Cooper, a former kindergarten student of mine, plopped his third-grade body onto a kinder-sized chair at a tiny table near the door of my classroom. He was serving his latest in-school suspension in my classroom because all the other rooms were full. Our principal was away, so Cooper became my charge for the afternoon. “Don’t let him have fun,” his teacher admonished, “he keeps disrupting class and needs to learn there are consequences for his actions.”
Since first grade, Cooper’s class had been identified as a classroom full of behavior issues. The boys, were “a problem.” They disrupted instruction and picked fights. They didn’t “work up to their potential.” They had “bad attitudes.” Now, I’ll admit they were lively and I slept well when they were in my kindergarten class, but their reputation broke my heart because I knew these boys had incredible drive, passion, and capacity—but their talents were not being recognized and their needs were not being met.
My PBL Journey
My Project Based Learning journey is one of trial, error, and ultimately success. I eventually received national recognition for my work and created a collaborative learning platform web resource, Go2Science, to support PreK-2 classrooms in purposeful, transformative PBL.
For 25 years, I was the only kindergarten teacher in a small, rural town. Many children lacked preschool experiences and we had high rates of poverty and substance abuse. I was responsible for transitioning every child into a school environment. Over time, I learned that engaging my students in meaningful, hands-on PBL experiences not only improved their basic skills, but also high-level thinking and behavior. My students were my best teachers and self-reflection was a big part of my PBL journey. I identified where I was lacking and my students struggled. I endeavored to make those areas my strengths. As my PBL practice improved so did student outcomes. Happy parents and student gains afforded me autonomy from administrative controls and freedom to continue to explore PBL.
I built my classroom’s projects based on student passions, so projects varied from year to year. Many community members understood the importance of a quality education and were delighted to help my students in PBL. As our access to video conferencing tools and virtual field trips increased, our world expanded. Over time our projects become more nuanced and increasingly included a “give back” to the community.
I found that a good PBL project addresses a compelling problem or question. It connects to learning in a meaningful way. It reaches beyond classroom walls. Over time, I developed a project guide:
- What are students struggling to learn? (Or what was I struggling to teach them?)
- What do they love?
- What problem do we want to solve?
- What resources are available?
- How can they apply the skills they need to learn and leverage their passion to solve the problem with available resources?
It was not always easy! One class had a passion for chickens and bugs. They needed to build a positive classroom community and improve basic literacy and math skills. How could I use THOSE parameters to provide some value to the community? The class ended up composing a fractured fairy tale entitled “Buggy Bugs Rough: a tale of cooperation, patience, and integrated pest management!” Working collaboratively, they completed an engineering challenge to build bridges that would support a live chicken. There was much to learn and we Skyped with an entomologist to fill gaps in our research. Yes! Five- and six-year-olds can do meaningful PBL.
What Happens to Kids Like Cooper?
Unfortunately, when Cooper’s class left my classroom, their personality traits and passions started to work counter to school success. Some colleagues could not see past the barriers to designing PBL or its role in student achievement and behavior. Over the years, I watched students progress through the grades as their academics and behavior eroded.
After my kindergarten students left, I pulled up another kinder-sized chair and talked to Cooper. He lamented about how bored he was, how he didn’t get to move or really think like he did doing PBL projects in my classroom. He knew his behavior was not helpful, but often felt frustrated and hopeless. Simply following adopted curriculum may not be enough and in fact, in some cases, causes harm to students. The outcomes I saw in PBL demonstrated that it is too risky to follow a curriculum in lockstep or to keep doing the same old things. Each child is different and instruction needs to reflect that fact.
My Go2Science Support for PreK-2 Teachers
I am now dedicated to supporting teachers in engaging PreK-2 students (especially the Coopers) to lay a solid foundation for future learning. Sharing classroom projects on my website, presenting at conferences, talking with pre-service teachers, and participating in twitter chats were all positive but I wanted to do more. I spoke with teachers across the globe to truly understand those barriers and determine how I could help them overcome them. Teachers worried about addressing certain standards at certain grade levels. Many reported a lack of existing PBL resources for PreK-2 and expressed uncertainty with finding and using experts and technology in appropriate ways. The bottom line was most lacked the time to do the research and planning to meaningfully implement PBL.
I knew I could help, by creating the building blocks teachers could use to innovate! Along with my partner, a scientist, I created Go2Science, a PreK-2 PBL resource. We work with classrooms across the country through our website to investigate real hypotheses for a real purpose. Every research mission has a dozen suggested service learning opportunities to inspired meaningful ways to give back. Teachers report they feel supported to take risks and that student learning and engagement skyrockets when they join our research missions.
My advice for increasing PBL in early grades? Start small. Whether designing from scratch or bringing your PreK-2 students along on a Go2Science research mission, give yourself permission to try.
Want to learn more about PBL? Check out our books.
Register now for PBL World 2019.