Turning the Old Into the New

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By: Britni Purdue, Elementary PBL Facilitator

Southport Elementary School

Indianapolis, IN

@Bnpurdue

Are you new to Project-Based Learning (PBL)? Are you wondering where to even begin? This was me not so long ago. In my personal experience, my PBL training was a very overwhelming process. I felt like my brain was on overload with all of the information being thrown at me. I remember going in with a project idea and leaving with the realization that my project was not quite a PBL unit, but not sure how to change it. If you are currently going through training and experiencing some of the same feelings, I have 3 questions that you can ask yourself to help you get started.

Does my team already have an annual project that can become a PBL Unit?

This year, when working alongside my team, we had 2 projects that came up in our plan book. I've enjoyed doing these projects each year, but there is a difference between a project and a PBL Unit (we will talk about this later). I didn’t want to skip the projects or sacrifice the PBL protocols my class worked so hard to put in place. So, instead of ditching them, I made a few tweaks to the project lessons and turned them  into PBL units. When thinking of a project to turn into a PBL unit, ask yourself two questions; 1) “Can this project HELP our community?” 2) “Can this project educate our community?”. If the answer to either of these is yes, you have yourself a PBL unit.

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In my classroom this year we turned our annual third grade Famous American Wax Museum project into a PBL unit. Students were given an entry event where they were asked to educate our community members about famous Americans from the past. Instead of me giving them a rubric and telling them what to learn, they developed their own need to knows (NTKs) and we created our Famous American Wax Museum Project Rubric together.  During Social Studies class we did a lesson where students were able to explore resources of different Famous Americans. They were able to identify their top 3 choices and the reason they wanted to research this person. At the end of the lesson students were given voice and choice to choose the one Famous American they wanted to research and set goals for what they wanted to learn by the end of the unit. The rest was simple. Students decided what the benchmarks (which later turn into rubric indicators) should be, and also decided that they wanted to invite their friends, family, and peers to visit the museum. This took our annual PROJECT and quickly turned it into a student guided PBL unit.

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For our last PBL unit of the year we were not sure what we wanted to do for our project. So, we met with our students during a morning meeting. We told them we were taking a field trip to the zoo and we wanted to use the workers there as a community partner. After class discussion and brainstorming many ideas, we all came to an agreement that we wanted to be a voice for endangered animals. We decided to do this with a book project that has been used in the past leading up to our annual zoo field trip. The last request students had was to work with a group rather than individually. I  thought this was a great idea and decided they would benefit from having a partner or small group during the research process. After this discussion, our entry event was soon to follow. Students were informed of problems that many endangered animals face in the wild and told about how many of these animals can be seen at local zoos. They were challenged to use the zoo as a resource to learn about how students in Indiana can help endangered animals around the world. They developed need to knows (NTKs) and set goals for their end products. Teachers turned their NTKs into a Animal Research Rubric that was given to the students on our first research day as a way to set personal goals and monitor their progress through the three benchmarks leading up to the culminating event.

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In the past we would have students finish their books before our zoo trip as a way to get them excited about seeing their animal. This year we did it a little differently by making small tweaks that turned an old project into a new PBL unit. The day before our trip students had an opportunity to set a goal for three NTKs they had not yet answered. In our classroom our NTKs are a living document so students were able to see what they still needed to learn about their animals. They wrote these on a paper and took it with them to the zoo. Instead of the zoo being a reward for a book that was graded and sent home, it was now a real world resource for students to incorporate into their research. Students and chaperones were told to be adventurous in their experience.

The students talked to zoo employees that were wandering around and who are often ignored by visitors. They used the signs and information at each exhibit, and drew pictures with descriptions of what the animals were doing. Through this process we have taken what has always been a “fun” day and made it a “fun way to learn” day! The last piece of the project was educating our community. Students’ developed the driving question, “How can we as third graders be a voice for endangered animals and educate the community on ways to help them?” At the beginning of our project we decided that we would partner with first grade, who also visits the zoo, and read our books aloud to them. Students developed a pre and a post assessment for their first grade partner. They graded the assessments and realized that after reading their books every single first grader grew at least 3 points from pre to post. This part was very impactful for my students because having real data that showed the first graders actually learned from their hard work made it even more meaningful for them.

As I reflect back on my first year as a PBL teacher and try to figure out how I am going to guide and help my coworkers next year, this is the best advice I would give a new PBL teammate. If you are scared of stepping outside your comfort zone and trying something new, try to begin the process with something that is already familiar and enjoyable for you to teach. I strongly believe that if you take a project that always leaves you feeling successful yet drained, and made the tweaks to PBL, you will find yourself feeling all of the success without most of the headaches that come with traditional projects. You will also find that your students learn more from the project than in years past.     

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Where Do I Begin?

After reading about two projects turned PBL you may be thinking, this sounds great, but where do I start? My advice, begin with the end in mind. I know, it’s a phrase teachers use often, but when it comes to PBL your end product is key to mapping out success. My teammate and I like to begin by thinking of a meaningful way we can end our project that involves the community. Then, we decide three benchmarks that will measure their mastery leading up to our final product. After we have our three benchmarks and a final culminating event date, we work independently and/or together to make daily lessons, also called scaffolding, in various subjects that will help the students meet each benchmark. This is where all of those lessons you had in the past for a project or traditional unit come in handy. Working smarter by making slight tweaks to old lessons helps you save time and allows students to guide their own learning.

Projects Vs. PBL Units

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After taking in all of this advice you may find yourself wondering what the difference is between my original projects and a PBL unit. The answer is simple, student ownership. In the past, my projects were assignments given to all of my students by me (the teacher) to be completed in class or at home. The rubric was created by me, and I used it as a checklist for students to ensure an A. In PBL the end products, rubrics, and assignments are based on what students want to achieve and what they individually need in order to get there. In the end, the rubric I used for my PBL unit was similar to the one I’ve used in the past, but in the students’ eyes, it wasn't a checklist, it was their personal need to knows that they developed at the beginning of the project. The rubric was broken down into pieces at the the beginning of each lesson and taught the students the art of prioritizing and goal setting. One small goal each day led students to their final, overall success. Physically watching their NTKs turn into Now We Knows motivates them to guide their own learning and meet the personal goals they set for themselves. One major change I saw at our Famous American Wax Museum was the fact that my class had bright colors as criteria for their poster; this was not part of my criteria in the past. Their posters stood out among the crowd because of this new criteria that they set for themselves. Another difference I saw in my students who did this as a PBL unit rather than a project was their desire to memorize their lines. They had notecards to help with their short speech, but when community members came to listen they made eye contact and looked at the person rather than looking at their card. Memorizing their lines was never a requirement of the project, but making eye contact and looking at a person when you are presenting was a learned protocol from past PBL units, and they took their own initiative to do this independently.

I noticed a difference in the quality of the students’ animal research books as well. In the past getting students to write four paragraphs of information in a book was like pulling teeth for some of them. This time students knew their writing was for more than just a grade in the gradebook, it was for the purpose of educating a first grader. They knew that the pre and post assessment they gave to the first graders would be a reflection of their work and this motivated them to do better. This year, students were required to write even more than in the past because they had to include a problem and solution section to their book. The six paragraph books were actually enjoyable for me to read and grade, and listening to them read aloud to the younger students was joyful for everyone involved.

Student ownership is the key to engagement and PBL brings this opportunity to every child in every classroom if done with fidelity. If PBL is something that sparks a fire in you, then your passion will spark a fire in your students. If you are going through training and feeling overwhelmed but passionate about what PBL can do for you and your students, I challenge you to think of any project you have done in the past and use it to help or educate your community. When students know they are using their learning for a bigger purpose they will own their education!   


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Britni Purdue teaches third grade in Perry Township on the south side of Indianapolis. She loves teaching in the same district where she attended school all throughout my childhood. This past year was her sixth year teaching and her fourth year teaching third grade. She is currently going through the PBL Certification process with Magnify Learning and facilitating with them this summer. PBL has created amazing opportunities for her and her students that make everyday an adventure!