By Tracie Cox
After facilitating a PBL (project-based learning) module authored by district curriculum instructors for a second-grade class during a recent summer school assignment, I wondered if I could possibly write a module myself for my upcoming sixth-graders. After all, I had experience with writing curriculum, leading cooperative learning activities, and infusing real-world experiences into my mathematics instruction. Could I turn a customized grocery/budget small group project I had used in the previous year into a full-blown PBL? Should I spend hours creating a new PBL that may or may not fly, or should I just browse the Internet for already proven, tried and true PBLs? Feeling confident and willing to take the risk, I decided to take the plunge (and the coveted personal time) to transform my simple decimal/grocery budget project into a cross-curricular PBL and roll it out to my fresh-faced sixth-graders who would soon be walking through my doors.
Getting down to business weeks before school started, I found transforming my old project was indeed a chore. I knew that group assignment had the essential elements of a PBL: academic content, inquiry, real-life application, and student engagement. However, I wanted to deepen the inquiry in addition to broadening the scope of mathematics. I added three more mathematics standards so students would not only manipulate decimals, but they would also apply ratios, find percentages, and use positive and negative numbers. I incorporated a college and career readiness standard by having students create and manipulate spreadsheets in the form of Google Sheets. They created budgets and made personal income statements while learning how to avoid getting into debt. Students had fun choosing a fictional occupation, purchasing a car, and paying bills. Yes, they are in sixth grade, but they learned it’s never too early to learn how to manage money. As I told them throughout the project, “Learn to manage your money or it will manage you.”
After recently wrapping up our intense discovery-rich study, I’m thankful I made the effort to craft a PBL from which I knew my students would richly benefit. Based on the student reflections, the kids learned more than I imagined. However, they weren’t the only ones learning and growing from the experience. I gained a great deal from our journey into money, nutrition, and mathematics. So, if you are thinking about taking the plunge into PBL authorship, here are a few things to keep in mind:
1. Keep the standards as a focus – It’s easy to get sidetracked on large projects, but the success of the PBL rests in how well the objectives align with student learning.
2. Look to stretch the learning into other content areas. When pondering how I could extend the original decimal/grocery study beyond mathematics, I thought about first having a lesson on nutrition so the kids would be educated on what kinds of foods they should purchase at the store. Then, I incorporated an economics lesson designed to teach students that resources are scarce, money must be earned, and wants are different from needs. Before I knew it, we were onto positive and negative numbers, so students learned “being in the negative” (or “red,” as former accountants like me like to see it) is not where they need to be.
3. Keep the PBL model in mind. The Buck Institute for Education’s PBL model (above)should guide your facilitating. It is a fine roadmap to keep your teaching focused so all stakeholders keep the end in mind with regard to meaningful learning.
4. The students are stakeholders. The students are the reason I did this PBL. I constantly dialogued with them as to their thoughts and how much they thought they were learning. My favorite part of the PBL was reading the students’ reflections. I told the kids throughout the PBL that I needed their feedback to make this PBL successful, and I would make changes to the project based on their comments and suggestions. Students provided candid responses to questions regarding peer interactions, self-evaluations, favorite parts of the lessons, and tips for making the PBL even better for the next group of students.
5. Keep your administrator in the loop. I was fortunate my administrator was on board and let me launch and facilitate this PBL. Scheduling was carved out of precious mathematics instruction, however I could defend the project with engaging, cooperative learning of the standards, so I was good to go. I updated her frequently with student progress, student work, and reflections.
6. Share your learning with other teachers. I have an amazing co-worker who also teaches sixth grade. She was very willing to ride alongside me as we rode the PBL wave this fall offering input and suggestions after each day’s adventure. Always be willing to learn and share new knowledge with your co-workers, and be ready to accept their recommendations for changes that will benefit all PBL stakeholders.
Have fun with your PBL! Transforming my unit project into the updated grocery/decimal PBL brought me more joy than I could have envisioned. I knew authentic, hands-on learning was what was happening in my classroom, and I couldn’t have asked for a better experience. So, to those of you out there delaying in writing a PBL, go ahead and get started. Your students will benefit from your endeavors, and, you, too, will find yourself blessed in more ways than you could imagine!
Tracie Cox is a sixth-grade educator at Bois D’Arc Elementary (Ash Grove School District).