8 Things I Learned My First Year Of Teaching With Project-Based Learning

8 Things I Learned My First Year Of Teaching With Project-Based Learning

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8 Things I Learned My First Year Of Teaching With Project-Based Learning

by Rachelle Dene Poth

My first year of teaching with project-based learning provided as much learning for me as it did my students.

Each year when I head back to my classroom in the fall, I have many ideas of new methods, new tools, and some changes that I want to make in my classes. These changes and ideas are the result of attending summer conferences, reading new books, and maybe the most helpful, student feedback that I review over the summer.

The biggest change I wanted to make this year was to have my students really engage in Project-Based Learning.

Interested in PBL support? Contact TeachThought Professional Development today! 

1. It’s not ‘doing projects.”

My students have completed many projects over the years, and I honestly thought they were doing “PBL”, but after the summer I finally realized that it was not authentic PBL. I was simply having students learn by completing projects. Coming to this realization allowed me to find resources to learn how to implement authentic PBL into my classroom.

If you are feeling the same as I did, don’t worry. There are the resources, tools, and shifts in thinking that can help you on your way.

See also: The Difference Between Projects And Project-Based Learning

2. Students–and parents–need to understand the process.

To get started, I sought out resources that I had learned about over the summer.

I learned that there are several different methods of doing PBL. The theme can be something created by the teacher, independently chosen by the students, or a combination of something in between. Because I had decided to implement PBL with my Spanish 3 and 4, I decided to follow an independent method, enabling students to pursue something of personal interest. The opportunity for students to have choices through more independent learning, leads to a more meaningful experience, a few of the great benefits of PBL.

The opportunity for students to have choices through more independent learning, leads to a more meaningful experience,  a few of the great benefits of PBL. This is difficult without students–and parents!–understanding how PBL works so they can buy-in, support, and believe in this ‘long-tail’ approach to learning.

3. The right technology can make all the difference.

I started by explaining the purpose of doing PBL, what I hoped would be the benefits of doing this in Spanish 3 and 4, and using the resources I found, shared the PBL elements with the students. I wanted to make sure they understood the process, as much as possible, from the start. I knew it would be a learning experience for all of us, requiring ongoing reflection and feedback.

In our classes, we use a few digital tools which help open up opportunities for communication and collaboration. We use Edmodo for our classroom website, messaging apps (Celly and Voxer), and have also used tools such as Kidblog for blogging and writing reflections, and Recap and Flipgrid for video responses.

4. Developing quality Essential Questions takes practice.

I did my best to explain how to create an Essential Question (what TeachThought Professional Development calls ‘Driving Questions’), referring to resources I had found, as well as some books and educators for advice. I had struggled with crafting my own “Essential questions” in the past during curriculum writing and I knew this was an area that I also needed to work on.

What I learned is that Essential Questions are not answered with a yes or no, and answers are not easily found through a Google search. Essential questions will help students to become more curious, to seek more information, and in the process, develop their skills for problem-solving and critical thinking.

Essential questions drive the learning.

Last summer, I had read the book Pure Genius, by Don Wettrick, and had the opportunity to meet him during the Summer Spark Conference in Milwaukee. I also read a few other PBL books including  Reinventing Project-Based Learning: Your Field Guide, by Suzie Boss and Jane Krauss, and Dive Into Inquiry by Trevor MacKenzie.

Once we started, the students had many questions, and I answered as best as I could. However, because this was a new experience for me as well, I sought additional help.  Don Wettrick spoke to my students through a Skype call and later in the fall, Ross Cooper spoke with my students about crafting their Essential questions. Another great resource I consulted over was  Hacking Project-Based Learning book by Ross Cooper and Erin Murphy.

See also: Using The QFT To Drive Inquiry In Project-Based Learning

5. Project-based learning is a team-effort.

We have gone through this twice so far this year, and are now focused on one final PBL theme. It has been a tremendous learning experience for my students and I have learned so much from them. We have covered many new topics related to culture, language, sports, family and traditions.

The students enjoy having the chance to be in the lead, to drive their own learning, and have become more reflective on their work and on this PBL process. I did make mistakes and continue to work on improving each time we do this. The availability of these PBL resources to guide teachers and students and other educators who offer support along the way has made all of the difference.

The most powerful part of this has been the feedback from my students. I asked for the positives, the negatives, what could be different, how could I help more, and they were honest and offered such great information.

6. Project-based learning empowers students.

What I have learned is that it really does benefit students and the teachers to offer these project-based learning experiences for students, to find out about their passions and interests. We learn more about them and from them through their PBL. Having students take over the classroom and present their information opened up so many new learning opportunities for everyone. This is truly a great way to see students empowered in their learning.

Overall, the students are pleased about the work they have done, the progress they have taken and are excited about this next phase. We reviewed the feedback, did a little bit more research, and had some planning conversations.

7. Project-based learning forces students to see learning differently.

We need to create opportunities for students to pursue their interests when they learn. In order to prepare them for the real world, we should provide learning opportunities which connect them with other people, perspectives, and experiences.

The most difficult part for my students at the start of this was thinking about how they were going to present their information, and I kept telling them to work through the research part, gather their information first. I reminded them often to focus on the “what and why” part, and that the final product form would become more apparent as they progressed.

8. Patience is key.

I am pleased with having started PBL this year and I encourage other educators to consider implementing PBL in their classrooms. Yes, there can implementation dip. And without communication with students and parents and even our own colleagues, progress can be slow.

PBL is, however, a different approach to learning. It acknowledges that the school year is a marathon, not a series of sprints. It allows students to design and create and publish and reflect on and revise ideas, and this all takes time. Patience, then, is a critical characteristic of any successful–and sane!–project-based learning teacher! Given time, you’ll eventually help the students see the impact it has had on their learning.

 

Kidblog: Don’t Let the Learning Stop: How to keep students engaged over extended breaks

Don’t Let the Learning Stop: How to keep students engaged over extended breaks

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The “Slide”

Throughout the school year, extended breaks provide both teachers and students the opportunity to give their mind a chance to reboot. However, learning opportunities do not have to stop while we take a break from the classroom to devote time to family, friends, and relaxation. Without opportunities for active learning during these extended breaks, some loss of knowledge is inevitable.  Similar to what has been termed the “summer slide”, this phenomenon also occurs during shorter breaks throughout the course of the school year.

There are many opportunities available to avoid this “slide”; teachers can help students engage in learning in fun ways that do not feel like “learning” at all. For my students, this means  blogging. Thanks to the availability of technology and platforms like Kidblog, students can stay connected, while still working on building skills over the break.

From “assignment” to “activity”

So, what turns a blog post from “an assignment by the teacher” over break to a fun student activity? It’s all about the content. For example, students may be asked to write a blog surrounding their time over break. Perhaps they describe what activities they participated in; writing a review of a book or movie they experienced, sharing how they spent time with friends or family, or even posting a new recipe they learned over break. These open-ended prompts enable students to work on their writing and literacy skills in a low-key and fun way. Additionally, it gives teachers the chance to stay connected with their students and provide any necessary feedback.

For more reflection, students may be given prompts which ask them to take a look back at some of the work that they have done prior to the break. They can focus on a few specific skills they have gained as well as their strengths or weaknesses throughout the year. Using blogging as a journal, they may then write a personal blog to themselves addressing these areas.  The blog can be shared with the teacher as a reflection, to explain how they perceive their progress in class and offer some ideas for personal goals or describe areas where improvement can be made. This prompt can be a great way for students to prepare for the year ahead of them.

It’s about staying connected

Blogging enables the students and teachers to communicate through a comfortable medium. It gives students an opportunity to write, read, and practice any critical skills they have learned leading up to the break as well as some reflective writing.  Students are encouraged to be creative while they are engaged in the practice of reflection, setting them up for future growth and helping you as the teacher develop a better understanding of student needs.

Kidblog Post:How to Use Blogging with Project Based Learning

How to Use Blogging with Project Based Learning

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Over the past few years, I have looked for more ways—especially creative ways—to use blogging in my classroom. What initially started as a way to have my students practice their writing skills in a digital format (rather than the traditional “Daily Journal” writing), has taken different forms over the past year.

Blogging brings students’ work into a digital learning space, where they can feel free to share their ideas, to express themselves without so much worry on grammatical accuracy, and build their confidence in the process. It enabled me as the teacher to not only focus on what they were sharing, and assess them as needed, but also to learn about them in the process. It provided me with a way to further personalize my instruction and to be able to give the needed feedback in a more direct way.

I also use student blogs, in addition to my own, as a means to reflect on what I have been doing the classroom. Giving this information to the students affords them an opportunity for that critical reflection as well. So through blogging, many skills are enhanced and many things are possible besides the initial use of writing in response to a prompt.

Blogging with #PBL

Approaching this school year, I had many new ideas in mind, one of which was the implementation of PBL (Project-based learning) in my upper-level Spanish courses. A big part of the undertaking of PBL is for students to have an “essential question,” to think about what they wish to explore further in their studies.  We discuss how it will work, plan to have progress checks throughout, and once they have completed their cycle of research, they prepare to share their information. An important part of PBL is the reflection element.

I chose to use Kidblog as a way for students to take time to reflect on what they have uncovered in their research and to give others an opportunity to learn from them. I can give feedback, and we both have access to that information and refer back to it as often as needed. We can also continue to comment on it moving forward. I can write comments to offer suggestions and provide support. More importantly, a private digital learning space gives students a way to be more independent in their learning. For our PBL, students use their blog as a way to create a guide for themselves during the process. After posting of their initial “Essential Question,” students are reminded of where they started and how far they have come.

All of this valuable information can then be used during the next phase of PBL. It is a great way to track growth, increase communication skills, and collaborate. The use of blogging aids in the building of relationships. It is rewarding to read what students have written, to understand how they worked through their project-based learning experience, and to have that element of reflection as a result of their blogging. For me, it is great to hear directly from students as they share what they have learned, but better to hear them acknowledge how much they have grown.  Being able to review and reflect aids students in planning new goals and continuing their path toward lifelong learning.

 

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As an addition to this, it is helpful as a teacher to reflect on our practices, in what ways can we improve, how is PBL working in our classroom, what are the thoughts of the students.  Using this information can be quite helpful, as well as referring to the many resources available through BIE, and recent books including Hacking Project Based Learning by Ross Cooper and Erin Murphy, Dive Into Inquiry by Trevor MacKenzie, and Pure Genius by Don Wettrick.  The #pblchat is also a great place to learn on Twitter.