6 Weeks to a Project-Based Learning Classroom: Week 3

PBL, Project Based Learning

Now is the time to begin planning your first project-based learning lesson and project!  In this post, I am going to walk you through my planning sheet and describe to you one of my first of the year lessons.

So, if you haven’t gotten my PBL Lesson Planning Sheet, enter your name and email address on the optin form at the end of this post, and it will come straight to you.  Print it out, and let’s get started!

  Step 1:  Content

This will always be your number one place to start when designing a PBL lesson!

If you are just beginning, I would choose something that you know the students catch on to easily, and something you can do in a week’s time.  

Since I teach social studies, one of the first topics I teach is Geography–namely how to use and read maps–and that is where my first idea comes from.

Step 2:   Academic Goals & Social Goals

All teachers should know that you start with what you want to assess and then plan backwards.  What do you need your students to know?  What do you need them to be able to do at the end of your lesson/unit?  List these objectives–they are your academic goals.  (hint:  These can turn into your learning targets and they can help you to find your essential questions)

When you begin project-based learning, it is important to get swept into the excitement of the project.  You may get to the end and realized that students didn’t actually learn the content!  That is a horrible feeling–please don’t ask me how I know! Lol!

My biggest piece of advice here is to BE INTENTIONAL ABOUT TEACHING YOUR CONTENT! Do this through the use of class openers that review the previous day’s content, short formative quizzes, class exit tickets.  Whatever method you choose, you must keep doing it for the learning to stick!

Social goals are just as important to have in a project-based learning classroom.  Students need to be able to work collaboratively within their class environment–not only for your peace of mind but as a skill they can use for a lifetime.

The best example I have seen comes from TCI  (Teachers’ Curriculum Institute).  They are the authors of the History Alive series of books (which are wonderful by the way).  TCI’s first lessons, before any type of content is even mentioned, is how to work collaboratively in groups.  They use concrete examples of how to use body language, how to use eye contact, and even how to disagree in a way that other’s feelings are not hurt.  

While planning this section, pick a goal or two to work through on your first project.  Make sure students know you are watching for them to use these actions.  Compliment them specifically when they do–and you will be on the way to a  wonderful classroom environment!  

Step 3:  Project Goals

To match my content of geography and maps, I just thought simply, “Why not make a map?”  As the students learned about a particular land or water feature, or region, I could have them just add it to the map!  If we go over all of the content, and add it to the map, how could students not learn about the topic at hand?

I had my first understanding of the “how could students not learn” during my first year with project based learning!  It was not pretty.  

Let me tell you a little about my project.  My students made maps of the United States on foam board, with blue yarn for the rivers and clay for the mountains.  We painted the different climate regions with green, brown, and orange-ish paint (for the deserts).  They turned out pretty cool….but…..when I went to assess the students, they looked at me like they had never heard any of the terms we had spent so much time on!

I was flabbergasted…and incredulous!  How could they not have learned?!  (I’m sure you can relate to this feelling..it usually happens after a long break in school–fall break, spring break–definitely after Christmas break!)

One reason, I found–after some serious reflecting, was that I was not intentional with the content and I did not review it well as we were going through the process.  Another reason–I had waited until the end of the unit to make the “project.”  The students had not experienced the learning, and then applied it.  I had basically rushed through the content to get to the project, only to realize that I had not really taught it like I should have!  

Can you imagine how frustrating this was?  I was so excited to master this project-based learning stuff and get my cool projects ready for parent night, only to realize that I missed the whole picture of what project based learning really was! GAH!  

The moral of that story? Plan your project so that you can teach the content, apply the content, and reinforce the content–intentionally and all together–often!

Step 4:  Driving Questions  (Also called Compelling Questions)

Formulating the driving question for project-based learning lesson/unit is like devising a hook for your English paper.  You want to pull your audience in and get them interested in what you are about to say–or teach.

The driving question I use for my geography unit is “Who ARE we and HOW did we get HERE?”  I can actually use this question to drive my whole first grading period’s lessons, because after geography, I go into Native Americans and then Explorers.  

When we learn about government, two driving questions I use are, “Can people change government?” and “Does RISK lead to CHANGE?”  The second question in this series works very well for a civil rights unit.  

Trying to come up with these driving questions, for me, is one of the harder parts of project-based learning.  For an excellent guide to creating these types of questions click here.  


Step 5:  Writing in a project-based learning classroom

I am a huge proponent of writing across the curriculum.  Over the years, education has gone back and forth about how schools are held accountable for writing.  Whatever way your state is assessed, students do need to know how to write.  Writing across the curriculum is a great way for teachers to integrate that practice.  When done in classes like math, social studies, and science, writing often makes students think about the processes that they have gone through to learn about a particular topic.  

For every project that we complete, my students have to write an explanation piece.  They will explain their learning and how they completed the project at hand.  This will be typed (if time allows) and displayed next to their project during Parent Night.  I then have a win-win situation on my hands!  The student is writing an explanatory piece and reviewing the topic–and–the parent can clearly see where the student may be in their wriitng journey as compared to other students in the grade!  Usually, we have good conversations with parents at these display nights.  

To dig deeper into the content, I have the students also answer the driving question.  This is where I can really see what content was learned!  Do students connect the dots when it comes to the concept that I am teaching?  Or do I need to put that content into the next couple weeks rotation of my class warm-ups so that I can re-teach?  

Step 6:  The add-ins

There are several other concepts to include in PBL.  That is what makes it intimidating for new teachers or teachers that are new to it.  Some examples of other concepts are:

  •  Community Service–Is there a small amount of community service that can be added to this project?  For example, can your class design an advertisement for a particular company to use–perhaps an animal shelter?

Speakers–Who can you bring in to speak to the children to enrich the content you are teaching?  An example of this would be a Wildlife conservationist speaking to students about ecosystems.

Field Trips–What field trips are you taking this school year?  Can you plan a project around your trip?  Or incorporate the knowledge that the students will need to know for the trip?

Technology–How can you deliver content, or can your final project be, something to do with technology?  I have recently made my first Hyper Doc to deliver content about Geography.  My students are loving it!

Other Online Resources–Can you Skype with Pen Pals in another country?  Can you attend a virtual field trip?  Last year, the fifth grade classes in our school all Skyped with a center out in Montana to learn more about buffalo.  The kids really enjoyed that and were thrilled to have been able to send questions in.

Closing Thoughts

It can be daunting to begin PBL, but just jump in there!  Try it once, give it a month or so to settle in your mind, and get right back in.  Not every concept needs to be a PBL project.  As you go along, you will realize though, that your teacher mind just can’t stay away from this type of lesson planning and thinking.  For as many times as students and school can be frustrating, there are those moments that help you to hang on.

For me, I can already tell that my year will be extremely different than last year.  I am going to have to be on my toes and working to find new things to keep this bunch busy with learning in a way that is novel to them.  Good luck to you during this school year.  I wish you much fun, good health, and a wonderful class of students!


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