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Project Based Learning: Pondering the Past

I love days like today! Cool, a bit drizzly, and signs of fall staring in my window. I have been waiting for just such a day so that I can return to something I really enjoy… blogging. Some of you have just about given up on me. Thanks for your patience. To be honest, I have been waiting to get back in the game until I felt I had something useful to share. Well, today is the day! I have been thinking and reflecting and I am committing to writing a new series of posts about a topic near and dear to me… Project Based Learning!


Over the next few weeks I will be sharing my experiences, tips, and even mistakes made on my PBL journey. I hope you will visit me often to see what I am up to. On this practically perfect autumn day I want to begin by Pondering the Past… It’s a long one, so grab a cup of coffee.


Pondering the Past


Is it your year to have “the class?” By this I mean a group of children tagged with descriptions like behavior issues, strugglers, or odd ducks. If you teach long enough, you’ll eventually get “the class.” I have to admit I have always loved those unique groups of students. They’re challenging, yet precious. One year I had “the class” in fourth grade. I knew they were going to be a handful before I even met them because everyone had shared that information with me. Don’t you just love teacher friends. LOL


Well, I was prepared. I even shortened my maternity leave so I could be there as much as possible. I felt that if I lost them in the first weeks of school I’d never get them back. Who needs six weeks to recover? Two will be just fine. I pause here to state that was probably one of the dumbest things I have ever done, but somehow I survived and that baby is now one independent young woman living in a big city on her own. It all worked out.


I always loved teaching with projects connected to real-world experiences. We now refer to this as Project Based Learning. Back then, I just knew the more we did hands-on, the more students learned! With this particular group of students PBL became a must! Worksheets and busywork would have never cut it with that bunch. The more they could build, create, and investigate the better. The one thing that struck me early in the year was their limited background of experiences. Most of the children were from poor homes or dysfunctional families. The majority of the students had not been on vacations, visited museums, or even had nightly bedtime stories read to them. It was clear to me that I was going to have to not only teach the curriculum, but build background knowledge for everything. The more real-world connections I could make for them, the more willing they would be to focus and learn.


By early spring, I had seen growth using our PBL approach, but I knew I was going to send them to the next grade soon and I was worried. I wanted my spunky bunch to succeed not just in fourth grade, but in life. Perhaps many of them would never go to college, but I wanted to instill in them the belief that they were achievers. I looked over the curriculum left to teach and started to see connections. I had measurement, geometry, and simple machines left to cover. I decided that we would design playhouses to learn the standards. My plan quickly evolved into not just designing playhouses, but actually constructing one for our school playground.


It was crazy. I knew nothing about architecture, building, or tools. But I knew my wonderful husband and many friends were experts in those fields, and there were parents of my students who had those skills. We all joined together to make it happen. The students drew up plans and we voted for our favorite. We wrote letters and made visits to local businesses to ask for donations and supplies. The students measured, drilled, and nailed the pieces together. Parents and friends spent their evenings and Saturdays helping us finish the construction. Somehow by the end of the school year, the playhouse was completed, painted, and placed in a special spot on the playground. At the dedication, you have never seen more proud and smiling kids than “the class.” No other fourth grade students had ever done such a thing, and honestly, no other group ever would. (I am pretty sure we broke rules or building codes, but no one seemed to be worried at the time.) It was the most project-based learning experience I’ve ever organized and still makes me smile each time I reminisce.


Years have gone by since that incredible learning experience for all of us, but those students still talk about building the playhouse. They’ve moved on to adulthood, but the memory and the learning stay with them and me. I had always been a PBL teacher, but after the playhouse I dreamed bigger and could not settle for anything less than real world learning for my students!


Next Time: PBL 101

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