Monday, June 21, 2010

The Success of Project Based Learning

This has been a rough year.  The students had difficulty becoming a cohesive class, we struggled to make groups that would work together, and there were some who used technology inappropriately.  Often, we start out this way but, by December or January, the class is really moving.  Not so this year.  

I'm still struggling to figure out why this is.  Yes, there were students who had social issues.  But I always have that.  Yes, there were students who were over or under assertive.  But I always have that.  Yes, there were students who had hardly any technology skills to start with.  But I always have that.  

I think part of the problem was lack of time to work on creating a cohesive classroom.  Our district adopted many initiatives this year that took both Christine and me out of the classroom often for various training sessions. Having substitutes try to teach children to be cooperative doesn't work very well.

I think another part of the problem was our frustration with trying to incorporate all of the initiatives into our already successful program.  Surely, although we tried very hard not to let it, our frustration must have transmitted to the students.  

Although I might never have the definitive answer, I will continue to think things through in the hopes of making them better next year.

So, if the year was so difficult, and many projects were left by the wayside, why did I call this blog "The Success of PBL"?  That has to do with the end of the year.

About 6 weeks ago, Christine and I sat down and looked at all we still had to cover before school let out.  We had two major units to cover - one in social studies and one in language arts.  We also had a health unit and a writing unit.  

The health and writing units were easy.  Health at this time of year is Family Life - otherwise known as sex education.  Even though it is a teacher directed unit, the kids love having the discussions and learning all the (gulp) details about sex and reproduction.  

The writing unit was easy because it was poetry.  I love teaching poetry, love presenting the students with my favorite poems, love seeing how they interpret and then create their own poems.  They move from hating to loving poetry. This was a no-brainer.

But social studies and language arts.  We started with language arts - tall tales.  Each year when we do this unit, we have the students work as groups to read and retell a tall tale in a unique way.  We were skeptical about whether or not this class could handle group work anymore.  We had mostly stopped working on projects for a few months and were hesitant to start up again when the kids were in a "school is over" mode.  But we were willing to give it a shot. It was a project we had done before.  We had all the material we needed and really didn't have to do much preparation.

The next unit, the Civil War, was much more difficult.  This was a unit we had never done as a PBL unit.  We always taught it as a teacher directed unit due to lack of time.  But we decided to give the kids another chance at projects.  So we created a wiki, complete with essential questions, resources, and requirements.  We created groups based on interest and crossed our fingers that the children would be able to work together.  

The language arts projects were fun for them to work on.  They enjoyed creating props and costumes, trying out accents, and playing parts.  They weren't as creative as we would have liked but they did learn their stories.  You can view them on our website.

The Civil War project far surpassed my wildest expectations.  This was the first unit we did no preteaching for.  We gave them the resources, suggested they start with the textbook (never discount the textbook as a great beginning resource for basic information), and sent them on their way.  And they came through.  For the last few weeks, the class has been working diligently to complete these projects.  Along the way, they have shared their information, collaborated on ideas, and helped each other out.  They really learned about the Civil War. I think much more than they would have if we had done all the teaching.  And they really embraced the projects.  

Today is the last Monday of school.  Tomorrow is our last full day.  Usually, at this time of year, we are watching movies, playing outside, and watching the clock slowly tick down the hours until dismissal.  But with this project, the children haven't had one moment of free time and they haven't complained a bit about that.  They worked all day today, preparing for presentations tomorrow.  The whiners aren't whining.  The bossy kids aren't bossy.  The followers are leading.  The slackers are working.  There isn't anyone who isn't trying their hardest to complete this assignment and support their group members.  PBL was a success.

So I ask myself, "Why is it that the class who couldn't manage to work in any group cohesively and cooperatively were suddenly able to pull it all together for one final project?"  Maybe it has to do with us finally trusting them and just giving up the reins.  Maybe it was about how we gave them so many options this time - choose your topic, learn your material, choose your presentation method.  Don't like your choice?  Then change it.  The tool you chose isn't working.  Find another one.  Maybe they have learned enough technology to make all the right choices, do all the research and be successful independently.  Maybe they were just bored enough to try again.

Whatever the reason, I'm glad to end the year with this success.  It reminded me why we have a PBL classroom to begin with.  And it reminded me that everyone deserves a second (or third or fourth) chance.  Especially children.  And very tired teachers.

Image: 'Difficulty

Image: 'frustration


Image: 'Lincoln : Gettysburg Address text

Image: '3d people partner.


Chris Craft said...

Hi Lisa,

Congratulations on finishing another year. Whew!

I'd like to hear more about the assignment on the Civil War. How did you prepare them? What was the "problem" they were given?

Sounds like great work...


Suzie Boss said...

What a wonderful post--honest, reflective, inspiring. So happy to hear that your year ended on an up note, and that your students will start summer with the sweet taste of success.
And now, a well-earned breather!

Lisa Parisi said...

You can see the project from the link to the wiki. It's all there, including the first finished project. More to come this week.

jamie camp said...

Lisa-This is really a great post, and an inspiring one! One thing that struck a chord with me was:

part of the problem was our frustration with trying to incorporate all of the initiatives into our already successful program.

What a frustration it is that great teachers, successful programs, thoughtfully prepared and successful lessons can't be left alone when the "latest" pedagogical trick comes down the road! What a pity that C&I leaders aren't coming to YOUR room to find out what you're doing right--what could be adopted in other classrooms.

Anyway, I'm glad you had a success to end your year! Thanks so much for sharing all that you do!

Karen Bosch said...

Thanks for this post. I had hoped to do a project based learning project at the end of this year based on the Civil War (5th Grade) as well, but just couldn't pull it off within the time constraints at the end of the year. I enjoyed looking at your wiki and hearing how you put it together. Your students did a great job.

Brian Crosby said...

I think I could have written almost the same post! Like you we have been given other initiatives to incorporate into our day and that HAS cut back on the amount of class building we did ... it REALLY shows. Those "community" pieces they do at SLA that you and I have talked about so often ... well I think we both experienced just how important they really are. What are you going to do with that knowledge next year???