Young students working on a project together

At Penrose we take PBL very seriously. We seriously hope our students walk away feeling empowered.  We seriously try to craft driving questions that will generate a “need to know,” and we seriously doubt our sanity every time we raise the bar a bit higher. Our principal’s favorite words are “what if” and she’s right. What if we just let go a little and see what our kids are capable of? When Penrose launched PBL two years ago, we began day one as a PK-5 Project Based Learning school. Even our PBL trainer raised an eyebrow at the idea of five year olds producing quality projects. After this year, I can’t imagine anyone will doubt our students again.

group picture of students and teachers in front of the sign One Nation Walking TogetherOur vision at Penrose is to introduce projects that directly impact our community. As we mapped out our Kindergarten project, we realized the potential for a recent project about kindness to become too soft if students weren’t truly aware of how kindness can solve problems. As adults, we are painfully aware of why we need to give our students the skills necessary to be problem solvers and role models.

Sadly, this project began just days after a tragedy in our community…teenagers making bad choices, a community that was in desperate need of healing, and an amazing administration determined to remain positive. Our collaborative conversations began with discussions on what kindness might look like. The responses were predictable but after a few days we were able to steer away from simply picking up trash in the lunchroom, to sincere critical thinking on why people act sad or grumpy. We were amazed at the level of student engagement and so glad we had chosen to clear a path for some five year old brainstorming and creative thinking.

The Project Launch

kids creating Christmas gift bags for their PBL projectOur entry event began with the book Have You Filled a Bucket Today by Carol McCloud. I love this book because it helps students visualize an empty bucket and compares it to someone feeling sad. The more someone is kind to them, the more their bucket fills up and they begin to feel better. This was also our intro to Random Acts of Kindness. We were feeling pretty proud of ourselves until we heard a student shouting, “why aren’t you happy, I’m filling up your bucket?”  Even more comical was the response from their happiness victim, “stop being nice to me, you’re scaring me!” A minor step back, but day two proved to be much more successful.

Next we tackled the concept of how we ourselves feel after we’ve been kind. Does your bucket fill up faster when you ARE kind or when someone is kind to you? Our research boards were immediately filled with new and creative ideas on how to be kind. We forced ourselves to “coach” them through the process and avoid any words that might discourage their ideas. We also avoided all words that were insincere or that let them off the hook too easily. For example, when they suggested cards for a nursing home, our first instinct was to reply “oh that is so sweet.” It was so sweet and yes it was very KIND to think of it. Yet we were diligent in pushing them to dig deeper by asking difficult questions. Why would those residents need cheering up? How will your act of kindness make a difference to the residents of the nursing home? 

Going Deeper

Next we moved onto the “thankless” part of the Kindness Act. If you are a teacher, especially of the younger ones, you know that no good deed is allowed to go unnoticed. If the teacher announces that it’s time to clean up the room, it’s a given that they will spend the next ten minutes complimenting students as they insist the teacher look at the incredible amount of garbage and other unidentified and often scary objects they’ve found on the floor. The trick to this step in the process was finding a way teach a five year old the concept of doing things just because it’s the right thing to do. It’s ok if no one sees you do it, it’s ok if you don’t receive a reward or kudo for it, and it’s more than ok if the person you did it for doesn’t know who to thank. In fact… does there always have to be a thank you?

We spent the first semester insisting they say thank you and now we were telling them it’s ok if someone doesn’t follow that rule. Huge sighs that day from the teachers, but again… we Collaborated, Communicated, got a little Creative, and finally used our own Critical Thinking skills to come up with the ultimate solution: stop treating them like babies, just talk to them and give examples. Then poof, like magic, one of our brilliant and oh so attentive kids said, “I have an idea! How about we do things for Mr. Ron but don’t tell him. When he smiles, that means he appreciates that someone cared enough to help him.”  Yes! This PBL thing is working!

Going Wider

a child putting hats on a christmas tree for her pbl projectAnd that is how our tiny project that no one thought we should even attempt turned into a media sensation (at least in our zip code). Students made Kindness Bags for kids living in a shelter, delivered cards to a local nursing home, surprised our superintendent and his cabinet with holiday songs via Skype, delivered candy canes to the older students, wrote and directed several ads on Facebook asking for toys, hats, and mittens, and then insisted they be allowed to carry them onto the massive truck that would deliver them to new friends on a reservation in South Dakota, and yes—they attempted to make Mr. Ron smile every day. 

PBL often feels like a risk, but anyone who ever underestimates the power of a five year old and their teacher, is missing out on one of the greatest adventures of their teaching career.

Gretchen Bitner, PBL Coordinator, Penrose Elementary