Project Based Learning (PBL) is loosely defined as
"a student-centered pedagogy in which students learn about a subject through the experience of solving an open-ended problem. Students learn both thinking strategies and domain knowledge."
This type of authentic learning opportunity looks different in middle school than it does in the 4th grade, and different still in the early childhood classroom. Here, teachers often have to facilitate more, and actively instill curiosity and wonder about a topic. We tend to do more whole-group projects towards a common goal, rather than everyone doing their own thing. Using academic jargon for a moment, we teachers are scaffolding - leading children closer to the next step, which will be more individual work, setting up their own rubrics for assessment, and so on.
For the past several weeks, the children in 1st and 2nd grade have been fully immersed as City Planners. We have read about and thought about what types of buildings and structures cities need to make them viable and livable. This week, we read a book about a city, Greensburg, Kansas, that rebuilt itself after a tornado to make itself a much greener and environmental sustainably way - Green City. In Science Class with Shan, Children have learned about animals that live in cities and have adapted very well to urban landscapes - and then they created their own urban landscapes where animals could get food, water, and shelter. In the classroom, we've used various materials to make our ideal city parks. We've put deep thought into how cities should be designed so that everyone and everything can live in harmony.
All this hard work is paying off, and the children are very excited. Here is an update on our city project as it stands today:
We are still working on our maps. This gives children practice with mapping terms, and also with thoughtful city planning. For instance, it is probably not a good idea to put a nature preserve next to a noisy airport.
Our cardboard city buildings are nearly done. Once they are completed, the same thought put into our maps will then go into planning our city. We will need to add roads and bridges and signs. Each child got to make the building of their choice, after careful consideration of all the buildings they thought should go into a medium-sized city. This took several days of discussion.
Each child then got to make a puppet. This is someone who works or resides in the building they created. They created a whole persona for their puppet - name, age, what they are like on the inside and the outside. I'll bet you can guess what this person does for a living.
Grace and I have been reading a lot of books with letters in them. Luckily, there are so many picture books that use letters as a way to push the narrative along! We've also done lessons on how to set up a personal letter, and what to add to a letter to make it interesting.
Now the characters in the city are going to be pen pals! We are writing to unknown "friends" and will soon be sharing letters with other characters. This has been a source of extreme excitement, and our writers have been very inspired. Friday is the day where we will have our first exchange.
And that's the beauty of teacher-led, student-driven projects - they are real-life, and they have intrinsic motivation to learn tied in. The "teacher talk" word for this is authentic.
Quoting from a blog post from the Buck Institute for Education:
“Fully authentic” means students are doing work that is real to them—it is authentic to their lives— or the work has a direct impact on or use in the real world. The “real world,” by the way, could still be school, which is a very real place for students.
A project can be authentic in four ways, some of which may be combined in one project:
1. It meets a real need in the world beyond the classroom or the products students create are used by real people.
2. It focuses on a problem or an issue or topic that is relevant to students’ lives—the more directly, the better—or on a problem or issue that is actually being faced by adults in the world students will soon enter.
3. It sets up a scenario or simulation that is realistic, even if it is fictitious.
4. It involves tools, tasks, standards, or processes used by adults in real settings and by professionals in the workplace.
I can't wait for our students to read their first letters, to be motivated to write even longer letters, to put their buildings together to make the best city ever, to use engineering skills to design bridges, and to celebrate being part of group project that is coming together beautifully after weeks and weeks of sustained and satisfying work.