Curiosity may have killed the cat, but it ignited new learning for our first graders.

A detailed first grade PBL built around curiosity and asking questions. Author: Audrey Lash, First Grade Teacher.

Entry Event: Armed with a clipboard, a question organizer, an iPad, and a pencil. Students went on a “surprise” field trip to our media center. Directions were (in small groups) go to each QR code and uncover the learning video behind it. Then, ask as many questions as you can! What child doesn’t like a little bit of mystery and asking all the questions he or she wants?

It’s the age-old “problem-based” story. Teachers teach a set curriculum. Students are often bored or are way more engaged in subjects of their own interests. After the entry event we posed this story to our students and asked the driving question, “How can we let our curiosity guide our learning?” Coming off the high of the entry event, students said,

  • We KNOW:  We like learning about stuff we WANT to learn. We like doing EXPERIMENTS and getting dirty. We like OPTIONS. We might work TOGETHER on a big project. We might form LEARNING CLUBS. If we’re bored, we’re not learning.
  • We WONDER:What is curiosity?Is curiosity a fancy word for learning? How does curiosity guide our learning? Is curiosity a part of our schema? What does curiosity make us learn? What does being curious have to do with learning?  Do we have to research?

Our first graders latched onto that learning club idea. As teachers, we latched on to the idea that learning and curiosity go hand-in-hand. We must make that learning like a surprise gift. One that they can’t wait to open.

Our next step: BUILD excitement around being curious. 4 items were gift wrapped in little bags for each table group: wooden-capital Q’s with question words, post-its, new fancy pens, and a glow in the dark ring. Each item to help us investigate that fancy word “curiosity” from our needs-to-knows and to prompt more questioning like our entry event. Our first graders quickly and CURIOUSLY tore into their gift bags. Finding they must use the question words to write tons of questions on post-its – allowing their curiosity to “shine” through. We had a whole wonder wall in less than 10 minutes; plus all the questions we asked in our entry event.

Over the next few days, we read mentor texts like Meet Einstein (by Mariela Kleiner) and On a Beam of Light (by Jennifer Berne). We capitalized on Albert Einstein as our guru of asking questions on all subjects. We channeled his spirit and asked more curious questions. Then, the hard work began. We sorted our questions based on (thick) hamburger questions and (thin) grilled cheese questions. Curiosity brings us all kinds of wonder, but we were looking for the juiciest kind. From all the hamburger questions, we found patterns and categorized them by topic. Topics like earth, water, humans, plants, animals, technology, and babies arose.

“AHA! This is where we can form those learning clubs.” We based learning clubs around topics we were most curious about. 6 groups formed and they sifted through “hamburger” questions on their topic and narrowed their curiosity to one key topic question.

  • Curious questions in my class were: Why do babies have to drink milk? How do we have smart phones? Why do plants need leaves? Why does the sky turn different colors? How can we have super powers or be “super”? Why do elephants take mud baths?

We tested our team’s beginning collaboration with another gift wrapped surprise. Learning clubs were surprised with the task of putting a puzzle together. This showed teachers and groups how well we’d work together and what challenges we might face ahead. We signed team contracts and charted what a learning club should look like, sound like, and feel like. Learning clubs were in went through independent and guided research during literacy tasks. Many check-ins had to do with “I found these answers, now what? What do I understand now?” We jigsawed with other learning clubs to learn and ask clarifying questions of their understandings. We diagramed understanding and talked to experts.  Learning clubs also partnered up to venn-diagram how their curious questions and understandings were similar. The next step in the process was for each learning club to design an experiment or observational hunt based on their understandings. (A great mentor text: 11 Experiments that Failed by Jenny Offill).

  • My students designed experiments like: Observe one plant with leaves and one without. / Use mud on our own skin and see what happens. / Shine a flashlight (acting as the sun) through a piece of glass (acting as the atmosphere) to see if the light scatters. / Observe the ingredients on different types of milks. / Tinker and observe old and new phones.

So much learning and excitement because students had a VOICE in what they were learning. And, this is where we are. Next steps? Keep experimenting, keep showing our understandings in a variety of ways. The other day, there was murmur of students saying, “I wish we could ask others our question to see if they know what we know.” The students are leading the way. Listening to this one conversation shows us they’re ready for an authentic audience… perhaps even a “learning showcase” of sorts.

This Curiosity PBL is quite like a Genius Hour or an introduction to what inquiry is for first graders. Our main transfer for students was for them to learn to independently let their curiosity guide them to learning. No more asking a question and just getting an answer from an adult. Now, they have strategies for finding answers on their own.

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Voice and Choice in PBL (Part 2)

Author: Audrey Lash, Second Grade Teacher.

In my last post, I discussed our inventions project. Driving question, “How can we identify a real world problem and design an innovative solution?” Students have been brainstorming their ideas and solutions. They’re about to take the leap of deciding upon which genre they choose to inform their audience. Will they choose narrative, poetry, nonfiction, or persuasive? Below is the writer’s menu we created as we reviewed each genre.


As teachers, we were very nervous of this release of independence. How would we teach mini lessons in writing if students were all doing different genres? How do we scaffold this learning and create individualized learning for all students in their chosen genre? Students in 2nd grade still need modeling and guidance. We had two solutions.

  1. We could have teacher focus groups and teacher experts. Students would choose their genre and then they could pair up and move to the classroom of a teacher teaching that genre. For instance, one teacher may be teaching poetry mini lessons and writers’ conferences that whole week. Students writing poetry could move into their room for support and guidance. While we loved this idea as teachers, we were nervous about the management of it all.
  2. We could create “flipped classroom” like focus groups. I’ve personally chosen this idea because I’m able to be “everywhere” at once. I’ve created four unique mini-lessons for each writing genre. During writing tomorrow, students will pair off with a group of students that chose the genre that they did. They’ll get an iPad and be able to watch a 10-15 minute mini-lesson on their particular genre. On each video, I model the steps and a checklist for what they’ll need to inform their audience. 

Both solutions are a win-win for students and teachers. Students get to have a voice and a choice in how they design their writing and information. Students get individualized guidance from the teacher in how to create such a masterpiece. As the teacher, I’ll be able to monitor and help those that need that extra help beyond a video. Perhaps pulling a small group back of intensive writers or helping to point out soon-to-be exemplars for other groups. I hope to have student exemplars help run the following sessions as writing experts of that genre. They might share in their writing and then help the group discuss some key points of the genre.

Here’s to actually being in four or more places at once with technology! I can’t wait to see my students take off with their genres. Don’t laugh at my voice and handwriting… Ha!




Persuasive Letters:


Voice and Choice in PBL (Part 1)

Author: Audrey Lash, Second Grade Teacher.

It’s exciting when a plan comes together! Most of our grade level PBLs align perfectly with our writing. Writing has supported us in retelling a grandparent’s story, developing folktales infused with cultures of another country, persuading business owners to “invest” in our business, and informing an audience of animal that should get to live at our school. We’ve planned it so that every subject is infused with what we teach. We’ve examined what avenue or writing genre that each PBL could utilize. Writing has been our vehicle to apply our understandings and inform our audiences. These authentic experiences give students important exposure and understandings of various writing  genres. For many in K-2, it’s their first time learning that’s there’s more than just storytelling.

Last year, our Inventions PBL was set in a time earlier in the year.  Our driving question was/is “How can we identify a real world need or problem and design an innovative solution?” Students had created primarily persuasive pitches based on their designs and inventions for a real world problem or need. They were to persuade a panel of judges like shark tank that their invention was innovative and realistic. This year, our Inventions PBL has shifted to the end of the year due to curriculum mapping. This has worked out perfectly for us because now our kids have even more choice in how they inform their audience. It’s a great time to be an innovator! Students are investigating problems and solutions. Our entry event began with several kid inventors on the Ellen show. How could we be just like them? What do we have to do? We’ve been discovering and sorting big problems and smaller / reasonable problems. This has helped us think critically about what we might be able to solve for ourselves. Students will soon identify a problem in their life that they’d like solved. They’ll design solutions, collaborate, and give feedback to each other.

As second graders, they’ve learned about poetry, narratives, nonfiction texts, and persuasive letters. Now, they get to choose how they convey their invention. Which genre would help you best describe your design and problem? We’ve set up a writer’s menu of choices as we’ve reviewed each genre this week.


They’re so excited! You could definitely tell each day which genre a student would pick or shine through. For four days, we had a review lesson on a specific genre. I gathered lots of invention pictures from the internet. Some were very wacky ones at that! I’d model a genre around that picture (as seen from the anchor chart). And, then I’d pick a new invention picture and they’d practice that genre. They loved poetry the first day; so many describing words and playful word designs. Persuasive letters were another favorite because they remembered capturing their business audiences’ attention at our business fair.  These writing lessons have also given them some ways to think about inventions of their own. Would this invention work? Is it really useful? What problems did an inventor go through to make this? One student said, “You have to think reality!” He meant realisitc, but you get the point.

We spent a lot of time on narratives in quarter 1 and 2. We used that time to ground ourselves in narratives about our lives, about others’ lives, and fictional character lives. We spent time learning the art of persuasion and poetry in quarter 3. We took some time in quarter 4 to explore nonfiction. Surprisingly or unsurprisingly, hardly any students voted for narrative writing as their choice to inform their audience. Could this be because they don’t remember narratives? Could it be because they see a nonfiction item better told through other genres?

The tallies:

  • Poetry: 6
  • Narrative: 2
  • Persuasive: 7
  • Nonfiction: 6

Voice and choice is integral in engagement. Students love choosing what they research, design, and explain. We give them voice and choice with technology, too. But, choice in genres has been one of my favorite forms of engagement. They’re overly excited to create. They’re using this year’s knowledge and showcasing what they excel in. I had one girl tell me, “I just love poetry. I love how you can be so creative with lines and you don’t have to stick to any one form.”

Upcoming posts will showcase their identified “problem” and solution.

Chirp, Swoosh, an Author Celebration!

Author: Audrey Lash, Second Grade Teacher.

It’s been a long time since I’ve written. We just wrapped up our showcase / author celebration for our animal project. Our PBL was focused on, “How can we effectively improve the schoolyard habitat so that plants and animals can survive?”

This project involved research on our choice animals, nature walks, April Pulley Sayre read alouds, and collaboration with first grade soil experts. Students had to take on their chosen animals’ perspective. What would it be like to be your animal at our school habitat? How would they survive? How would they thrive in their life cycle? We began to write April Pulley Sayre narrative nonfiction texts to inform our principal and our school of why our specific animal should come back. We tried to prove and visualize how they would survive and we determined which parts of our research was important to share and added that to our stories.

Finally, we shared these stories in an open author celebration. The whole school was invited. Younger and older students voted on which animal they’d like to see come back based on our stories. Here are a few exemplars:

We tallied the votes across our 6 second grade classes. Hummingbirds seemed to win. We will be planting and creating a brand new garden based on our research of these birds with the help of our master gardeners. The students are so very excited! We’re anxious to get our hands dirty!

Checkout our journey in this project. (Past Posts)

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Schoolyard Habitat PBL Update

Author: Audrey Lash, Second Grade Teacher.

My last post spoke about how infused our content was with our PBL.

Our driving question: How can we effectively improve our school garden so that plants and animals can thrive?

So, how’s it going? Where are we? Truths… What are the up’s and down’s?

First some pictures…


We’ve planted our own plants. We’re watching them grow and documenting changes.  Are they thriving? Why or why not?


We’ve analyzed and evaluated the failed garden. What worked? What didn’t? We even took a nature walk / scavenger hunt to see what our animals would see and need.

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We’ve done research on our native animals (bats, owls, cardinals, butterflies, frogs, and hummingbirds) and key elements: habitat, life cycle, predators/prey, adaptations, and survival.

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We’ve had guest speakers from our Hamilton County Master Gardeners.



So, now we’re at the pivotal point – information overload. Students have all their information in research journals and plant journals. That’s the scariest part in PBL. What will the students do with all this information? How well will they apply it? We’ve set out to use all of our research, findings, and our plant growth to make our garden better, but also inform our principal on how we’d like to bring these animals back. Students have chosen their native animal to bring back. In similar animal groups, they brought their information together to collaborate and use what other students might have found that they didn’t.

Our students are writing narrative nonfiction stories with mentor texts like April Pulley Sayre. She’s an artist of words and bringing an animal’s views to life. It’s been hard to muddle through perspective with our students. It’s been scary to let go of the information and see how students apply it. We’ve only just begun our stories. Here are a few exemplar beginnings…

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“In a new and improved garden, a red and black cardinal moved into the bush and laid her eggs. She needed to go back into the woods to find…”

“Wings flap. Beaks chirp. All over America cardinals fly…”

The end goal is for them to use this type of narrative nonfiction to inform our principal about what it’d be like to bring this animal back to our garden. They can dream up what the new garden would look like or think about how the animal fares with the old and new garden. They choose how the story for the animal unfolds. After they write their story, they’ll add the common short facts under the story like April Pulley Sayre does. Notice, students have left room for these nonfiction research facts in the bottom right corner. We did try writing the facts first without the story. We found ourselves confused as writers. We took a step back and tried to think about … What would April do? We decided to write the story line first. That’s really helped us visualize how we’ll layout our research. Our principal will choose the most reasonable animal and new garden plan to implement. We’ll buy plants according to the animal and plan chosen. Thankfully, we’ve got first grade collaborators, too. They’re covering our soil and giving us research on how vital it is to plant growth. – Without the right soil, you don’t have plants. Without plants, you don’t have insects and animals.

I’m anxious and excited to let go and see what they want to do with their information. Will they create stories that portray a new garden? Will they be able to visualize what it’d be like for that animal to arrive? (their hardships and survival) Will this new garden be better off with this information? It’s in the students’ hands. And, that’s PBL. 



Content Tied with a PBL Bow

Author: Audrey Lash, Second Grade Teacher.

A failed garden from last year fueled our current PBL. Many people ask teachers at my school, “How do you fit it all in? How do you fit content standards / content time into a PBL? Do you have a separate PBL time?” It’s not a fitting into a box type of thing. PBL is not the box that holds the learning. It’s the ribbon that ties everything together. You have to start with that vision.

Our science and social studies learning is set up by the district and teachers in an organized curriculum map for the year. This guides us in which content we teach and when we teach it. In our primary grades, it’s very hard to find time to have for just science and social studies on top of the reading, writing, math, and intervention time. So, what do we do with these science and social studies standards and where do we teach them? We build around them. My team set aside time this summer to connect this learning to writing and reading. We created our own yearlong plan with reading strategies and writing genres that matched our content. We use PBL to make this learning authentic.

Our latest PBL: How can we effectively improve our schoolyard habitat so that animals and plants can thrive? From a previous post, you may know that last year’s garden failed. Failure is new learning this year!

Our science standards:  Observe closely over a period of time and then record in pictures and words the changes in plants and animals throughout their life cycles. Compare and contrast details of body plans and structures within the life cycle.

These standards allow for observing and looking at the body structures of plants and animals. However, we ramp this up with creating our very own habitat to see these life cycles and specimens. We not only look at typical life cycles, but also why life cycles can fail or fall short. A habitat is vital to any living thing. We cannot grow a plant unless we have proper conditions. Animals cannot live unless they have the proper habitat. This is the basic transfer understanding that we hope to impart with our project.

First, we research and read about native animals to Noblesville, Indiana. Students have voice and choice in which native animal they’d like to research and bring back. We research aspects of their lives like habitat, life cycle, adaptations, and predators/prey. This leads to what natural plants they need to survive. Without plants that also bring insects, we cannot have animals such as hummingbirds, cardinals, frogs, and more. Students research and hear from experts (master gardeners) about native plants that will bring back these native animals. We use guided reading time and read aloud time to read nonfiction texts. We draw information from text features. We work on the reading strategy of determining importance and summarizing. We ask questions like: How can we use this knowledge to design a habitat? What’s important in this research? What’s not important? Other factors in our research will require close observation of our own plants. This brings hands-on information into how hard it is to provide such a habitat.

Second, we decide what to do with the research. Who’s our audience? How do we decide how to inform them? This is where we use writing to drive how we present the reading and science knowledge. In writing, we’ll be studying mentor texts by April Pulley Sayre ( April Pulley Sayre brings an edge to nonfiction writing. Her stories like Vulture View and Meet the Howlers are a genre of writing that pairs storytelling with nonfiction. We’ll be using narrative nonfiction to inform our audience of our native animals in their life cycles on our schoolyard habitat. Using the narrative nonfiction route, our stories will be able to not only inform our audience of school stakeholders and also provide perspective on what life would be like for the native animal. Students will have to empathize with such animals. Students will critically think about how well our animals and plants would live and thrive in our old or a future garden. Students take on a critical eye and animals’ view of our schoolyard habitat. They decide what story to tell and how they’ll bring their research alive literally.

Third, we present these stories and finding to stakeholders. They will choose the best and most reasonable garden to implement. Our principal has given them parameters in a live entry event video.

Our PBL  ties all of these subjects together. On top of it, the elementary classroom allows us to work through our learning process all day. We research – hypothesize – design – create. We do this using all the subjects infused. Isn’t that what we’re looking for in learning? We give students a purpose. We’re learning about habitats and life cycles to save our schoolyard habitat. We’re automatically applying knowledge. The interesting part about this learning is that it can be reflected upon years from now. How well will this garden grow? We’ll have to maintain this learning and improve it each year with each new class. You can’t think of content in separate boxes. You have to think about how each content area can support the other. How does our reading support writing? How does our writing support reading? How can our learning support our driving question? PBL is our present to the students learning. PBL can work in the elementary grades!




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 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.