Our guest post today is from a friend and colleague in our district, Lindsay Cristante. I have had the opportunity to TOC in Lindsay’s class and she is a very creative, inspiring teacher. We are so happy that she was willing to share her Project Based Learning journey with us today.

As I began my sixth year of teaching I found myself wondering what this whole “PBL thing” was all about anyways. I had heard it tossed around at Pro D workshops and amongst colleagues, but didn’t really realize the similarities between my teaching style and Project Based Learning until I dug a little deeper.

I should backtrack just a bit first. I graduated from UVic in 2008 and was fortunate enough to start teaching in the Greater Victoria School district in 2009. I put lots of time in as a substitute teacher and have had a wide variety of temporary contracts, from Kindergarten to grade 8. The last few years I have been lucky enough to land jobs at the grade 3-5 level, my ideal! Now, feeling like I am finally standing on my own two feet – picture me starting my teaching career in the same way that Bambi learned how to walk – I am in a place where I can explore more teaching pedagogy. Which leads me to where I am now, teaching grade 4 and implementing Project Based Learning into my classroom.

Project Based Learning (PBL) refers to a student-directed approach to learning, which engages students by looking at real-world questions. Students develop critical thinking, collaboration and communication skills while gaining a deeper understanding of their question or topic. They take on more responsibility for their learning by making decisions and choices, and are given feedback and support to guide their learning. My favourite part of PBL is that the focus is on the journey, and not just the destination. I attended a district PBL workshop last week where PBL was simply described as teachers being Cultivators of Curiosity, with the 3 guidelines being: 1) curiosity comes first, 2) embrace the mess (if you have a Type A personality like me, this may be your biggest challenge), and 3) practice reflection. This really resonated with me because I feel this is how I stumbled upon PBL in the first place, curiosity. Thankfully, I have a few other curious colleagues who are also implementing PBL practices in their teaching. We meet weekly to share and reflect on our efforts, always reminding each other to “embrace the mess”.

Most recently, we were reflecting on a PBL activity we did with both grade 4 classes and a grade 2 class. Students created Expert Talks. IMG_2721They chose any topic to research (other than animals because we were already studying that in Science), and gave an Expert Talk to their peers (no longer than 10 minutes). The emphasis was on trying to engage and connect with their audience. We encouraged them to think of it as a talk they know lots about, rather than a speech/memorization. Students used artifacts, props, pictures or demonstrations and many used cue cards with notes to guide their presentation. Students were engaged and excited about their Expert Talks, and we covered tons of important learning outcomes, win-win!IMG_2720 I gave presenters written feedback, students gave peer feedback and I recorded them on my iPad so they could watch their presentation afterwards. As we went through the Expert Talks the students began to recognize what was engaging (interesting content, asking questions, using artifacts, making eye contact etc.) and their peer evaluations became stronger. After reading peer and teacher feedback and then watching their video on the iPad, several students had “A-HA” moments, actually understanding the feedback they were given. I can’t say enough good things about the PBL work my class did. It brought my weaker students up and, at the same time, allowed my stronger students to flourish.

Of course, there were also some things I learned through the process. I was so worried about “spoiling” the student-directed approach to PBL that I didn’t always give enough guidance to students that could have used it. Things that would have helped my students be more successful:

1) Examples of outlines to organize material. Some students had a hard time organizing their notes so that their presentation flowed from one sub topic to another.

2) Identifying the effectiveness of questioning earlier on in the process. During their presentation, some students asked a question about their topic to engage their audience. One student who did her talk on Deserts asked, “What comes to mind when you think of a desert?” Most students answered, “hot and dry”. She then went on to explain that deserts could be cold too.

3) Teaching strong introductions/hooks and conclusions (just like in our writing).

All in all, I would say our first official PBL activity was a success! I have a few other PBL activities planned for the rest of the year, but have also realized that PBL doesn’t have to be a specific activity, it can be day-to-day teaching. It can be as simple as giving students materials from the gym and asking them to create a cooperative game for the class (we did this too!). What I have found so valuable about PBL is that not only are my students engaged, but I am too. I’m constantly trying to rework traditional ways of teaching into PBL. I know I’m just at the tip of the iceberg when it comes to PBL, but I look forward to incorporating more PBL strategies in my classroom. How do you use PBL in your classroom?

This is a TEDx Talk that inspires me to engage students and foster creativity through PBL: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h11u3vtcpaY

Have any of you used PBL with your classes?

Any questions/comments for Lindsay?