Project-based learning enhances and accelerates curriculum in this classroom
If you’re doing it right, most project-based learning will hit every area of the curriculum, whether it’s social studies, math, reading, or even technology. Any part of the curriculum can shine whenever kids are taking a hands-on approach to learning, because they’re not just sitting at a desk listening to you preach it. They’re the ones doing it themselves, which means they’re kind of assuming that role of the teacher.
For much of my 13 years as an educator, I was in a traditional classroom. But for the past two years I’ve really started to incorporate PBL into my fourth- and fifth-grade gifted students. I teach an enrichment class one day a week, where we accelerate and enhance the curriculum. When I was a regular ed teacher it was a little harder, because you have the mandate of the curriculum. But being the gifted teacher allows me to have project-based learning for pretty much everything I do. The kids really get to take control, and dive deep into these projects, which can last up to an entire semester.
I have some guidelines that I set up at the beginning of each unit, but I try to let the students take control and steer it in the direction they want to go in. This year we did a huge unit on inventions. We read books on the subject and students researched an invention that interested them. As a class, we started by looking at different catapults, and students took them apart and put them together, just to give them an idea of how things work. Then they set about making an invention of their own. I told them I didn’t care what it was, but it had to be something that had not been invented yet. At the end, they created a multimedia project and presented their invention to the class.
My students wanted to make their own inventions, but they weren’t working in isolation—most of it was teamwork. In reality, perhaps 20 percent of their time was individualized throughout the whole project. A lot of the time they were asking for feedback: “Hey, I can’t get this to work. Can you help me?” “What do you think about this?” It’s a loud classroom, but it’s work being done whenever you come in.
Next page: How to manage the PBL classroom
I give students a lot of freedom when they work together but I still have to keep tabs on them. As the one adult in the room, that can be hard. Sometimes you walk up to a table and the students just look at you—they don’t know if they can continue talking, if they’re on the right path, or if they can get you to fill in the blanks for them. Instead of poking my head in table to table, I use a tool called FlexCat, which is designed for small-group collaboration. Basically, there’s a headset with a microphone that I wear and several speakers, or pods, that you can set at each table. I can press a button and listen to what each group is doing at any given time without them ever knowing I’m listening. It’s two-way communication, or I can just eavesdrop. It feels more like there are six teachers in the room, rather than just me bouncing around from group to group.
Since PBL is about real-life scenarios, I like to have them do things like artist studies, where we may take an artist, whatever their medium, and really study and immerse ourselves in it. We’ve studied the Louisiana artist George Rodrigue and students tried to emulate his Blue Dog paintings, as well those of Kandinsky and Pollack. We’re also in the middle of a huge project on Japan. We took a close look at the Japanese tea ceremony, and then created our own Japanese tea bowls out of clay molds, which gave them a chance to learn about how strict the ceremonies and rituals are, and try it for themselves. Students are also creating multimedia projects about an aspect of Japan that they think they’ve connected with or are concerned about or even something they admire. That’s really one of the things I look for in a project: I want students to be submerged in whatever unit or topic we’re working on. They may drive and steer it, but I want them to get completely immersed.
Our district has a 3D printer, so anytime the students need to print something it can be brought to our classroom. I work very closely with our district technology office, so it’s really very easy. There are a lot of different online programs you can use with the 3D printer to create mockups. Since I’m working with younger kids, none of the mockups we used were really that in-depth, but I have seen some very detailed ones where you can actually design models of homes. My kids mainly used it create a piece for their invention, or just for the experience of pressing print to watch something come to life. Next year, I’m working on building on our inventions unit by letting students experiment with robotics and coding.
I’ll also be looking into those 3D printers you build yourself. It’s not necessarily a robot, but it lends itself to figuring out how pieces fit together and gives them a sense of responsibility—if it breaks, let the kids find out what’s wrong. It’s my belief that we don’t need students graduating from school who can just create PowerPoints; we need kids who can fix computers. We need kids who can troubleshoot, and not have to call the tech department. Every day I try to get my students to move beyond that mindset of, “I’m a student sitting at a desk” to “I’m an active participant in all areas of the classroom.”
Ashleigh Schulz is a gifted teacher at Calcasieu Parish Public Schools in Louisiana.
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