How can we bring joy, curiosity, and excitement for learning into our classrooms while adhering to IEP goals and content standards?
If you’ve ever wondered what you can do to increase engagement and help students be excited about learning, then Project Based learning can be the key. Students can attain high levels of engagement and behaviors can decrease in the classroom all while still adhering to all those standards!
So, let’s get into how to do this! With PBL I have observed the most growth, engagement, increased test scores on standards and increased enthusiasm because they were an active part of the learning.
How do you begin Project Based Learning?
- Be a Detective! Uncover Children’s Interests!
At the beginning of the year, in January after Christmas Break can be a great time to implement Project Based Learning.
The first step is to learn about your student’s new interests. Although we will be busy assessing what students know educationally, such as learning their reading levels, we can also start learning about our students. What they are excited about learning? The benefit to starting early in the year is that you can have plenty of time to plan for the project.
You can add books you think your students may find interesting and see which ones they gravitate to. Most of the time, I have found that students will become very interested in real world topics such as spiders, snakes, and robots. They will read these books over and over and share them with other students. These can make great first projects!
*This post contains affiliate links. Little Detective’s Discovery School is a participant in the Oriental Trading Program, an affiliate advertising program. Oriental trading offers a small commission on products sold through affiliate links. Each of your purchases via Oriental Trading affiliate links helps earn a small percentage which helps to pay for yearly site fees. There is no additional cost to you.
Project based learning allows you to become the learner alongside them. Here is a free project-based learning plan sheet to begin brainstorming once you have determined the project.
If you have a morning meeting where you ask the Question of the Day ask the children What they want to learn about?
For children with severe language delays you can help children participate in the discussions by using prerecorded button prompts with the words yes or no. This enables children who have limited speaking be able to share their opinion on what they want to learn.
So often as educators we have to plan most everything which gives students little say in what they are learning.
Even though Science may be the PBL topic, this can easily be added into your morning writing, reading, and math workshops!
When students are involved in their learning, engagement increases which leaves less need for a positive behavior management system. It can become a secondary focus as the primary focus becomes excitement for learning and engagement increases.
This can work well for ED students also who often may have moments of opposition, may have low initiative or self regulation, and could benefit from working together with peers.
Students still may have emotional triggers they are working through, but if their mind is engaged and excited about the project they can enjoy learning! After all learning should be exciting!
ONE project can be incorporated into ELA, math, science, social studies, social emotional skills, and even art and centers to engage your learners.
So instead of focusing on thinking, “OK, how am I going to teach this single standard!” UGHHH! Instead you can think of all the standards that will fit into one project that is highly motivating for students in all academic areas. You can get you’re FREE Project Based Learning Planner HERE!
The possibilities are endless for learning when real projects on students’ interests are used. It’s exciting because learning becomes authentic!
Project Based Learning incorporates skills needed for the future!
- Problem solving skills
- STEM opportunities
- Communication and Negotiation
- Social Emotional Skills
For example, creating a store for Second or Third Graders in Social Studies could give students an opportunity to practice all of the above skills! As they work together in small groups, decide on a product to sell other classmates, agree on a price or number of tokens they are learning valuable collaboration skills. This was one of my favorite Project Based Learning projects with 2nd graders!
2. Begin to Plan Ideas.
After you determine what books students are gravitating to and hold discussions on students interests, you can begin to brainstorm how to implement the project of interest into all areas that are required to be taught. You can use this FREE Brainstorm Sheet and planner to get your ideas.
3. Select Standards and IEP goals for Individual Students
Now that you’ve narrowed down the student’s interests you can pull from the variety of standards in all of the educational subjects.
You can also pinpoint which individual IEP goals children will focus on for this project.
Special needs children may have specific fine motor skills along with a cognitive goal which may be to answer pre-recorded questions. Perhaps their goal may be to answer questions such as “What does a butterfly turn into?” and they can use the recorded prompt to answer from the two choices given.
So, if our project is going to be on butterflies each child can take an active part in reading texts on their level, writing, and sharing with others what they learned.
4. Begin the Project and Keep Children Engaged
The length of each project can vary greatly. Some of the projects may last two weeks, while others can last months to a year as it branches off into new directions. Sometimes, if the project interest begins to wane, teachers can brainstorm together for ways to spark student’s interests again.
For example, if students are learning about robots and they have read about the different kinds of robots, watched videos on new robots and wrote and shared their journal writing on what they learned about robots. Then they may have incorporated letter R and designed patterns with robots they may need some guidance to incorporate another inquiry question such as “How are robots made?” after they have answered some of their questions in the initial KWL chart.
Students may not know what else they want to learn about them so asking students random questions to gently nudge and guide them in new ways can help keep the project moving along.
The idea is that with project based learning the students decide what they want to learn next and guide as needed to help problem solve or propose new questions for them to think on and explore.
You can provide additional learning experiences in centers and provide literature to help children discover answers to their questions, but they should be asking the questions, thinking of what they want to know, and reflecting on what they learned.
It can be helpful to begin a KWL chart when you start a project to write down what they already know and what they want to know about a topic. Then write what they learn at the end. Download the FREE KWL Chart HERE!
Based on one idea to learn about robots could develop into creating a giant class robot. Or students could make their own which would involve creativity, engineering, and math skills. They could also write about their own robots and share them during Writer’s Workshop. Then the robot project could again come to life! This project works well when students create their own as well then they can write in journals all about their robot.
You can print photos of students working on their projects. That way they can see the process they have gone through each step of the way. This also can help them focus on an important project hypothesis they are testing.
For example, you can add to the bulletin board, pictures of a current hypothesis with a question.
Each day students can test their hypothesis by writing in journals of what they see happening.
5. Develop Centers Around the Project
When individual centers are developed with the project in mind engagement and learning CAN increase. Students who may be bored with rote memory tasks or review skills can be drawn in if the topic is of interest to them. A math center with colored butterflies and pattern mats could enhance children’s skills while relating to the project.
Taking the time to provide sensory experiences can help children with special needs have moments to just explore the process of something without a set structured outcome! Yes, I’m even going to dare to say it! Centers can be an opportunity to play and still learn! I know with all those standards to cover you may be thinking, “Where is the time for that?” However, afternoons at the end of the day or even in between morning blocks of language arts can be beneficial for students.
Going from one structured morning reading task to another structured block of learning may not be as inclusive of all learning styles. Mixing it up a bit can help all of your learners! Especially those kinesthetic learners who need to move. Developing authentic experiences relating to the project can enhance their learning.
In the book, Reading with Meaning by Debbie Miller she discusses the importance of teaching the literacy process with her first graders and then gives them work activity time. She shares that in those moments “it’s the time when children can put into practice what they’ve learned during other parts of the day.”
I feel it’s true as Debbie Miller states that children, “need time to build with blocks, draw, paint, cut and paste, play with clay, make beaded necklaces, sew, take care of the animals, and listen to stories. They need time to read and write, listen to music, sing and dance, play school, do experiments, and work with magnetic letters.”
She says, “If I want to challenge children’s imagination, promote their love of learning and inquiry, and encourage them to become independent learners and thinkers, they need to be the ones deciding where they’ll go and what they’ll do.”
I believe that with Project Based Learning students have those moments to choose what they will research! Debbie Miller knows that through these independent work times and yes even play in elementary, brings a chance to deepen their learning.
Debbie writes, given the freedom students will “think to paint an image from a poem they have read or written.” She writes, “They may create a cutaway of Earth out of clay” during work times after reading about the Earth and planets.”
Once they begin to integrate the learning in their play, they become able to construct meaning and they become a means for living the learning!”
This is why we teach right? To have a student walk away from a lesson and be given the opportunity to continue the learning and construct real meaning from it. The work activity time helps students process what they learned through the arts, center activities, and play.
Here are a few authentic experiences to add to an example of a butterfly project.
- Daily Observation Journal and Cocoon Observation Station Students observe the process of caterpillars turning into a chrysalis and then a butterfly.
- Provide sensory materials such as plastic butterflies, small eggs, caterpillars with pom poms and cocoons to make their own life cycle.
- Bring in real butterfly specimens to observe. Children can observe and research the names.
- Complete a pattern activity with different colored butterflies.
- Paint butterflies with tissue paper and hang them around the classroom.
- Provide colorful shawls and scarfs to act out the life cycle process through music. Students begin as an egg, crawl like a caterpillar, wrapping up in a cocoon to sleep and emerge then fly away.
- Add listening center CD’s so students can increase their learning relating to butterflies and write down one fact to share during the Project Meeting time.
- Provide open ended art materials such as clay or chalk pastels to encourage drawing of butterflies or caterpillars.
6. Daily Communication and Reflection at the Class Project Meeting
This is a great time to reflect and come together as a group to discuss what new facts they have learned for the day. This is where children can share artwork from journals on the topic and read their writing to the class.
When student’s have a few different ideas, the project meeting time can be a great way to introduce compromising and you can even vote to see which one area the class project should go next.
Oftentimes, documentation panels generally consist of student’s written words, artwork, and current new questions to investigate.
It can be helpful to go back and review the beginning and talk about how far they have come in their learning or what new changes may be occurring in the case of projects where hypothesis were needed.
This can be a time to share artwork the students have created, share new information they may have learned from the listening center book on the topic, etc.
7. The Culminating Activity
When you see that students have met important goals and the project is coming to a natural end, the culminating project helps develop closure and assess what they learned in a concrete way.
Culminating activities could be as simple as a discussion and review of the project and having students share the most important fact they learned. They may share this in a video to parents or other classes
It could be releasing the butterflies!
Some teachers may choose to video the class releasing butterflies. Others may write a class book with pictures of the life cycle to have in the library. You could do all three.
A culminating activity could be a bit more involved. For example, for Creating a Store to learn about Economics in 2nd grade, you may want to have it be more elaborate so student’s can experience operating their stores.
After learning about scarcity, opportunity cost, and other standards they can now have an Opening Day and run their stores. They could accept the tokens of pretend money earned in class from positive behavior and important SEL skills such as working together and sharing supplies.
Then students could reflect and analyze which stores were more popular. Students could reflect on what they would sell or adapt for next time. Supply and demand could be discussed further after experiencing it.
Once you begin PBL lessons you will be able to see a difference in the engagement, active discussions and participation that takes place in the classroom.
That makes everyday exciting because you can see the impact and achievement students make in their writing, listening, and becoming an active participant throughout the project.
Photography by Mandy Hindall
Carter Margie and Curtis Deb, Learning Together with Young children: A Curriculum Framework for Reflective Teachers, Red Leaf Press, 2008.
Miller, Debbie. Reading with Meaning Teaching Comprehension in the Primary Grades. Stenhouse Publishers. 2002. p. 102.
Here are some additional posts you may enjoy!