Meet the BIE National Faculty: Amanda Clark

Hi! I’m Amanda Clark and I have been using Project Based Learning in my classroom since I started teaching in 2001.

In 2001, I was invited to student teach at this amazing school in the heart of Des Moines, Iowa called the Downtown School. I had spent time the previous year in a 9/10 year old classroom for my social studies and literacy practicum and fell in love with the teaching philosophy, my cooperating teachers, and the vibrant downtown community. I got my first taste of Project Based Learning with our human body project. Yes, I know that is a HUGE undertaking of a project, but we had 5 teachers (3 classroom teachers and 2 student teachers) and 48 students. Each teacher was in charge of one body system and the students had voice and choice in deciding which system they wanted to learn about. We tapped into experts from Des Moines University (the local Health Sciences University), conducted research, and designed investigations to get the students thinking critically about how all of the body systems must work together. It was amazing to see the students showcase their learning to parents and guests in a living museum format.

Fast-forward 16 years. I’m still with the Downtown School, now supporting teachers in an Instructional Coach role. Our school district is using the Marzano Instructional Framework and I have the opportunity to support 6-7 teachers every 6 weeks in reaching their personal growth goal. It is incredible work that ranges from modeling in the classroom, co-teaching, observing and providing feedback, lesson design, tracking student progress, etc. Every day is different!

In June of 2017, I accepted a Lecturer of Education position with Central College in Pella, Iowa. I will be teaching preservice teachers everything that I can about balanced literacy, arts integration, science methods, PBL, and language development. I am thrilled to be working with older students at this residential liberal arts college in the heart of the Midwest.

In addition, I am enrolled in graduate school. I am currently working on my Ph.D. at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa. Much of my research has been on the topic of professional development. I am curious to learn more about how teachers learn during professional development sessions and how they implement their learning.

The Popcorn Project
I have been doing project work for so long that it is hard to narrow down my list of favorites, so I will give you a Top 5 Project Based Learning list and tell you the specifics of my all-time favorite project, Popcorn!

  1. Popcorn (7/8 year olds)
  2. Trees (7/8 year olds)
  3. Iowa History, People and Places (9/10 year olds)
  4. Cameras (7/8 year olds)
  5. Quilts (7/8 year olds)

Living in the Corn Belt, agriculture and farming are natural project topics… except when your school is situated in the heart of the capital city. In order to accomplish the goals and standards we wanted to address, my colleague and I used popcorn as an entry event and launch for our project about corn and farming.

After reading The Popcorn Book by Tomie dePaola, The Popcorn Dragon by Jane Thayer, or Popcorn by Frank Asch, the students are clamoring to find out the answer to this question, why does popcorn pop?  More importantly, why don’t the other varieties of corn pop? My favorite entry event for this project is setting a Stir Crazy popper (with the lid off) in the center of a 6’x6’ piece of butcher paper and having each student predict how far they think the popcorn will pop. After they place a colored dot on their prediction point, we turn on the popper and let the popcorn fly!  The students are so excited to observe, check their predictions, and measure to find out how far the popcorn popped.

The popcorn project is highly successful because of field work opportunities (think getting to sit on a real tractor at the Power Farming Show), math unit on volume (especially comparing quantities of unpopped to popped popcorn), and navigating non-fiction texts to learn about farm machinery, uses of corn, and the life cycle of a corn plant. We even planned a popcorn party for our guests as part of the culmination of this project. The students shared their products (one year everyone contributed to a scale model of a working farm) with their parents and our guests (specifically those who we had called upon to be experts during this project) while enjoying popcorn and lemonade.

My Work with BIE
I am ecstatic to share my Project Based Learning experiences with others through the work of BIE in PBL 101 workshops. I enjoy providing professional development and hope I can encourage and support PBL across the nation.

In 1916, John Dewey wrote: “To ‘learn from experience’ is to make a backward and forward connection between what we do to things and what we enjoy or suffer from things in consequence. Under such conditions, doing becomes trying; an experiment with the world to find out what it is like; the undergoing becomes instruction—discovery of the connection of things” (Democracy and Education, p. 140).

As you embark on your Project Based Learning journey, I hope to help you learn by experience so you can help students discover the connection of things and create their own learning.


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