Elementary PBL Reflection

Author: Audrey Lash, Second Grade Teacher.

I recently read and listened to a great Google Hangout by the BIE’s Jorn Larmer and Gina Olabuenaga (my PBLU.org certification teacher). The hangout was all about Managing Projects in Elementary Schools. Teachers like Kelly Reseigh and Kevin Armstrong inspired me to try to answer their reflective questions, too. These amazing educators showcase that elementary PBL can work! (See full Hangout and Questions)

I work at Promise Road Elementary in Noblesville, Indiana. We’ve taken on the challenge and excitement of aspiring to be wall-to-wall pbl. We opened last year in August 2012. I write this post to reflect on the same issues that face my school and push myself to think about how we support this inquiry based instruction. Here are my reflections on the same questions from the BIE Hangout.

Question 1: What is the role of classroom culture in managing a project?

I think part of building this culture is giving students many opportunities to utilize the 4 C’s. You have to build an environment where students feel comfortable synergizing and collaborating. You can create critical thinking opportunities in each lesson. It’s all about the questions you and your students ask that push your thinking forward. With these foundations, the projects will be easier to manage. For primary, here’s a great list of videos that can help model the collaboration, communication, creativity, and critical thinking with primary students.

Question 2: How do you handle the lack of independence in primary?

You can use your student NTK’s to help you decide how you’ll  scaffold the project or what text relevant books you’ll need to find. In the primary grades, you have to find ways to break down each skill. Think about the whole picture at first and then what baby steps will lead up to that. For example, my students needed to create a persuasive speech for their businesses for a business fair. We gave them time first to explore persuading through a business that was already made. Then, they brainstormed their own businesses. The great thing about PBL in elementary is that you get the whole day to scaffold through a variety of subjects. You’re supporting this lack of independence through guided reading and writer’s workshop. Think about how each subject can support you! In the times, you’re not doing a lesson, you also allow students to collaborate together through teams, think tanks, and even older peer support. We had third grade editors in one project.

In the primary grades, I think the hardest thing to let go of is the end product. For true student ownership, it’s going to be messy and it’s going to be kid chosen.  It may not look like this perfect science fair – cookie cutter design, especially in second grade. You have to keep in mind that the best part of the learning will come out through their presentation and answers to questions during learning showcases.

A great graphic by Kelly Reseigh on supporting all learners —


Question 3: How do you collaborate with others outside of your classroom to support project work?

Our community has been very willing to support of us in all endeavors. You have to try reaching out to anyone and everyone. You might get a few “no’s” along the way, but you’ll get way more “yes’s” than you think. As a grade level, we’ve organized community member experts like our Mayor, master gardeners, Parks and Rec., and our Chamber of Commerce. They’ve been judges for ending showcases and entry events to challenge our students with the driving questions. The most powerful classroom helpers can be family members and other grade levels. We had a project centered around grandparents and the stories they tell. Grandparents were able to share stories and come back to see how our students rewrote their stories for a Grandparent’s / Elder’s Day. Parents have been great speakers and knowledge experts. We had a parent come in this year to talk about the business they had started up. We just recently began a new gardening project in which students watched an entry event video from our principal about the “eye sore” of a garden outside our windows. She challenged our students to improve the garden so that plants and animals could thrive. The best part about an entry event video was that we could send this home to inspire parents as well. Students, parents, and teachers all now have a cause to work toward. You have to get the word out about the great things you’re doing with a project and then many people will be excited to help. It begins with communication and ends with a community investment.  Check out this Teaching and Learning Guide to help you visualize what scaffolds you’ll need to plan for and who or what can help you.

Question 4: What does Project Based Learning look like in an elementary classroom?

Our grade level sat down this summer and planned for a seamless infusion of our subjects with project based learning. Like the Google Hangout mentioned, it’s still been hard to link up math with such curriculum constraints, but there are ways to connect it sometimes and/or make math PBLs (see my earlier posts). Our grade level started with our curriculum maps for science and social studies. We created driving questions about the concepts that these subjects held. They held bigger concepts of culture, entrepreneurship, community, citizenship, and innovation. Then, we brainstormed what our audiences were for the driving questions. When you think about the audience and end products, this allows you to see how writer’s workshop can support you. For example, our elder’s project was about keeping the past alive and our writing focus was small moments. And, our cultural pbl was supported by a narrative fiction and folktale minilessons. We then found ways that reading could support student research and deeper understandings. Our need to knows lead to “need to reads” as Andrew Miller would say. These “need to reads” can be done as literacy tasks, read alouds, and guided reading. I’ve used guided reading to focus on learning strategies that help us in the project or even on content. Right now, my students are focusing on determining importance of nonfiction stories. We’ve been able to read many books that relate to plants and animals for our schoolyard habitat project. At the end of our guided reading group or even after student research in literacy tasks, I ask my students, “How does reading this text help us with our project?”  Project based learning in an elementary setting will look like your typical classroom, but will be highly connected across subjects. Reading and writing will be supporting some kind of phase or scaffold that your students need.

Question 5: How do you prepare and manage parent involvement in a PBL classroom?

I kind of answered with question 3. The easiest way of keeping parents in the loop is with weekly newsletters. I always send them what projects and what phases we’re in. I ask for help or expertise when needed. These newsletters then allow you to share out when showcases and ending events will be. It’s been a hit at the dinner table with parents. Parents can ask specific questions about school instead of just, “How was school?”


What do you think? How is PBL in elementary going? I’d love to learn from other educators through comments below.


What do you do when a PBL fails?

Author: Audrey Lash, Second Grade Teacher.

You reflect. 

You reflect with the kids that went through the project.

But, the best news, you let the kids the following year revise it and improve it for you.


I’m on a “PBL high”  (if there is one). Teacher excitement? As you may know, our 2nd grade classes came off an amazing business PBL.  Students were engaged and full of energy from our business fair. We try to create learning inquiries and experiences that are back-to-back in our grade level. We’ve designed a total of 7 PBLs for our school year.

Last year, in our initial creations we worked from a Schoolyard Habitat PBL model from BIE and pblu.org. (check it out) We did revise it some to fit our students, our school, and our grade level standards. Students were posed with the problem being a brand new school that had taken over the habitats of many animals. We asked our kids, “How can we make the school habitat better so that animals can live on our campus?”

Students heard from experts like master gardeners and the Hamilton County Parks and Rec. They assumed voice and choice by choosing native animals to our community and state. They based this around the knowledge they had gathered from our experts. They researched specific plants that these native animals would need. We quickly learned it was all about the plants. You need plants to bring animals and bugs. It was an exhilarating time! Students were “research machines” gathering numerous amounts of information. They took on critical thinking through deciding where on our campus the habitat should go and even drew designs of what it might look like. Students then presented in front of 8-9 stakeholders in our school. A butterfly garden was chosen! We bought the plants, shovels, and mulch.

Our tragic flaw… We rushed this final implementation of the actual garden. It was the end of the year. We tried to dig deep enough, but our ground was still clay. Some bricks were even found from the past construction zones. We attempted parent volunteers and watering helpers for the summer. Sadly, the garden died. As our principal would say, “It’s an eye sore.”

As a 2nd grade team, we decided that out of failure – new life can “spring forward”. This presented the perfect problem based inquiry. “How can we improve our habitat so that plants and animals can thrive? Students were recently presented with an entry event video newscast. They watched pictures of what it looked like before summer and now. They heard from past students that loved the project, but had no idea what it looked like today. They heard from a student from this class, the principal, and our head of grounds and maintenance. All of them asking us to PLEASE do better. The pressure is on, but I think that makes the project more purposeful and exciting. These students have a better understanding that making a habitat is HARD WORK. As one student said, “Mrs. Lash, it’s easy to read about habitats. It’s harder to make one.” I love that PBL has allowed us to not stop the learning at one year and class. We can have classes learn from each other and be invested in inquiry throughout their school careers. The life-cycle of a plant and animal depends upon their habitat and how well we can help it survive. I can’t wait to see what this year’s class thinks of and if we can keep this garden in better shape.

Updates to follow.


IMG_0700 IMG_1338

Before                                                                 After

2nd Grade Business Fair

The room was buzzing with excitement. All the little eyes faced toward the entrance. Then, in walked dozens of professionals in suits and dresses. Students gasped, “They’re here!” Our hard work and our pbl journey had all led up to this moment.

Our 2nd grade students had worked hard for weeks studying businesses in Noblesville. They had created their own businesses that would be original, useful, and could thrive in Noblesville. Students wrote persuasive pitches to convince their audience to invest in their company. Our driving question, How can we create a business that is useful and can thrive in Noblesville?

Students got feedback on their pitches with peers in our class through a think tank model. We also used third graders as editors of our pitches.

IMG_1311photo 5

We critically thought about where we’d put our businesses in Noblesville. What would help it thrive? How could a location benefit our business? Why is the location important? Map skills became a step in the process that brought application and critical thinking to the project. Students placed a star where they wanted their business and gave explanations for the location.

IMG_1328 IMG_1327

Students watched a Kid President video and we talked about what makes an exciting presentation. We practiced these exciting presentations and gave feedback to each other.


This past Friday was our culminating event. We collaborated with the Noblesville Chamber of Commerce. They helped us get 20-30 local business leaders into our school for a Business Fair. We also invited parents and third graders that had helped us along the way. This fair was set up like a science fair with a business and “Shark Tank” like twist. Adults were given “Community and Business Investment Bucks.” These bucks were fake dollars used to invest in student ideas and persuasion. The business leaders showed up at the same time which created a lot of excitement. Students immediately knew it was time to get started!

IMG_1375 IMG_1387

The business fair was a huge success! Students had an authentic audience that provided purpose to our writing and learning. We had one business ask for students to put a display of their items in their shop. It was the highlight of the day for many adults.

“Learning was so connected to the real world,” said one business leader.

“It was so fun to listen to students talk. They’d talk so much about their business and then they would say something really articulate that caught your attention,” said another.

Students learned tricks and extra ways to gain the attention of businesses. One student said, “Mrs. Lash, all we had to do was  reach out to them and say ‘Hi.'”

My favorite part of the event was that you could see themes of our past pbls come out through student businesses. We had students create restaurants around their culture. We had students begin to think about non-profit businesses to help homeless from our citizenship pbl. It was one of those beautiful moments in teaching that stays with you forever!

Scaffolding is the key to business success!

How can we create a business that thrives and is useful to community? This question leads the learning in our second grade classrooms. My team and I found ways to introduce this through an entry event and collaboration with our 3rd graders. We created ways to explore vocabulary like “thrive” and “useful” through great read alouds (Lemonade for Sale / Anna’s New Coat). We even creatively sorted businesses in Noblesville by alphabet, goods vs. services, and kid chosen categories. But, then we came to the common question, “What’s the next step?”

Scaffolding is key to any PBL; even more so in primary grades. If we allow it, scaffolding can be strengthened through student input. As many teachers do, we often hate to lose “control” of the learning. What would happen if you did? I’ll tell you what would happen… you’d have to give the control to the students. And, what if you did? Would that be so bad? What’s best for students? If you don’t know what comes next, look to your students. What do they still need to know? You can begin to revise your entry “need to knows.” You could check off what you’ve now learned and highlight what they still need to know. Chances are if you ask your students what they still wonder about they’ll provide you with the next steps. This knowledge was powerful for our 2nd grade business/economics pbl.

This week, we took a day to strengthen our understanding of what it means to use persuasion and to think about how businesses in our community are already useful or thriving. Students were introduced to a “speed dating” model; upon further thought it might be better called “speed persuading.” Students took a picture of a business in our community and they had to act like they were that business. They sat in rows as “speed daters” (or speed persuaders) generally do. They had to persuade the person across the table to like them. They all shook hands, introduced themselves – “Hello, my name is McDonald’s”, and then they explained why they were useful and thrived in Noblesville. They only had one minute to persuade their listening partner. Then, the listeners gave a “Facebook” like up or down for that business. We discussed reasons and questions like: How did he/she persuade you? Why did you like/dislike the business? What did you want to hear more about? They switched roles and then in “speed dating” fashion students were able to switch to a new person. This worked fabulously because students were able to give their persuasion another go. Students gained a deeper idea of what it means to persuade and what it means to be a business that thrives/is useful.

photo 3(1)

We reflected on this “speed persuading” and then we took the next step. If you could create a business, what would you create. On post-its, students wrote down a “new” business that they’d like to create. Their ideas led to the next day’s lesson. I saw that they had some good ideas for a new business, but there were some misconceptions and new understandings we needed to learn about creating a new business. To thrive, a new business must think about its competition and whether their ideas are original. In addition, a new business must first think about whether the business is even possible to begin with.

Our next day’s lesson was all about “Poppin'” ideas. Students took their post-it idea from the prior day and they held it in their hands. Our goal was to revise and create an even better business idea. I began this lesson by chewing a piece of gum. I used the gum as a metaphor for brainstorming ideas. Sometimes we have ideas that have to be “mulled on” or “chewed on” for a while. Ha! I then tried to blow a bubble. Fortunately or unfortunately, it didn’t blow up. This did help show us that some ideas just fall flat or need to be “chewed on” more. Then, I blew a bubble that popped. Now, that was a fantastic idea. I showed them a bubble gum poster that said “POP” = Possible, Original (your own), and Passionate/pleased idea. To have an idea that “pops”, we need to make sure that it’s possible, original, and that we’re passinate about the idea. I modeled two of my teacher ideas (a burger restaurant and a teacher lesson plan store). Students had to decide and give reasoning why each “popped” or didn’t. Finally, the reflection and revision went back on them. They looked back at their post-it note. Does it pop? Would you make any changes? They quickly looked over their post-its and some did end up revising. Students used their knowledge of “speed persuading” the day before and now took on the role of their very own business ideas. They had to introduce themselves as the name of their business and then discuss why they “POP” in one minute. Listeners could show their speakers a bubble or a pop. “Bubbles” being ideas still not yet formed all the way. “Pops” were strong ideas. Students were beyond excited to persuade their peers about their very OWN ideas.

photo 1(1)

This work was powerful. It was brainstorming at its finest. Students chose their ideas and they had time to explore those ideas and revise their thinking in several phases of one lesson. They revised before “speed persuading.” They revised during speed persuading as they listened and changed partners. How often do we give kids these chances to revise during the drafting stage of writing? Why do we leave this work for after drafting? Revise and reflect often in a pbl. Students took this new found confidence and began to draft up a business plan. As teachers, we need to be okay with moving forward with student ideas and letting them make mistakes or struggle. In the struggle, we find learning and next steps. I learned this lesson from some great educators on twitter this week through the #pblchat. They encouraged me to put my next steps in the kids hands.

“I could see letting them start creating and get a little stuck, then pausing to do some more research.”

: “Let them make some small mistakes and then scaffold on the fly during discussion/reflection.”

Our new business plans are not perfect, but they’ve led to a lot more questions. Those questions shall lead to more research and “need to reads” as Andrew Miller would say. I allowed my students to generate those questions as “graffiti board” morning work. In table groups, they came up with new questions. As a teacher, I could still control some of the process. Student questions drive next steps, but teachers can predict such questions and hurdles to proactively plan for learning events that will help. Little did my students know, our grade level had planned for a guest speaker later that morning. A parent and community business owner, Jeff Behlmer – Aspen Outdoor Designs Inc., came and answered many of the questions they had just asked. They were able to utilize the questions they had just brainstormed with him.


To let students drive learning in a pbl, we have to let go of planning every detail. We can strategically predict what hurdles might happen and create learning events that support their questions. When I plan this weekend, I’ll be looking toward our questions and business plans.

photo 2(1)

Economics and Children’s Literature

My favorite catch phrase from, Andrew Miller (pbl guru – @betamiller), is that “often our need to knows lead to need to reads.” In our newest economics unit based around, “How can we create a business that thrives and is useful to Noblesville?” Students in 2nd grade want to learn what thrive means. This unknown leads us to children’s lit. “need to reads” that help us explore this. I thought I’d blog about one I plan to use as an example.

Tomorrow’s business lesson, defines “thrive” and what it means to businesses. What does it mean to thrive? This word has many synonyms (successful, flourish, etc) . In terms that are student friendly, it means “to grow or develop well”. Students will predict what this word means and then we’ll discover it through business clips and the book “Lemonade for Sale” by Stuart J. Murphy.

Before reading, we’ll watch these videos to discover the word in real life.


Lemonade for Sale is a children’s book about kids that need money for their clubhouse. They decide to create a lemonade stand. They measure the growth of their business with a bar graph of how many cups are sold each day. The children go through a growth spurt and a major decline. They must act fast to turn their business around and compete with a new business on the block.

  • During reading, students could be asked questions like: Is this business thriving? How can we tell? What changes did they have to make? Why did they use a bar graph?
  • After reading, students could be asked questions like: What made their lemonade business thrive? How do you think they came up with the idea? Would this business thrive in our weather? How could we change it to help it in the winter months?

Students will also think back about what it means to thrive on an exit ticket. And hopefully leading back to our main focus, how can we create a business that thrives…

Other great resources:

Thriving Business

Long time, no blog…. the snow / cold days haven’t helped.

We’ve just jumped into our next PBL as a second grade team. This project is all about BUSINESS. Our second graders must learn about goods and services in social studies. We’ve connected this learning to so many other  subjects.

Our driving question is, How can we create a business that thrives and can be useful to Noblesville? (What does it mean to thrive? Or be useful?)

This learning will show up in reading and writing as we learn to write persuasively and read intentionally. Students will learn to read and write with evidence based opinions. Each class has created some background knowledge by implementing mini-economies in our classes. Students earn a “salary” of Lash Cash for doing the expectation or job of a student. Students will pay rent for their cubby/desk space. Consequences can occur for not paying rent and or not doing their student jobs. Our students have interviewed for special side jobs like banker or service manager. Students will eventually be able to pay for freedoms in our classroom like sitting in the teacher’s chair, etc.

The entry event to this project was small. Our third grade friends allowed us to come into their classrooms to interview 3rd grade students about their project called Box City. See article: http://currentnoblesville.com/thinking-outside-the-box

IMG_5170 (1)

Our students learned about 3rd grade research on Noblesville Businesses (Past and Present). Our students then prodded them about what Noblesville might need. 3rd graders felt like we might need things like a water park, toy store, and tire factory.  As a class, my students then took a stack of Noblesville businesses and sorted them between goods and services OR both. This is as far as we’ve gotten, but the part I enjoy most is that there are so many good “need to read” children’s books that teach us about economics. As we learn more about businesses in these books and from business community members, students will begin to brainstorm what sort of business they think Noblesville needs. Below is a poster of our “knows” and “need to knows.” It’s a work in progress.

photo (1)

We look forward to partnering  this week with the Noblesville Chamber of Commerce and parents that run their own businesses. Students will learn what it takes to create  and start a business.

Folktale UbD and Evidence

Our main transfer goals in this Folktale/ Culture unit were for students to be able to independently…

  • Write well-elaborated fictional stories
  • Recognize how the traits of a culture affect its people and its stories
  • Gain an understanding and appreciation of cultures around the world and our own.

Some picture evidence of cultural learning.

  •  Our cultural poster and initial ideas from our entry event. (poster)
  • Our enter/exit slip or learning. Left side is what we thought we knew in the beginning. Right side is learning after the project. (learning slips)
  • Our reading cultural passports. As we read a folktale from a new country, we logged our stories and their culture. (reading passports)
  • Exemplar – Student written folktale after researching French culture. (France)
  • Exemplar – Student written folktale after researching Australian culture (unfinished before break – underconstruction) (Australia)
  • Exemplar – Student written folktale adter researching Chinese culture. “Move Mountain Move” (China)

More exemplars to come from the rest of the grade level!