Project-Based Learning (PBL)

Sandra Villarreal McSweeney: Innovative Teaching and Learning Practices

October 1, 2000

A teacher at Sherman Oaks Community Charter School discusses the use of technology and project learning at the school.

1. What role does technology play for your students?

They use it, I would say, almost daily. Right now we just started a "Type to Learn" program, and so they're all excited to learn how to type with two hands -- with fingers on the home key, home row. So we're doing that. They also -- whenever they feel like it -- just go on the computers and write. For some of the kids I've seen that their writing has increased when they can just get on the computer and start writing versus writing it on paper. Other kids still prefer to write on paper and then write their stories on the computers. So you're using it a lot for writing.

For math, I'm doing a pilot program this year where half my class -- ten out of the twenty kids -- on one day are using math CDs that are focused on the number sets. So I have Group A that works on them on Monday. And I take the other ten kids, and I'm working with them on a math concept. And the next day it switches groups. So they're out there every day for math. And then whatever our project is for Exhibition Night, they're out there using the Internet for research. And finally this year I was able to find some good Internet sites that second graders can read.

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2. What's the value of technology for Sherman Oaks students?

I see the value in technology and their learning in that here at school, no matter what kind of background they have, when they come to school, they are all in the same field, I guess. And so, I know for a lot of my kids, they don't have the technology at home, but here at school they do have that, so it puts them more on an equal basis with other kids that do have it at home. So they are just as successful, even more so because they are using that here.

As far as their learning, it has given them, I think, a great sort of avenue for them to explore their creativity with either designing or drawing programs. I really see a change in their writing. The editing is just so easy for them, and the peer editing. Or if I sit down and edit with them, that is really easy. I don't see them as frustrated when they are writing because they know they are going to get it on the computer and it is just easier. They can go back, add on, edit, move a paragraph here or there, move sentences. Where I think it is a lot harder, I think it would have been harder without having had that ease of technology.

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3. Describe Exhibition Night. How does it connect with Sherman Oaks' philosophy on teaching and learning?

We first started talking about project-based learning when we were planning for the school. And actually the Exhibition Night first started as an idea with our eighth graders in our district. Actually, just one teacher had visited a school where Exhibition Night was going on. And basically, the kids worked on a project -- and this was in eighth grade -- they worked on a project all year long. They picked a topic, worked on it, and one component of their project had to include technology.

So when we were planning our school we said, "Wouldn't it be great if our kids, starting in kindergarten, could do the same thing?" And so what we're looking at is preparing our kids for when they get to eighth grade, they'll have this background knowledge. And so starting in kindergarten, depending on if it's a grade-level decision or a house-based decision, the kids will be working on a topic, on a certain theme, and there's lots of hands-on learning. They're building, they're painting, constructing things, writing. And sort of as a culminating event, we'll have Exhibition Nights. And that's when parents will come, our community will come out, and the kids will present their work.

In the past, we've had plays, where the kids have produced a play in a second language. And so my kids -- their primary language is Spanish -- have in the past presented a play in English, and vice versa with the English-only kids learning Spanish. For Exhibition Night as part of their project, they put on a play in Spanish. So kindergarten, first, second, third, and fourth are experiencing that. This is our first year where it is just going to be twice a year. The last two years, we've had it three times a year.

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4. Are students expected to use technology in their projects?

For our last Exhibition Night, the kids learned how to scan. And the focus of the last Exhibition Night was animals and their habitats. So, they all learned how to scan in pictures of their animals. And they did that and then transferred their scanned images into word processing documents. And I should back up ... when they scanned, if the image was too big, they would resize it, and if what they scanned was too busy, then they would just crop out the picture that they needed ... the part that they needed.

So they scanned, cropped, resized, rotated if they needed to do that. Then separately they wrote their reports on the word processing documents, or word processing, and then inserted as an object, not as text, their pictures of their animals into their paper. What really has helped us is having a server here, and so all the kids save their work to the server. So no matter what computer they're on, they can call up their folder, their information, and work on any computer. So that's really been helpful, too. So if we scan images in the classroom, we just put those images on the server. And so if the kids are out of the Great Room working, they can still pull up their image. So we've taken away disks and just having to sit down at one computer to do the work.

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5. In placing a focus on project-based learning, how do you ensure that you are meeting grade-level standards?

We do look at the standards. For example, with social studies, this is what I am doing right now, what second grade is doing. We've looked at the standards and it is Celebrations and Getting to Know Your Community and other cultures. And since I looped up with my class -- I had them in first grade -- we took that theme actually last year and we did a lot of work with the kids' own community here in their neighborhood. They built 3-D models of the community, which was great -- boxes and everything.

So for second grade, we are looking at it more as a scaffolding. So this year in second grade for social studies, they are picking a country and learning everything they can about that country -- cultures and what the community is like there, money, weather. We are doing that so with each year we are trying to make connections to the prior year without repeating the same direct theme or the same information.

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