5 Tips for Implementing Authentic Project-Based Learning

Minds in Bloom is excited to have RuthAnn Lane from Learning Lane guest posting for us today! RuthAnn has written a great blog post all about authentic project-based learning in the classroom. As an experienced PBL educator herself, RuthAnn shared some really fantastic tips and insight! Keep reading to learn from her and to get ideas for implementing PBL yourself.

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A few years ago, I sat across from a teacher*, who was new to our building. I had been given the privilege of mentoring her for her first year in our project-based learning school.

“How is your class doing with your first PBL unit?” I carefully inquired.

She let out a huge sigh and looked close to tears.

“I can’t make it work with Tier Time, a 90-minute reading block, 60 minutes of math, 30 minutes of writing, and a mandated morning meeting. Plus, now we have 20 minutes of Social Emotional lessons twice a week. Where can I possibly fit PBL in this schedule?!”

She motioned frantically at the color-coded blocks carefully plotted on her printed Excel spreadsheet. My heart broke for her.

Could this be you? Are you feeling overwhelmed and underprepared to tackle implementing project-based learning in your classroom? Whether you are a veteran teacher with 20+ years of experience or a brand new facilitator, the idea of changing your approach to teaching can be terrifying. As a certified PBL teacher, with experience in both primary and intermediate PBL environments, I am eager to help make the transition to authentic project-based learning easier for you. Below are five tips and tricks I have learned for implementing authentic project-based learning in your classroom.

1. Keep it real for your class.

During our next meeting, the teacher I mentioned above pulled out a beautifully printed lesson plan. “I found this online and printed it off. I’m going to do this project. I don’t want to reinvent the wheel. The students build a birdhouse, and it goes perfectly with my standards,” she stated proudly. I hesitated and said, “Have you talked about this with your kiddos?” She replied, “No…but it’s hands-on, so they will like it. It’s better than a worksheet.” This time, my heart sank.

It is crucial that your PBL unit aligns with, supports, and assesses your standards. But, giving students voice in what they do and having the flexibility to allow them choice in how they do it are defining characteristics of authentic project-based learning. The question isn’t whether or not this building activity is quality but rather…is it truly quality PBL? Without student direction integrated in, then the answer is “no.” Authentic PBL gives students the opportunity to guide the project through voting, suggestions, and implementation. Student voice goes deeper than allowing them to choose if they want to make a birdhouse out of a milk carton or wood. It is allowing them to decide if building the birdhouse is even what they want to do to help birds.

It is tempting to simply download a perfectly aligned and assessed unit from a website and implement it step-by-step. Instead, I would encourage you to look at these units for their parts. Wait until you have developed the topic of your project-based learning unit with your students and written a driving question, and then download a unit and pull it apart for the resources that work for your class. Be aware that your students may change the direction of the project throughout, so it’s better not to invest a great deal of money in multiple projects. There are many websites that offer these units for free to download.

2. Build a toolbox.

As you teach project-based learning, you will notice that students tend to enjoy the same topics. Often, popular topics like pets will be the subject of student interest. Saving resources from previous projects helps you to avoid having to “reinvent the wheel,” so to speak. It is so easy to forget where we found that great article or what the title of that video was that answered a Need to Know question. Start a Google Doc where you simply paste links to the items you find. Fill in your lesson planner with yourself in mind so that revisiting it is easier. Begin a file on your phone of images you have taken for each PBL. Take pictures of book covers or pages of the Math textbook that support your PBL units. Create your own Pinterest board for either project-based learning in general or for each specific unit. My favorite method is to use binders. I collect student work throughout the project and print off my lessons and images I have taken to remind me of what I did for each topic. My husband jokes that I single-handedly maintain a slipcover company somewhere. But it is a method that works well for me.

Building a toolbox is a great way to save yourself time and energy, but sometimes you are at a loss for where to find resources. That is where online communities come into play. Check out the many Facebook groups that are related to project-based learning. I run one specifically for Elementary Project Based Learning, but that are so many others. Join several and post in multiple groups when you need help. The hashtag #projectbasedlearning has over 54,000 posts on Instagram! Don’t be afraid to post on these resources asking for advice, feedback, or ideas.

3. Project-based learning is a round hole…for the round peg.

The most common point of stress for new-to-PBL teachers is how to “fit PBL in.” With everything going on in the day, it feels like another task added. In truth, the PBL approach does ask for more in-depth planning than following a basal or using downloaded lesson. However, project-based learning is not a pit stop you make on your daily academic journey. Instead, it is the vehicle by which you drive your classroom.

Remember the teacher I told you about at the beginning of this article? How she struggled with juggling writing, reading, math, and fitting in PBL? The idea that it must have its own time during the day can be so overwhelming. But in truth, project-based learning is about using the project’s topic to teach the standards in our subject.

For example, a few years ago my first grade students wanted to help circus elephants. We had just finished a unit on endangered animals, and we were on the hunt for our next PBL unit. My students had earned a marble party and voted to watch Dumbo. During the scene where Dumbo’s mother is whipped, one of my tiny little boys began to cry. As with any first grade room, the others were immediate in their compassionate need to help him. “What’s wrong?!” they all inquired. “Elephants are endangered, and she is getting hurt,” the boy finally burbled. “But it’s just a cartoon. It’s not real,” one girl comforted. “Right, Mrs. Lane?” Oh, reader, my heart. “I’m not sure, friends,” I fibbed. “I’ll find an article about it for tomorrow.” As the students finished the movie, I sat down quickly at my desk and hunted for the perfect article. My objective for the following day was to teach key details. Using the same graphic organizer from my basal, I swapped out the given article for the one I found. The students were enthralled as they read about elephants being freed from circuses due to abuse, looking for key details related to the article’s topic.

You see, dear reader, it is not about making project-based learning fit. It is about integrating it into what we are already doing. This increases engagement in our lessons tenfold, which is why PBL is such an effective tool for educating.

4. Get down with the project-based learning lingo.

Project-based learning has several vocabulary words, acronyms, and phrases that are confusing to the facilitators who are just beginning. Don’t let the language intimidate you. In fact, by integrating it into your classroom and using it with your students, you will help equip your students to navigate those same words. By treating these words like academic vocabulary, you yourself will find that you gain a deeper understanding. There are many YouTube channels, blogs, and websites that can help you navigate the jargon. In fact, you can simply Google words like “driving question” or “community partner” and find many videos and articles to help explain their meanings. If you want an easy-to-access tool, I have created PBL-specific academic vocabulary word wall cards.

5. Master and then move to more.

Many facilitators who have just finished their first project-based learning training, workshop, or book feel that they must integrate all of the elements that make PBL authentic from the beginning. But, in order to truly master project-based learning, it is less overwhelming to focus on one major skill each unit. My recommendation would be that for your first unit, you focus on establishing integration of standards and student voice. Listen to your students’ likes and dislikes, their interests, and their passions. Couple these with the standards that drive your instruction. Rewrite story problems to be about elephants instead of granola bars. Swap that chapter book you always read for one that relates to the topic. This is the core of any quality PBL unit. Then, for your second unit, pick a new focus, while maintaining the progress you have made in standards and student voice, perhaps integrating community partners throughout?

Becoming a veteran project-based learning teacher takes multiple units. In every unit, throughout your journey, you will find you learn something new and are more of an expert in one area than another. Continue to reflect and revisit as you develop your units, and you will find that each one will become a little easier to plan, a little less overwhelming, and, above all more, effective and authentic for your students.

Happy PBLing!

*This scenario is a combination of multiple interactions with new to PBL teachers.

RuthAnn Lane is a certified Project-Based Learning teacher with a degree in Elementary Education (K-6) and a license in Reading. She has experience in both primary and intermediate grades. She is married to an amazing man/book hauler. And, currently, she is a stay-at-home mom with her 2-year-old daughter and twin 6-month-old boys. She dreams of homeschooling her kiddos using the PBL approach to education. RuthAnn runs a Teachers Pay Teachers store and a Facebook group for Elementary PBL teachers.

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