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.