Project Based Learning…I Think We Really Did It!

I have been learning about project based learning for the past two and a half years. I have read blogs, studied various websites proclaiming to teach it, participated in live chats, taken online classes, followed Twitter feeds, talked to teachers teaching PBL, and repeated that process again and again and again. Still I had questions: have I ever done it, wasn’t that what many of my students’ projects were anyway, and well, if I hadn’t done it, what was the difference?

Finally, FINALLY! I attempted to have my students experience what my understanding of a true PBL was and to heck with my own fear of “not being able to do it right!” It may not have been pretty all the time, but I think it qualifies. I began with a topic that was a little mature for my students, but we made it work.

I took part in a online live chat about how to globally connect with other classrooms around the world. I ended up learning about Malala Yousafzai, a little girl in Pakistan that was shot for being outspoken about girls’ education. A teacher from Australia asked, “How can we support Malala?” and I decided to bring it to my students. I also brought it to my colleagues and they had some really great ideas! We decided to share some of Malala’s diary entries with students and part of a documentary that was made about her. That was enough for students to be engaged. They jumped right into action! They wanted to raise money for her, write letters petitioning her nomination for the Nobel Peace Prize, make posters, and pamphlets raising awareness about girls’ education. I decided to ask Michael Graffin, co-founder of the Global Classroom Project if he would help me by allowing me to start a global project and list it on his site. He asked me to write a guest post blog which he would post on his Global Classroom blog. He then helped me create the wiki space called, The #Malala Project! I began Tweeting the idea of supporting Malala by teaching about girls’ education barriers and Michael Tweeted and re-Tweeted. The idea took off and eventually, we had other classrooms from around the world participating!

Unfortunately, time and the “regular curriculum” constraints took hold and the #Malala Project had to wait a bit. When we were able to get back to some of it, I decided I had to backtrack a bit and give students background knowledge about the issues concerning girls’ education in order for them to learn through completing a project. This is where that darn “driving question” came into play. Now, I have heard so many opinions about driving questions, ranging from: you don’t always need them to, they aren’t that important all of the time to, you have to have a good driving question. I am of the opinion that not having a good driving question is like having a ship with no rudder. For me, the rudder was a hard one to build. Luckily, I am never afraid to ask for help. I am also being formally evaluated this year at my job, so I asked one of my colleagues on my evaluation team and they helped me come up with a driving question: How can we change cultural perspectives to that everyone has a chance to be educated? This was advanced for fourth graders but I thought once they understood what cultural barriers actually meant, they would be able to research and learn which ones were keeping girls from being educated what they might do to help. 

The lesson on cultural barriers was tough  at first but they understood it. We began by exploring what “cultural perspectives” are through looking at the example of Ruby Bridges, the first African American little girl to attend an all white school in New Orleans, Louisiana. I created a Thinglink to continue our discussion. My goal was for students to use what they know about the Civil Rights era, Ruby Bridges, and what the cultural perspectives were at the time that impeded her ability to have equal access to education.

Heidi in Cultural Perspective glasses.jpg

The picture above is me with my Cultural Perspective glasses on. This idea (the glasses) came from an incredibly talented teacher, Jillien Lakatta.

I followed all of this up with videos and brainstorming ideas about cultural perspectives using a Mindmeister map. Specific details can be found by visiting this Google Doc link.

I then created five resource lists using Mentor Mob so students could explore on their own. They completed an initial Learning Contract that I explained would be revisited and revised if necessary and asked them what they were interested in doing and how they thought they may do it? Some wanted to create brochures and do public service announcements in our dining hall, some others outside in the courtyard where middle and upper schoolers frequently walked by, I heard poster ideas, and movie ideas. Students got into groups based on their interests and one student decided to work alone. And then, that darned “regular curriculum” crept in again and more waiting until we had more time.

Again we came back to our project. I had students re-visit their learning contracts and get back into their groups. They talked again about their ideas and made a plan about how they would use their time. They set a goal and assigned tasks that each member would have to complete. We went to the lab and I had the jitters. Would anything happen? Would this be total chaos? When we got to the lab, another class was running late and I had the opportunity to ask them some questions. I first asked, “Do you like it better when I tell you what to do more or when you have more freedom about what and how you will learn?” One student replied, “Well, it depends. Sometimes I like it better when you tell us what to do, but I like it more when we have more freedom, but it’s just harder.” “How?” I asked. “Well, you have to think more, you have to collaborate more with others and then agree on what to do more and that’s hard sometimes. You also don’t get your idea all the way. It’s your idea with someone else’s idea mushed together…which is ok, just harder.” Most of the students liked to have more freedom with what and how they learned but they all agreed it was harder. Another student said he too liked it but “it was harder cause you had to think more.” I couldn’t have asked for a better response!

The time in the lab was wonderful! Finally students were working harder than I was! They were motivated, focused, chatty, but chatty about what they were learning! There were two to three other teachers in the lab with me observing me for my evaluation, but really observing and assisting students in their quest for information.

Students needed to make decisions about what information they needed to include for their projects, their brochure, their movie, their Power Point presentation! They were all using different technology and teaching it to themselves! Two groups had never used Publisher before. They used the templates, explored and guess what?! They figured it out! One student taught her group member how to make a Power Point presentation. And, they were all learning about different things! Some students were learning about child labor and how that prevents girls from being educated. Others were learning about water and how the lack of it prevents girls from being educated. They learned about what a Life Straw and a QDrum was and how having these things could dramatically improve the lives of girls and entire communities!  I was able to teach a mini-lesson on using an apostrophe when writing “girls’ education.” Some students problem solved on their own by figuring out how to make bullet points and other students learned because they needed to learn it! That was the thing, they needed to learn! They wanted to learn because they had choice in what they were learning and how they would show it.

After the first time in the lab, we went back to our classroom and talked about what should be included in a rubric to assess projects. Students came up with five criteria and decided a 1-3 scale would work best. 1 would mean “Needs Improvement”, 2 would mean “Met expectations,” and 3 would mean “Exceeds Expectations.” The one piece that I added was that I wanted students to present their project to an authentic audience, but they could choose their audience. We all agreed that the 9th graders they worked with occasionally throughout the year would be great practice but wouldn’t count as the audience. We also agreed that when our projects were finished, we would revisit the rubric to see if we wanted to add anything to it or even change it.

Along our travels, we learned about an organization called 10×10. It was incredible timing that they made a documentary called Girl Rising. It was all about supporting girls’ education around the world and how supporting the education of girls heals entire communities. My wonderful team of teachers I work with decided they would support renting the movie (which wasn’t cheap!) so that we could host a screening! Although the screening will take place during the evening (it is PG-13 and definitely needs parental guidance), students that come will be able to present their projects and share their information as people enter to see the movie. We cannot wait!

I have learned so many things by attempting this PBL. I have learned more about the power of connecting globally. Had I not been a part of that live chat, this idea would never have been born! I have learned that collaboration and risk taking are key in my professional growth. Asking questions and asking for help are so powerful for me as a learner. I learn from others, I model for my students when I do that and when I share that I do that. I have also learned that the more control I give up, the more my students can learn. Much of the work for PBL takes place ahead of time and at the beginning. Support by checking in and conferencing with students along the way was very important. I asked students what they needed from me before each session in the computer lab and they told me. Sometimes they said they just needed support by finding out something by using Google and sometimes they needed actual materials like a glue stick or poster board. They knew I believed in them and their ability to take charge of their own learning. The more I saw them do it, the more excited I got and the more confident they became. I also saw the incredible opportunities there were to teach skills along the way. Next time I will do a rubric with students a little earlier. I am not positive it will be better, but I will try it just to compare the difference. In addition, PBL in my book is not meant to be done alone. I do not think it would have been as successful without the support of other teachers in the lab. I think having another adult to work with is also important for me as a teacher! It’s nice to be able to bounce ideas off of each other and reflect on the process.

I am not sure how long it will take me to stop thinking about and reflecting on my first real PBL experience, but I think it will be a long time. I can’t wait to try it again and I hope it’s soon!

To see the wonderful work of my students, please visit The #Malala Project wiki.


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