Project Based Learning in the Primary Classroom: Part 1

Over the past few weeks, I've been working on a new Project-Based Learning initiative with my students. Working in groups, the students have developed business models, created budgets, filled out loan applications, met with loan officers, developed advertising campaigns, and placed purchase orders for materials. They've corresponded by email with their loan officers and tracked their work in business portfolios. They've presented their business plans to leaders in our school community, and are preparing to start production when we get back from spring break.

My students are seven and eight years old. They don't even have all of their teeth yet.

It sounds unbelievable, but I promise--it's true. 

If you haven't experienced Project-Based Learning in your classroom, I can't WAIT to share all about it with you, and how I make it come to life for my second graders. I won't lie--it's a lot of work. However, teaching in and of itself is a lot of work, and I've actually found that committing to one large project is a far better use of my time, effort, energy, and resources than planning 25 separate, smaller, unrelated activities.

Over the next couple of weeks, I'll share how to practically apply Project-Based Learning in a primary setting, and give you the tools and resources you need to make it happen in your own classroom. Before I dive into the specifics of the project we're currently working on, though, I want to outline some of the core principles of Project-Based Learning and some of the practical first steps you need to consider before you write even a single lesson plan.

Project-Based Learning is an instructional strategy defined by several key components. First, students need to have a real-life problem that they are trying to solve. This is written in the form of an essential question. All lessons and learning activities are tied to this essential question, and the question helps to focus the unit of study. This leads to the next component of Project-Based Learning, inquiry. Project-Based Learning allows for open-ended exploration of the essential question. This means that students working in groups might all come up with slightly different answers to the essential question, and that's okay. This also means that students might fail at first, and that's okay, too. A final characteristic of Project-Based Learning is that the project is integrated into all content areas over a long period of time, and eventually the project is shared with others.

Project-Based Learning is NOT a single day of lessons, and it isn't something you do from 9:30 to 10:30 each morning. Instead, your reading, writing, grammar, science, social studies, and math lessons ALL point back to the essential question, and help students move forward in their project in some way.

Where is the teacher in all of this? The teacher is a guide and facilitator, but not the source of all knowledge. Of course, direct instruction is involved, but there's a huge, collaborative problem-solving component woven into the instruction, as well.

I'll be completely honest: when I first heard about Project-Based Learning, just thinking about it made me feel exhausted. This was a major shift from how I had previously taught my primary students! I used to approach planning on a week-to-week basis, and would look up activities and crafts on Pinterest for each separate content area. I'm certainly not knocking Pinterest (in fact, you can see my own overflowing Pinterest boards here!); I always found great activities that really engaged my students. The difference with shifting to Project-Based Learning, though, is that I'm no longer searching for and prepping 25 separate activities each week. Instead, each subject area is seen as an opportunity to make progress towards one big goal of completing a final project. Instead of planning on a week-to-week basis, I plan on a unit-to-unit basis.

Before you get totally overwhelmed, let me encourage you: Project-Based Learning takes no more effort than you are already putting into your teaching. If you are a week-to-week planner like I was, you'll find that planning a whole unit at a time is actually easier! I'll be sharing an overview of our current Economics unit in a future post so that you can have a practical example of what this looks like, but first I want to share the initial steps for putting together a Project-Based Learning unit.

1. Create a Curriculum Map
Gather all of your standards for each of your content areas in one place. Are you working on narrative writing? Jot down that standard. What ELA standards are you focusing on? What math standards will you be working on? Most importantly, what science or social studies standards will you be covering? (These last ones will be key in designing your Project-Based Learning unit.) Put all of these standards into one document, and now you have your Curriculum Map!

2. Identify a Central Theme
Now that you have all of your standards together in one place, what kind of themes do you see? Can you tie together social studies and science standards? Do any specific math concepts correlate with your topic? Consider what books or articles you could study that are related to your topic. By starting a unit with a particular theme in mind, you'll be better equipped to make smart decisions about the resources you choose to plan your lessons around. You might also spot some ways you could group your standards and identify concepts that would lend themselves to being taught in tandem.

3. Write Your Essential Question
After you've identified a central theme, craft an essential question that encompasses a real-world problem related to that theme. Essential questions are broad, but they help define the purpose behind a project. For example, the essential question for our Economics unit is, "How can we use economics to bring justice to the world?" This encompassed our topics of economics and countries working together, and defined a purpose for why we would care about buying a cow for a family in the developing world.

4. Outline Your Project
Once you have your unit theme and essential question, you can start to think about a project that would give your students a real-world problem to solve. In our Economics unit, I focused on the problem of economic injustice in the world. Not all problems that are presented to students need to be on a global scale, though. We happened to be studying about how countries work together for our social studies standards, so choosing a global problem was appropriate. In other units, though, we've identified problems on a school level. When choosing a project, just remember that it should be spread out over weeks, not hours. It's completely reasonable to break up a project into a lot of tiny steps, especially with primary kiddos. Sketch out what you want your final project to be and list off the small steps your students will need to take over the course of the unit.

5. Create a Weekly Pacing Guide
Whew, last step! Now it's time to make your Weekly Pacing Guide. I promise that this upfront work will make your weekly planning a breeze. Pull out your Curriculum Map, Project Outline, and calendar. In a new document, map out how many weeks your unit will take. Divvy up your standards by week, deciding how long you want to spend on each content area standard. For each week, make a note about your project goals for that week. What portion of the project will your students be working on, and how will that tie to the standards? Now when you go to do your detailed weekly planning, you won't be doing a search on Pinterest for each individual content area. You'll still be searching for resources (Pinterest is great!), but you'll be carefully and intentionally choosing activities that all relate to each other and to your essential question.

If this still feels like a mystery, don't panic. I'll be sharing with you all of the start-to-finish details of my class' most recent Project-Based Learning experience in Part 2! If you're ready to get started and want to integrate Project-Based Learning into your classroom right away, I've put together a resource to make your first experience a breeze.  I've included ALL of the printable materials you'll need for a project, along with a detailed daily pacing guide, in my Marketplace Economics packet.  If you're interested, you can find the printable materials here.

For those of you who have already implemented Project-Based Learning in your classrooms, what has your experience been like? I'd love to hear all about it!


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