George Lucas Educational Foundation
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A photo of a classroom garbage can, with wadded up papers, pencils, and markers.

As an "Instructional Innovator" in my district, I was asked to implement project-based learning in my classroom. As a new teacher, currently in my second year of teaching fifth grade, I was nervous and excited at this prospect.

The Project

Thinking about the purpose of PBL, which is to have students gain deep knowledge through exploration of real-world problems, I developed a project for my class that focused on a problem I had observed the previous year: waste in my classroom. Our trashcan and recycling bin overflowed daily, with no distinction between the two. Students routinely threw away half-used pieces of paper, perfectly good pencils, and food they didn’t want. This was a problem that affected my students -- and me -- and I hoped it was also a problem that would interest them as much as it interested me.

So with this idea in mind, I developed a PBL unit that explored waste, the effect of waste on our community and planet, and the different ways that we, as a class, could reduce waste in our classroom. After an introduction event during which students classified the waste from our room, we read articles, watched videos, and participated in a Skype Education lesson to learn about waste.

I next posed our inquiry question to my class: "How can we reduce waste in our classroom?" From this inquiry, groups of students refined their focus by discussing specific problems relating to the question. The problems they chose included students throwing away uneaten food, using plastic water bottles instead of reusable bottles, and discarding paper instead of erasing mistakes. My goal was to have my students think more critically about the causes of waste in our classroom, and to target the causes in their projects. The student groups then took their focus problems and conducted research to develop a plan for waste reduction. Through collaboration with the San Francisco Film Society, they were able to create films to educate our school and community about the plans they had developed.

The Process

I can truthfully say that much of my first PBL unit went as planned. This, however, was due to the restrictions I placed on students' "voice and choice." My students were allowed to choose the type of waste their project would focus on, and whether they would make a narrative or documentary film for their final project. I imposed these restrictions because I envisioned losing control of a large class project, and I didn't have the resources, time, or patience to support individual projects that were allowed to grow and become something beyond the scope that I had planned. I chose to focus on collaboration as the skill that I would help them develop and build their proficiency, and I have definitely seen some students struggling with group management. Even with a very independent and responsible group of students, decision making, job sharing, and planning can challenge them.

Throughout the project, from planning through the completion of our films, I've relied strongly on my colleagues to reflect and bounce ideas. I created a graphic organizer to guide student research, and realized part of the way through the project that the organizer did not focus enough on my students' individual projects, but on waste in general. It was through a discussion with a colleague that I decided to scrap the graphic organizer and let student groups guide their own research, both in books and on the internet. I needed to let go a little and trust that they would be productive without that support.

The Outcome

Was my first PBL experience perfect? Of course not. Would I try again? Absolutely.

Even though my fear of losing control limited the project, my students still stayed engaged and were able to work on the big skill that I hoped they would learn to practice: collaboration. For my next PBL unit, I will likely have my students guide our focus a bit more and find a problem (or have them find a problem) that matters to them. I will need to trust myself a bit more by trusting my students with more "voice and choice" in the direction their project takes.

When I've talked and reflected with my students, I can see that each has been able to find something he or she liked about the project. Some students loved doing research on our Chromebooks. Others enjoyed physically digging through our trash. One student focused her energy on writing a song to include in her group's film. The best part about my first attempt at PBL was seeing my students excel in the areas they most enjoy, and giving them a chance to share these talents with their peers. My personal challenge will be to help them harness these skills in our next project, to dig deeper, and find meaningful ways to understand our content.

What did you learn from your first experience with PBL? Please share your reflections below in the comments.

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Laura Thomas's picture
Laura Thomas
Director, Antioch University New England Center for School Renewal, Author of Facilitating Authentic Learning, Director of the Antioch Critical Skills Program; Elementary Library Media Specialist

Katie, this is awesome! I work with a LOT of teachers who are trying to implement PBL and it sounds to me like you did a rockstar job on this. I wouldn't worry too much about the ways you limited the kids experience. We talk a lot about experiences that become increasingly messy with scarcer (or less well-defined) resources, but getting from lots of structure to less structure takes time and experience. When we go too far too fast, the kids feel unsafe (rather than challenged) and we lose them. Keep them too structured for too long, though, and they get bored. It's a bit of a dance, I think! I'm curious, though, were you targeting and assessing particular academic standards that you were clear on in advance? Did you define the word "collaboration" with your kids in advance, so they'd know what you were asking them to do in concrete terms?

Cornelia Rath's picture

Kate, great undertaking, and nice reflection! I'm really impressed with the scale of the project you took on, and the way you protected yourself with extra structure. As Laura mentioned above, that's a logical way to start yourself and your students down the PBL path. As you try out more ideas and experiment with different kinds and amounts of structure and choice, remember that not all PBL projects have to be entire units of study. You might find a way to turn just one lesson, or one morning meeting into a problem you want your students to solve. If you lower the risk, you might feel more comfortable raising the bar on their ownership and exploration.

Tom Julius's picture

What a creative and motivating PbL challenge this was! I agree with Laura a key part is how you create a culture of collaboration in the classroom. I'm guessing you did a lot early in the year that enabled the students to work together successfully.
I'm interested in the videos that got produced. I know from experience that the right audience can really help to inspire students. I'm guessing that knowing their videos were going to be shown to the school helped them get into the whole challenge.
I'm looking forward to hearing more about your classroom!

Katie Spear's picture

Tom - My students' films will be posted on my class blog soon. We premiered them to some parents recently, and many of my students asked if they could make some more edits before we shared them online. Thank you for your comment!

Katie Spear's picture

Cornelia, I've thought about doing lessons as PBL before, but hadn't thought of incorporating it into our morning meeting. I'm curious as to what this might look like.

Katie Spear's picture

Thank you, Laura. Yes, I was targeting some 5th grade standards from NGSS, and some Common Core ELA standards focused on presenting information and the incorporation of media. I did define collaboration, and each group created and signed a contract, stating what they would need to do to collaborate well together. What I didn't do is come back to their contracts at the end of the project to reflect on what actually happened.

EmilyLiebtag's picture

Katie, it sounds more like you are a PBL expert to me! The way you describe your work WITH your students on this project and that you had to be vulnerable to them choosing the direction and taking the lead is great. As a teacher starting out, I really was hesitant to step outside of what felt comfortable for me instructionally. I thought it would be MORE work for me if I was just facilitating. I learned that while PBL certainly can take a lot of planning and thought on the front end, that the outcomes and student engagement during the process are so worth it! I would love to hear more about future projects you do with students and the work going on in your classroom.

Katie Spear's picture

Thank you, Emily, for your comment! I agree that the student engagement throughout the project is definitely worth the planning it takes to get going.

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