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PBL: Many Paths, One Destination

by Julie D. Ramsay
 | Nov 26, 2014

In today’s world, the topic of using technology in the classroom can be intimidating. In this monthly column, join one teacher on a quest to discover the best way to meet the needs of her digital-age learners…moving beyond the technology tools to focusing on supporting each student’s learning. 

I have a responsibility to educate my students beyond the “now.” But in a world where we are often mandated to prepare students for looming high-stakes tests, how can we provide our students with the opportunity to learn crucial life skills like communication, problem solving, creativity, decision-making, time management, and organization? Is it possible to both guide students into mastering their grade level standards as well as empowering them with the life skills that they will need in the future?

For me the answer came in the form of project-based learning (PBL) more than four years ago where students use life skills to create a project that demonstrates mastery of content areas standards.  Along the way, my students and I have learned a few tips to make PBL manageable within the classroom environment while empowering students to have a voice and choice in how they learn, what they learn within a standard, and how they demonstrate mastery of their standards. Here are the things that we have found yield the greatest degree of success:

Exposure. My students come to me from two different elementary schools. Although they have had experience in doing projects, most of those projects are very teacher-directed with heavy assistance by parents. When I began PBL, my students were not accustomed to having to make choices, solve problems, or direct their own learning. I always hesitate to show an example of how a student could create a project to show mastery of standards because ultimately you get 85 almost identical projects. On the other hand, students also need to “see” their target.

As I contemplated that conflict, I realized I already had a large database of projects from previous students published on our class website, blog, and wiki. All I needed to do was expose my students to all of the possibilities. Instead of pointing them out to the class, I created an online scavenger hunt for my learners to explore digital resources and they spent a lot of time exploring and engaging in the projects of their predecessors. They have seen how one standard can be met in many different ways. They understand creativity and individuality are key components in making the learning theirs.

Gradual release. In our class, PBL means students are working toward demonstrating mastery of the same standard. Same goal. Different paths. When I speak with other educators, I can feel overwhelmed facing the idea of a large variety of projects going simultaneously.

Students can feel overwhelmed because they can no longer compare their learning against a peer’s as they are working on different projects. They can no longer depend upon parents to assist (or complete) their projects for them. In our classroom, as in many other PBL classrooms, a bulk of the work is completed at school. You can’t measure a student’s mastery if they had assistance from parents. You would have no idea where the student’s learning ended and the parent’s began.

To alleviate that pressure, we begin with small projects within one or two class periods. When we practiced using adverbs to paint more powerful images for our audience within our writing, students were tasked to demonstrate a mastery of adverbs. Some students opted to write a paragraph with and without adverbs demonstrating the difference descriptive language makes to a reader. Other students create Instagram videos where they acted out adverbs and asked their global peers to identify the adverbs. The digital dialogue gave those students the opportunity to defend their learning and add to the learning of peers.

These types of projects were not a list of suggestions I gave my students, but ideas they came up with on their own. This gave them the opportunity to look at what a content standard really meant beyond the classroom walls. It gave them insight into how to manage their own work with a clear deadline. They learned how to problem solve, apply knowledge, and articulate their own learning.

Confer, confer, confer. This has been the most important shift I have made when moving to PBL. When students are working on projects for longer durations of time, they need feedback often. No one wants to get derailed for three weeks only to discover his or her mistake. With my students, I aim to meet with each student at least twice a week. They bring their work, ideas, questions, obstacles, and goals for the next couple of days. These sessions keep students focused on the purpose of their project: to prove mastery of content standards. As the teacher, I know where they are and if I need to plan a small group lesson or a reteaching session to provide the support—or challenge—each student needs. With regular conferring, I can do that in a timely manner. If students are struggling with how to demonstrate mastery, I can ask them a series of probing questions to lead them in the right direction.

To manage all of the feedback and discussion, my students now handle all of their brainstorming, research, note taking, planning, and writing drafts in Google Drive. This enables us to have conversations about their writing, making the feedback visible where they can easily refer to it during their project. With Drive, students can also invite peers to provide insights and feedback adding another perspective to the publishing of their final project.

When it is time for a student to be assessed on their project, the grade is never a surprise because they have been discussing it with me and with their peers for days (or weeks).

Stay focused. Just like each one of our students are unique, so are their projects. It is easy to get wowed by a project with a lot of bells and whistles. Often these projects overshadow projects that appear simple. However, the appearance of the final project is not what this is about. Recently, a teacher asked how to compare a project where a student has created an intricate and professional-looking movie with a student who had drawn a comic strip. The answer is simple. You don’t. That’s not the point. The point is to compare each student to the standard. That’s the target for each student.

For one of our quarter assessments, my students took the six standards that we had been working on and each created a project to prove mastery of those standards. Some students created video games that required an audience to apply their learning to solve the problems. They built this gaming world with challenges, obstacles, and rewards. It took countless hours. And another student created a simple Power Point that had hand drawn illustrations. Although these projects were very different, they each had proven mastery of the six standards. Truth be told, the learner with the simple Power Point actually showed a much higher level of mastery with her project—something that is easy to overlook if we don’t stay focused on what matters most—students owning their learning.

Although PBL seems to be a trend right now, it isn’t anything new. Teachers have been doing this for decades because it empowers students to take ownership and apply their learning in authentic ways. It’s the best of what education can offer our students—the opportunity to master content standards, apply life skills, and learn how to take that content and apply it in authentic ways. It strengthens them as not just as learners, but as individuals who will shape the world of the future.

Julie D. Ramsay is a Nationally Board Certified educator and the author of Can We Skip Lunch and Keep Writing?: Collaborating in Class & Online, Grades 3-8. She teaches ELA to sixth graders at Rock Quarry Middle School in Tuscaloosa, AL. She also travels the country to speak, present, and facilitate workshops in applying technology to support authentic learning. Read her blog at juliedramsay.blogspot.com


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