“Who Will Survive?” A Beginner’s Look at Project Based Learning.

“Mr. Martin, can we work on our Survival Projects Today?”  Our Project Based Learning began this spring.  What a wonderful, eye opening experience!  On the same note, it was not an easy one. Often, I reflected how life may have been easier had I stuck to the lesson binder, but once I started designing my unit, I could not put it down.  What a dilemma!  I thought, ‘if this can engage my students, I must press on.’  I did.

Why?  My students were never so engaged, or their learning so purposeful.  The entry event, paired with a driving question, started my students off as if sprinting.  Arriving at school with research books and presentation boards, they were motivated.  That day, among the ‘One Direction’ conversations, students discussed projects and learning.  Moving further, they applied knowledge, and the products show evidence of key vocabulary terms, like physical and behavioral characteristics of animals.  These words are no longer abstract, they can discuss these as experts.

PBL teachers plan lessons like poet architects, novelists, or inventors (makers).  During this time, hours became days crafting the unit’s plot while learning this new PBL genre.  When I was finished enough to start, it was far from perfect, but I can say it was unique and intriguing to my learners, who were as new to this as me.  Right from the start, they LOVED it.  Students who struggle to pay attention or stay on task increased their engagement.  Focusing on their project work, I felt that I was on the right track.

For an overview of my process: I was reintroduced to Project Based Learning at MACUL 2013 (Michigan Association of Computer Users in Learning, #macul13) during the “Developing a 22nd Century Culture in a 21st Century Literacy-Rich Classroom” presentation by Myla Lee(MyTLee3) and Jim Fry from Novi.  I say re-introduced because I studied PBL years ago at MSU, and in 2007 I wrote a paper on it as part of my Masters ePortfolio.  Since then, I felt I was doing some version of that at times.  As I listened, I wondered if what I was currently doing was Project Based?  I can assure you it was not. Writing about PBL and teaching this way are two different things.

That talk lit a fire, and shortly afterward I began going through my “Evernotes” and other resources gathered at the session.  It was very helpful that they created an Edmodo Group for the session, in the digital folder were rich examples of video and web resources, such as Buck Institute.  There is a ton of good info on the web, but I found it most useful to review an archived BIE webinar, and plan my project by working along with the BIE Do It Yourself guide.  The DIY was great, and helped me to develop the steps of my plan.  

The bulk of the planning was over the course of five days over spring break.  I was trying not to overwhelm my senses by working in short bursts, taking breaks, and coming back with a clear head.  Planning the unit felt like quite an undertaking, but one that I found came with big rewards.  It could be compared to a home improvement project you tackle for the first time, taking longer than most because you are learning as you go.

I struggled with the planning workflow at first.  All of the PBL projects and templates that I found were either Word or Web based.  I use Google Drive for just about everything now, especially since I’m working on a Chromebook and our MacBookPro (Circa 2006, the Apple Genius called it “vintage” as he tried to boot it CPR style with no luck…trying not to cry here…) just died!  With no success finding a template, I took many of the main points and made my own template.  Designing this was great learning, not as pretty as a Word doc, but functional for me, just like I want the project atmosphere to be for my students.

My plan had some strengths and weaknesses.  It was exciting, provided choice, creativity, 21st century skills, and Common Core Standards.  It moved my students.  On the other hand, the project calendar was not complete, it had more events on some days than others, and I worried that there were some standards not adequately addressed.  On top of this, did it contain enough formative assessment to guide my teaching?  I patched what I could, and rather staying on the “make it perfect” I decided to give it a go and patch some things along the way.

This turned out to be the right choice, making it a living document.  We began with the entry event.  I gathered the students on the floor and started a Planet Earth Video segment.  As a side, it was fun watching through all the PE videos I own to find the ‘just right’ hook.  In this jungle scene, the camera begins weaving through dark and thick flora accompanied by an intimidating soundtrack, building suspense.  What was walking, or stalking, through the deep forest?  A dangerous predator?  Right about the time that they were about to reveal what it was… I hit pause.  “Prediction time students!  What do you think is happening here?”  They guessed and discussed, and I pushed play.  Elephants.  Adults and babies, searching for one of their basic needs.  Next, I posed our question, “What animal is best suited to survive in the environment?”  They were hooked.

Day 2, we began our need to know list.  For this, I shared a Google Spreadsheet with my students.  It listed our Driving Question and each group had a place to list their questions and answers for their questions.  The DQ needs to be posted on the class wall as well, as I quickly learned.  Putting a constant visual really helped focus them every day.  After making the questions, I introduced the tab on our class webpage named “Who Will Survive” with links to research sites such as National Geographic Animal Search.  We explored the links, and I encouraged groups to choose up to three animals that they were interested in.  I mentioned that they should go with an animal that they found there, or they would be responsible for finding their own resources.  They dug right in.  We soon visited the library, and they poured over the catalog and nonfiction shelves for their animals.  They literally buzzed, driven to find answers, rather than meandering, chatting, and quietly reading as some library times become.

During the year, we regularly study expository text.  I encourage students to be strategic readers.  We have studied  strategies, but they need experience choosing one that fits the text and their needs.  ReadWriteThink was a perfect resource to supplement these needs, providing us resources for animal inquiry, finding perspective, and using fact fragments.  These lessons helped to integrate the science, reading, and writing standards.  In my experience, using ReadWriteThink is always a slam dunk, either the lessons or the resources hit the mark for my varied learners, and I pick and choose what my assessments show they need.

What I noted over the course of this three week unit was almost constant engagement for most students.  It took our strong community and built it deeper.  Our good behavior improved.  They worked like we do when we are completely wrapped up in our careers, and who is going to mess up a good thing by getting in trouble?  Not these kids.  When I did encounter off task behavior it typically involved a breakdown in collaboration.  I found that some variant of the phrase, “How can Shelly help?” or “Are we clear on what everyone’s role is?”

Community is a huge factor in the success of a PBL unit.  I was lucky that I have been implementing a mix of Morning Meeting. Love and Logic, Alfie Kohn, and my own mix of relationship building skills during my career.  Long before this unit, a strong community existed.  Major benefit.

As I wrap up this post, we just finished our last day of presentations.  What professionals they were!  I couldn’t believe the dedication they put into their work, and how well they followed our assessment scale.  They visited our Google form to reflect on their knowledge in each area of product, collaboration, and presentation.  I have a matching Google spreadsheet where I can compare them with my scores.

After scoring themselves, I asked them to “Prove it!”  I asked them to write a paragraph reflection on what you learned during this unit.  Here is one that caught my eye:

Bottle nose dolphins are strong, in fact, if they take care of themselves, and are in good shape… then they can even take out a SHARK! here are some physical characteristics that help the bottle nose dolphin survive….

~ dorsal fin, to keep the dolphins balance.
~ Flippers and fluke to help the dolphin swim gracefully
~ Small, cone shaped teeth, to help the dolphin catch/eat food. 

So when kids ask if we can work on Survival Projects, I’ll say yes, even if it’s next week, or next year.  Can you think of a better way for a kid to spend #genius hour?

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About wmartin4

I’m a husband, father of three, fifth grade teacher, writer, blogger, guitarist, drummer, staff camp director, rogue tech trainer, and a watcher of sunsets. I write about many subjects, but I’m currently posting articles related to education and technology.
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