements all working toward a final goal/project. The other aspect is that I pick which parts I want students to complete. Each worksheet can build on the next, but it can also be stand alone. So I can have a group of kids focusing on math content (budgeting for supplies and concession stand) and have another group researching locations or practicing map skills.

Students need those graphic organizers that are filled with essential questions to push their ideas forward. What I've done is break down the steps into manageable portions for students to complete. And each page/section can follow the PBL Circle Of Life when it is complete.

I asked myself how many questions students would ask? A few, maybe. Mostly they'll just do research that doesn't have a specific point. There's no guidance. Below are just a fraction of the issues they'll deal with when they're given structure (planning ideas).

Where will you have the concert?
When will you have it? Date and times?
Why are you having it? Oh, it’s for a charity or cause…cool. Which one? Why?
What’s the name of the music festival? Is there a logo? How will you promote it?
What about ticket prices? How much will they cost?
What are specific jobs people will have at the festival? Do you have classmates that can fill them?
Who will be playing? What are the acts?
Now that you have the acts, you have need to create a schedule.
There’s two stages bands can perform on. Can you fit them all in within the time limits allowed?
Why did you schedule acts that way?
Did you run into any problems scheduling?
What kind of supplies and materials do you need?
Now you’ve got a budget and tough choices to make. What do you need? Why?
You should probably have a concession stand? What’s in it? What are the prices?
What would the cost be if a family buys something?
What does the festival look like?
You should probably design the map?
What are you going to do if a problem arises?
How will you solve it?

Feedback, Revising, Editing
Feedback should never stop. It should always be there and I (as the teacher) should constantly be asking the kids what they are doing, how are they processing information they're learning, and how they're overall progression is. I also what to ask them WHY. Why is an essential word. Why are they making the decisions that they are.

These are great to have during share time when all students give updates on what they're doing. I have my questions and I encourage other students to share feedback as well.  This take a lot of practice and modeling, but it's worth it. One student's comment can be a lightning strike of ideas for another student. 

Use feedback to question, motivate, inspire, and push imagination. I'm straightforward with my students --letting them know that every choice they make will be questioned. Questioning isn't a good or bad thing, it's just going to happen. I want to see how they are learning and choosing to apply it in their work.

Present, Share, & the Final Product
At the end of a PBL activity, the big decision is deciding how students should present their final projects. This changes each time based on a variety of factors like the type of PBL, time limits, and kids. 

It's a format that I've played around with on my resources because the end goal is for students to present and share what they've learned. Sometimes the final product is within the resource itself, when a students demonstrates they've accounted for every possible outcome and shown incredible problem solving skills and decision making.

There's other times when students literally make something such as designing a taco truck or a tiny house. 

Recently the News Sentinel and Fox shared a story of a teacher that had her class use my Run A Taco Truck PBL and had food trucks line up outside of the school. It turns out that she was using MY resource and she added the perfect idea to complete the PBL activity.
 Angela Potchka along with other sixth grade teachers spent the last two weeks showing students how to operate and maintain a food truck business. Lessons included creating menus, adding and pricing menu orders, and discussing potential obstacles they could face along the way. The lesson culminated with a classroom discussion and hands-on experience from several Fort Wayne food truck owners. -WFFT FOX 
Image via WFFT FOX
The dream scenario is to invite professionals in that area of work to come and listen to the students. They can also share their own experiences and answer any questions students may have.

Many times the journey is the final product. I know, sacrilege! But if that's what works best in my class and for my students--I'm going to go that way.

Just remember, the final presentation DOES NOT have to be a replica of America's Got Talent. Why? Well, because when you're in the classroom you have to do what's right for your students. Just find a way to present or share that fits within the parameters of your class (I know, this is kind of breaking the PBL rule). 

Photo by @shammanaj  
@shammanaj shared (on Instagram) that she had her kids create full scale tiny houses after they created miniature versions using Build A Tiny House. The class went outside and used the blacktop to sketch a full scale version of their houses they designed. "You have to be creative to fit all the furniture in 400 square feet!" This is basically the perfect way to present and share in a simple and functional way.

The Last Thing to REMEMBER:
You need to see yourself as the most important part of project based learning. That's right, I'm talking about you, the teacher. When your class is knee deep in PBL it'll be up to you to make sure all students are reaching their best. Sometimes it'll be chaotic and other times it'll be electric. But no matter what --keep guiding your students into the right directions and decisions. It's okay if we're used as a safety net, they're going to need us.

If you teach special education (like I do) then you definitely want to read why project based learning should be in every classroom. PBL gives kids (at all levels) opportunities to find what they're great at when it come to how they learn and take in information. It's also the perfect way to pull in those reluctant learners.

If you're interested in PBL and still want to know more, see my top ten tips to easily get you and your class started. These are the ten tips that I live by in my classroom and when I'm introducing it to others. Don't make it difficult, make it meaningful.

Earlier, I stated that I love project based learning. I've created over fifty different resources that are completely unique because I saw an avenue that would get my students excited to learn about real world issues and make the connection on the importance of learning. These resources work with kids from second grade and up to high school at all different learning levels. They're simple and effective for teachers to utilize in the classroom and rigorous enough to blow students' minds.

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