5 Things I wish I had known about Project-Based Learning

5 Things I Wish I Had Known
When I began Project-Based Learning
(Practical Ideas)
When my school started along the Project-based Learning road, I was very excited! You know how it is….young teachers with a new, cool program to focus on?! We were ready to jump in head first and solve problems later! We all loved projects and loved thinking that we were going to be able to reach the “unreachables.” What could go wrong?!

As the year started, I was ready—I had my paint, new paint brushes, construction paper, glue and scissors and….CHAOS! My beautiful new room that had been so shiny and clean on Open House night had turned into what looked like the aftermath of a HURRICANE! What had happened?

If you are a teacher, you understand that there are many, many deadlines that have to be met. The deadline for our projects is what we call “Museum Night.” The last few days leading up to Museum Night are horrendous…students are going back and forth between the classroom and the computer room to type and print “labels” for their Museum exhibits (projects), between the classroom and the bathroom to clean either themselves up or the project art tools up, students from all classes are in your room at odd times to work on projects. All of this equals teacher insanity. So we are hurriedly cleaning up our rooms at 4:30 so that we can have parents in at 5. The last thing is stuck on the wall at 4:59. Typical life of a teacher!

So, after the first projects (or exhibits) were done, put on the walls, oohed-and-aaahhed over by the parents, I drew in a deep breath and reflected—and decided that the chaos that was the first project was NOT going to happen again!

      Organization is one of the MOST important aspects of the PBL classroom

At my school, we are paired off into teams of 3. One teacher teaches language arts, one math, and one social studies. We all teach science and extra writing. So when we do our projects, we each have 3 classes of projects to keep track of….which is where the chaos ensues! Lol!

So, I have learned that it is essential for me to have an organizational strategy. I needed room for 24 or 72 projects to rest while in progress. I also needed a place for the work that went along with the projects to reside. Having students trained to find their classes projects and accompanying work (and then replacing it when class is over) is a must.

This gives the teacher a tiny feeling of control….and also the students a feeling of being comfortable in the classroom and a sense of ownership as well. Also, having the organizational system is tremendously awesome for you when the end of the school day has come and you don’t have to spend 30 min or more cleaning up the room.

       Having storage areas ready is a MUST

And adding to the organizational strategies, having your storage areas ready to go is a must. Before you begin a project, know where it is going to live until it is finished…and then when it is finished. This will also help avoid the class struggle to get all projects put away if you happen to run past your time. Plus, it will keep you from the wrath of your fellow teammates. Don’t ask me how I know! Haha!

Procedures are needed for EVERYTHING!

When you read about project-based learning from the experts point of view, it seems like students are just so happy and engaged and everything is sunshine and rainbows. Well, in reality, sunshine and rainbows has to be taught–it doesn’t occur naturally! If you have ever read anything by Harry Wong, you know that the secret to any well-oiled classroom, project-based or not, are the procedures that the students are taught right from the beginning of the year.

So, do as Harry says. Get a notebook, think over what procedures you want your students to follow, type them up, put them in your teacher tool kit and get going. But don’t forget to leave room for revision! Invariably, you will have thought through a project, tried to envision every thing that could go wrong, then little Jimmy will come up with the one thing in the Universe that you could not have possibly thought of! In a PBL classroom, it is vital that students know what to do in almost every situation because they are need to be working independently as you are monitoring and guiding other groups.

Another good idea to help make sure procedures in the classroom work efficiently is to have a starting and stopping routine. I have a quick 3 minute opener that students know has to come out immediately, we go over it, they put it away, then I brief them on what the day’s project will entail and/or I will get their feedback on how things have gone the previous day. Likewise at the end of the class, students are signaled to get back to their seating area and we can discuss what was accomplished and what is left to do for the next couple of days.

Have PLENTY of clear work surfaces

I am not an OCD teacher, but having a lot of stuff on students’ desks just messes with my mental visualness (if that is a word!). My students know that they have to clear their desks of only essential materials as soon as possible. This works well in a PBL classroom because your students are going to need a lot of space to spread out, not only their project materials but also their own bodies. In my room, I also have available for use a couple of tables, the tops of a row of waist high bookshelves, and the tops of three small filing cabinets. These surfaces allow for more working space, or can also double as storage or display areas.

Plan (and budget) materials needed carefully

Confession time! I LOVE craft stores! Actually, I think a better term to insert here is ADDICTION! I will walk around and have the shiny object syndrome–buy one of this and one of that! And I usually buy things I don’t know how to use, in the hopes that one day I will have to time to sit down and figure it out. The other day I bought a spool of white thread because I liked the shape of the spool. Do I sew…NO! This is NOT a good strategy for adding materials to your project based learning art supply bag!

I learned quickly that I can’t run to the craft stores for things I need (want) for my projects. My personal budget nor my school budget can sustain that. So, let’s think cheap.

In my social studies and science class we use a lot of recycled materials…and by recycled materials, I mean my students save things from their garbage to bring in and use as project materials. (That sounds yucky–but hey–its CHEAP!)  In one science project, we actually build an ecosystem food chain entirely from this type of material. You will be amazed at what students can do with a little garbage!

Another strategy that we use to save money is to pool money to buy items that we all may use, like paint and paintbrushes. Also, you can scale down your project to save money on materials. For example, in my social studies class we always build Native American homes. The way I save money is to have the students make these homes in miniature version.

The learning is the same and the kids relish in the challenge of making them tiny and adding the miniature details.

And last, but not least….MINIMALIZATION

(Well, you may think I can’t count since I said 5 tips, but I really just wanted to throw in a bonus item!)

If you are just starting on the PBL journey, it is definitely fine to give students a controlled choice of project options. This way you can hone your skills as a monitor of this type of classroom, get your organizational strategy down pat, figure out storage options, and get a sense of how to use recycled materials. Please don’t feel like you are letting your students down because you haven’t let them choose between a podcast, an iMovie, a pamphlet, a newsletter, or a poster. Give them a choice to use technology…or not. Begin simply. Experiment. Refine.

Check out my other posts for more great tips on managing and teaching in a Project-based learning classroom!

         Let me know what I can help you with!


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