Hand students the ability to create their own understanding. 10 tips to making project based learning manageable in any classroom.
So often in education, we give students information like they are empty buckets and we are filling them. We do this even though all the research shows that students remember so much more if they create their own knowledge. How do students create their own knowledge? With integrated, multistandard, open ended projects. Project based learning is a great catch phrase that is often thrown around in education, but in reality there is very little true project based learning happening in our classrooms.
Why don't teachers actually teach with projects? Because projects take a lot of time and effort and "distract" us from the scripted curriculum. However, creating projects help teachers to cover multiple standards at once, and help students to retain knowledge longer and dig deeper into content. So they are worth the effort. However we've gotten so far from project based learning that many teachers don't know where to start. Today, I will give you 10 tips to make project based learning REALLY work in your classroom, no matter the demographics or the format of your classroom.
Tip #1: Use a similar "format" in different ways.
One of the hardest part of using projects is teaching kids the "how to do it" and the "expectations". I simplify this by using similar formats repeatedly. I choose 2 or 3 formats that I like and use them in a variety of ways. This way when I start my Women's History Project, I don't have to teach those things because I can just tell the kids "This project is just like the Black History Project, and the Hispanic History Project and the Native American History Project that we did earlier in the year." New topics, new standards, same format.
Tip #2: Make a list of ALL standards covered when using a project.
The biggest reason teachers tell me they don't do projects is because they don't have time to do them and cover all of their curriculum. My answer to this is our job is not to teach curriculum, but to teach standards. I can teach The Case of the Gasping Garbage to my students using the standard scripted curriculum and cover 3.RL.1 - ask and answer questions and 3.RL.3 - character traits. OR I can use my Mystery Book Report Projects and cover the same book (or even better a wide variety of mysteries, each at the correct level for the individual student) and cover: 3.RL.1 - ask and answer questions, 3.RL.2 - summarize, 3.RL.3 - character traits, 3.RL.6 - point of view, 3.RL.9 - compare and contrast, 3.W.3 - narrative writing, 3.SL.2 - ask and answer questions from a speaker and 3.SL.3 - present on a topic. In fact, this project probably covers more standards, especially if kids are working in groups, or I'm helping them edit and revise their projects, etc. etc.
So when I teach using projects, I make a list of all the standards we are working on, and I post it. This helps the kids and I know our focus, but it is also a great CYA when my admin wants to know why we aren't following the script for that day. For other tips on how to teach what kids NEED while using a scripted curriculum, check out my Outside of the Boxed Curriculum blog post.
Tip #3: Embed projects within a center rotation, with the scripted curriculum as a different rotation.
Now if a list of covered standards isn't enough to convince your admin, you can also use projects alongside your scripted curriculum. Personally, I always teaching using a rotation or checklist format, so that I get to meet with my students in small groups every day, while the rest of the class are working on independent or partner work elsewhere. So when I was required to use scripted curriculum, I would teach the script three or four times to small groups, while the rest of the class worked independently. And you can be sure that one of their tasks was to work on that project. On the occasions I was blessed to not have a scripted curriculum, I still used projects as part of my rotation. Only then my group would be to either work on specific skills that group needed, or to help guide students through the project in a small group setting. Either way, kids are getting exactly what THEY need, while covering multiple standards.
Tip #4: Allow for student choice within projects.
All of learning and teaching is about buy in, right? Kids will work harder when they have bought into a project. This is really why projects are more effective than most other teaching methods, because the students are more interested in them and will buy in easier and work harder. However, to really get kids in, let them have some choice. They need to study an animal for the Animal Research Project? Let them choose the animal. They need to study a biography for the Biography Project? Let them choose the person.
Choice is also why so many of my projects are matrixes. If students MUST research one topic, then let them choose the way they will present their information. Not only will you students get more involved in a project this way, but it encourages metacognition. Teaching kids to think about their own thinking is important. When they choose a project type, ask them why they chose that one. Discuss how different people like to do different things, and they should find what fits them. My oldest son, given a choice, will always do an outline or Cornell notes on a topic. My middle son, loves making comic books over writing an essay. My youngest son, will always choose the artsy option. Kids are different, and if we give them choice, they will dive into projects.
Tip #5: Keep projects as open ended as possible.
So often I see writing prompts and worksheets labeled as PBL. If you know exactly what your students' projects will look like before you start, you are not doing project based learning. Projects should be as open ended as possible. Students should be in control of the learning and the finished product. That does not mean you don't give them a focus. One of my favorite open ended projects is my Vocabulary Game Project. I give students the vocabulary words and a guidance sheet. They find the meanings of the words and then they use the guidance sheet asks them questions to "guide" their thoughts, but there are so many choices that every game in a class of 25 kids comes out vastly different. Another reason I love this project is that it can be used with any vocabulary words, so I can use it again and again and challenge students to try different game formats each time.
Another great time to keep things open ended is in science. This is the basis of my Create Your Own Cookie project and Create Your Own Lamp project. Design is essentially open ended in it's core. Having students design anything will allow for a whole lot of creative and higher level thinking.
Tip #6: Use the literature of the scripted curriculum as the base of an engaging project.
If you're a regular reader, you will know that I am not a big fan of scripted curriculums. However, the one thing I do like is the diverse and interesting literature that they often provide us. I've had books like The Year of Miss Agnes, Knots on a Counting Rope, A Bad Case of the Stripes, The Recess Queen, and Thundercake as part of my curriculums. Use that literature as a base for your projects. As already discussed, this can easily be done with my larger book report projects. However, these texts are also great for simple projects like the Be the Teacher: Make the Test project. Instead of giving students a bunch of pre-designed questions, let them create the questions and test their friends. The testing out process is key here because it encourages students to re-think questions that were much too easy or much too hard, or that were worded in a way others wouldn't understand. The thinking and the creating is what is key to project based learning.
Tip #7: DON'T just assign projects to advanced students or quick finishers.
One of my biggest pet peeves is when teachers only use projects for higher level, quicker working students. Projects should be for EVERYONE in your class. Advanced students are often already engaged or motivated to learn. However, lower level students often need help engaging and getting motivated and projects help them with this. Projects also cover multiple standards at one time, providing a built in "review" for students who need to touch on standards multiple times.
Additionally, working on projects is a confidence builder as they most often end with the students creating something. If you are one of the few in class who never gets to create, but always has to complete a worksheet, how does that make you feel? Unsuccessful, that's how. Students don't become stronger students by being made to feel unsuccessful all the time. If you need help using projects with lower achieving students, check out my blog post on Making Project Learning Successful with Lower Achieving Students, but please, please don't exclude anyone from project based learning.
Tip #8: Create tiered versions of a projects so that everyone can be successful.
This tip goes right along with number 7 because there are ways to tier projects so that they meet each student where they are. In fact, projects are one of the easiest things to differentiate for me. Because of the built in student choice and open ended creation, tiering a project so that all students are working on the same thing at their own level, is very easy.
Some ways to tier a project for lower achieving students are to:
- provide easier texts for literature or research articles
- allow students to use videos, audio books or website reading technology when doing research
- allow for speech to text when writing essays or recording notes
- pair down research questions to the most important
- encourage students to use art or drama as part of their creation to reduce stress on spelling or grammar
Some ways to tier a project for higher achieving students are to:
- provide more challenging texts for literature or research articles
- encourage the use of different research sources, including encyclopedias or scholarly articles
- teach students to create a bibliography, requiring a certain number of sources
- encourage students to add additional details to projects
- encourage students to publish their projects using technology - videography, vlogging, blogging, graphic design, website design, etc.
Tip #9: Allow for partner projects, using strategic pairing.
As a student, I DETESTED group projects, so I very rarely use them. I hated them because I was always the kid who did all the work while everyone else sat around and talked. So, when I do use group projects, I allow students to "grade" their group members and include that grade as 10% of the individual's final grade. Now that being said, partner projects can be a very useful tool.
When doing partner projects, I strategically pair students who each have a strength and a weakness. One may be a great reader and the other a great artist. Or one may be great at finding facts while the other is great at thinking outside of the box. Then I teach my students how to break down the work of a project using the strengths of each individual. (Back to metacognition again!) Because they are each seen as successful, both students are engaged, even if one student is stronger academically than the other.
Tip #10: Start small! One successful project with lead to more projects.
I have been doing projects with my students (all ages, Kinder through 5th) for 15 years. I've had projects be amazing and projects completely flop. And each project I do, helps me to do a better job with the next project I plan. But if you've never done projects before, don't plan 10 for the school year yet. Start with one. See how it goes. If it flops, reflect on what would have made it more successful. Try again, with one more project. Eventually you will find what works for you with project based learning. And of course what works well with this year's students might not work well with other classes. The key is not to try to do everything in a project, get overwhelmed and then decide projects aren't for you. One bad project is the same as one bad lesson. You reflect, you change a bit and you try again.
Starting small can also be an inspiring thing. Because when you get that first project that goes amazingly and you can step back and see all of your students actively engaged in creating their own learning, it fills you with joy. Kids are naturally curious. They are meant to explore and discover on their own. They are meant to create and to learn from mistakes. Our curriculums don't allow time for this type of learning. Projects do.
So what project are you doing with your kids this year? Here are a few ideas of projects from my Teachers Pay Teachers store that may be helpful in your classroom.
Book Report Projects for Multiple Different Genres
Rock Research Project
Exploring Africa Using Folktales Project
The Great Plant Experiment
Amazing Americans Research Project
Earth Day Video Project (FREE)
Earth's Minerals Online Poster Project
Balanced Checkbook Project
Design Your Dream School Project
Create a Virtual Field Trip to the Desert
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