Hangout Recap: Elementary School Project Spotlight

We heard about some really wonderful projects from this just-ending school year in our Hangout May 24. Here’s a summary of what each of our guests had to say – watch the Hangout for the details!

Jennifer Burnell teaches 4th grade at Fall-Hamilton Elementary School in Nashville, Tennessee (Metro Nashville Public Schools is a BIE partner district). This is her third year of using PBL. She told a great story about four boys who were put together on a project team because they were, shall we say, behavior-challenged. The project was called “The Best Field Day Ever” and the boys came up with their own driving question, “How can a field day bring people together?” which I love because it goes deeper than simply planning an event. The boys read a lot of informational text doing research on field days, and built their writing skills too. They conducted surveys, analyzed data, constructed graphs, and drew conclusions to arrive at a school-wide consensus on what kind of activity would bring people together: a scavenger hunt. They planned and conducted the field day to rave reviews, and it was an empowering experience for them.

She also described a U.S. history project in which students learned how to color fabric using natural dyes, as 19th-century settlers on the frontier did. The class was super-engaged and also learned science as they experimented with different plants to make the dyes.

Mary Beth McKenzie teaches 4th grade at Smith Springs Elementary School in Nashville, Tennessee. This is her first year using PBL and she says, “I’m loving every minute of it!” The driving question in her project was, “How can we, as 4th grade writers, inform the public about the Revolutionary War?” The entry event was a video message from a real historian working at Bleak House, an antebellum mansion in Knoxville, who also consulted with students as they worked on the project.

Mary Beth showed several examples of the scaffolding provided to students and included a very detailed look at how she differentiated it, guided students’ research, kept the project on track, and managed teams, making individual members accountable. Students created a newspaper and made presentations to the whole school.

Myla Lee is an instructional coach at Novi Community Schools in Michigan, and a veteran member of BIE’s National Faculty. She told about a 5th grade teacher who saw the video on BIE’s website, “Courtyard Redesign,” and decided to make it even more authentic. He didn’t just have students work with architects to help them develop proposals – they actually built a new courtyard at their school.

The teacher raised funds by writing for a grant, and asked the PTO and local businesses to help. His students, in addition to applying math (esp. scaling and budgeting), reading informational text, and doing persuasive writing, learned social studies standards about public discourse, decision-making, and involvement in local government. He wanted the kids to “learn what it really takes” to get something built, so they got into the weeds of the city planning department and school district bureaucracy, “making their voices heard as citizens.” They worked with a city manager and landscaper as experts.  They did the hard labor of digging, planting, installing benches, etc. and hosted a ribbon-cutting celebration.

One important lesson the teacher learned was “don’t underestimate your students!” He says when he does such a project again he will be sure to find out the technological abilities of his students, because they decided on their own to use Google Draw (and showed him how).

Erin Starkey is an instructional coach and technologist at City View Independent School District in Wichita Falls, Texas. She told the story of the “Cookie Project,” which was inspired by the increased rigor of 5th grade math standards three years ago. Students learned real-world applications of fractions as they baked cookies and reduced recipes by one half or increased the by one and a half – and did a lot of critical thinking and problem-solving.

In the first year of the project, the class just ate their cookies at the end. But Erin explained how the project became more authentic the next time when the students held a bake sale to raise money for a different cause each year, determined after doing research.

As a final word, our guests offered advice for PBL teachers: don’t underestimate them, your kids can teach you a lot; take the leap to PBL because the engagement of your students is worth it; don’t be afraid to reach out to your community; understand that becoming a PBL teacher is a process, so stick with it. I loved Jennifer’s comment about making projects “real world – we figure this stuff out all the time, so why not start as kids?”

Do you have questions or comments about doing PBL in the elementary grades? Please enter them below.