It was my first year of teaching and I was a nervous wreck sitting at my new school’s staff retreat, filled with anticipation of finding my classroom, meeting my students, and getting to know this team of amazing educators. Principal Cathy Bosemer asked a question that still resonates with me today: Do you want your students to remember what you teach them for 40 seconds, for 40 minutes, or 40 years? I started making a mental list of all of the things I remembered my teachers teaching me over the years, starting with elementary. Surely, I could think of a million things, considering I had so many wonderful and inspiring teachers.
Unfortunately, that list was not as long as I expected. Things I remembered: group work, presentations that I made to the class, different content area projects, book reports, class debates, and songs that I learned from different content areas (Yes, I can still sing all 50 states in alphabetical order!). Things I had forgotten: homework, worksheets, timed tests, lectures, spelling tests, workbook pages, and chapter tests. The things I remembered all included the same qualities: student choice, engagement, and being given the chance to present my work. While all of those things that I forgot are necessary, it was plain to see that they should not be the only thing we do in the classroom.
Fast forward to the next school year and our school was introduced to Project Based Learning (PBL). It was a new approach and seemed extremely intimidating. However, as my team discussed the idea I became increasingly excited about PBL and could not wait to bring it to my classroom.
My classroom was already filled with engaging activities and cooperative learning structures, so PBL complemented what was already happening. I hoped this was a way I could introduce a real-life experience for my students, that was project based, content related, student driven, AND have an impact on my students for the next 40 years.
Our Project Planning Process
To begin my team looked at our common core standards for the year and we started brainstorming ideas that students get excited about. We chose the economics unit, and reviewed lessons we had taught previously. We collectively decided that students were always enthusiastic about pretending to run a lemonade stand business. We would use this as our project’s entry event, then give students the opportunity to come up with their own business and create a business plan to provide to a bank for a loan. We also wanted our students to connect directly with this project, so we made it authentic with our driving question: How can we create a business that thrives and is useful in our community?
Scaffolding During the Project
We started with teaching background economics knowledge. We then scheduled multiple guest speakers over the next couple of weeks. . Our students did a great job engaging with our speakers. They were so proud when they would ask a question using the economics vocabulary they had learned. They were getting excited about learning.
The process for the students made it easy for them to be involved. Each day leading up to the exhibition, students were provided with two pages of their business plan to complete, and depending on the length of their attention spans that day, about 30-60 minutes to work on their tri-fold presentations.
My favorite part of the project was when I was going through their next task for the business plan, and one of my students asked, “What if we have some problems?” I asked him to clarify what kind of problems he was thinking of. He continued, “If I have an ice cream shop, what if another ice cream shop opens next door?” What a wonderful thing I was witnessing in a 7 year old! I was truly moved to see my student fully immersed in learning. We added that question to the business plan, as well as what we could do to overcome other obstacles that their businesses may face.
Deeper learning is about letting the students drive the project, so as a team we made sure to include things that students showed an interest in. Students were so into the business plan that they started asking marketing questions. They wanted to know about billboards, business cards, television commercials, radio ads, advertising jingles, and so on. Adding the marketing plan helped bring more creativity to the project, which contributed to more growth in student excitement.
Feedback and Grading
Our team was able to allow students to have creative and academic freedom in the classroom, but gave them constant immediate feedback so they could still be responsible for doing quality work. The way we set up our rubric for this project was geared mostly towards effort. We wanted our students to not be afraid of PBL and to continue their excitement about it. Of course, they still had to include the vocabulary of the unit in order to demonstrate their knowledge, but majority of their grade was based on involvement and effort.
Our students practiced their presentations with other adults and older students who visited our classroom, who we provided with questions to ask. The night of the exhibition was amazing. Where I teach, our school community typically does not show up for things that are after school. The exhibition was a massive exception. We had over 400 people come to look proudly at the students’ hard work. Students were walking around with their head held high and smiling the biggest smiles. Parents were taking pictures of their children and telling them how proud they were. Teachers were able to hear students talk about their learning in a public setting. Our school was full of pride and that causes a change in the education environment. Children will want to come to school and learn if we provide them with an opportunity to show off what they know and to demonstrate something they can be proud of for many (40?) years to come.