Five Reasons I Choose To Do Projects in the Classroom

23 July 2017

I love having students do projects in my classroom...and so should you.

Before we begin, let’s throw all the cards on the table: Projects (big and small) are hard. They’re long and time consuming. They can be messy and exhausting for teachers because each student might be working on something different. Projects don’t let you have your ducks in a row, because it feels like you’re chasing squirrels.

Okay, Phew. We got that out of the way. Breathe.

All of those are valid reasons for dreading projects. They ARE time consuming. They ARE all encompassing. They ARE messy. But that’s okay. So let me tell you why they're so beneficial to my students and why I'm going to keep doing them.

The students are doing the work.
When you (or me) take time for projects at school we know the students are doing the work…not the parents or family. We’re not seeing if mom or dad can design their very own tiny house to live in. We want to see what the students can do. The only way that happens is when we give them time to do it in the classroom. I want to see my students’ abilities. I want to see where they struggle. I want them to do the work.

Projects are cross-curricular.When students are accessing and applying skills from multiple content areas to create a project, it’s a win. I’m not just talking about math and reading. I love how many other aspects of learning are included such as art, design, research, and problem solving. I believe projects allow students to weave it all together to see how everything is connected, just like in the real world.

Photo by @shammanaj on Instagram. Her class designed miniature tiny houses inside and then took their ideas to the blacktop to make the actual sized building. "You have to be creative to fit all the furniture in 400 square feet!"

I can see how my students think.This is my absolute favorite part! Watching and learning how my students work and function is fascinating and allows me to understand how they think. If I understand how they’re thinking I will have a much better way to reach them in my teaching.

I can’t tell you the number of times this has helped me as a special education teacher. It allows me to see strengths that can be hidden in the confines of rote work.

Photo by @the615teacher on Instagram.  Students build their Geometrocity using a variety of math and design skills. Each part can be moved and turned but still fit  together. This project (PBL) focuses on geometry but uses so many other cross curricular skills.
The importance of social skills.I’m really trying not to use the word collaboration…so I won’t. Instead, I’ll focus on the larger umbrella issue of social skills. Completing projects in the classroom can be a lightning rod for seeing positive and negative social skills. I use the time to monitor students’ skills and identifying areas for individuals and classroom to work on. Kids have to be able to work together, solve problems, have discussions, and interact appropriately -But they also need time to practice these skills which is why I like projects in the classroom.

A completed and gigantic city filled with highways, city life, and even some skyscrapers.
Photo by @missmiddleschoolmath from Instagram.
The power of creativity, imagination, and coloring outside the lines.
Give them the instructions and expectations then let them go. My number one fear with students is that they’re creativity and imagination is stifled because of their fear of making mistakes. We could laugh about it if it wasn’t true.

I don’t really care how messy or time consuming projects might be. I need my kids to push themselves, take chances, make mistakes, and be willing to color outside the lines. If they’re not given those chances in school, when will they? My favorite outcomes with projects is that the students will constantly deliver incredible work that surprises and impresses. Constantly.

If you're looking to start some larger scale projects in your classroom or were interested in a couple of photos (Tiny House, Geometrocity) you saw above, check out my collection of project based learning resource. 

These PBLs take you and your students through the projects with step by step instructions, but they're completely open ended for students to push themselves creatively.  You can find them here or click on the image. Other options included Run A Taco Truck, Build My Block, and even Produce a TV Show.


Project Based Learning In Your Classroom--Just Go For It

26 February 2017

I’m a firm believer that students need to be exposed to the real-world as soon as possible. No, I’m not talking about making them pay taxes or get jobs. I’m talking about allowing kids to face issues or problems that are relevant and filled with life skills they will use when they grow up. Big picture stuff. Starting a business and helping the environment are just a couple of examples, but we can go so much further. It’s why we should be pushing more project based learning into our schools and classrooms.

If you know me, you know I love project based learning. This type of learning is crucial for students to develop underused skills in the classroom. So lets take a moment and focus on four of my top reasons you should add it to your classroom repertoire.

PBL is Critical Thinking
We want critical thinkers. We want our kids to think critically. What does that even mean to elementary students? Will they leave school with a monocle and English accent? I hear the term “critical thinking” all the time in reading, but not as much in other subjects (except science, but many districts only do that a couple of times a week). BUT what exactly does critical thinking mean at a younger age (don’t answer that, it’s hypothetical).

Project based learning fits the bill when we ask students to take a “critical” look at solving issues because it forces students to make sound judgements based on information they research and learn. There’s nothing really fancy about it. Break down information you learn, ask questions, and dig deeper. If students are faced with an issue (driving question)…what does that really look like? We want students to peek behind the curtain and see the wizard pulling all the strings.

One of my favorite lessons to teach is applying area and perimeter into the world of house building, tiny house building, to be a little more exact. How will a kid design a house with over 20 items included? It takes design skills (and practice), while spinning in math concepts, while adding a dose of realism that carpenters and designers must do every single day. You can see more of the tiny house here. A PBL that correlates with real-life skills makes the connection stronger for students to see why certain (academic) skills must be mastered.

With all that said, if your students decide to go the monocle route…well, that is pretty cool.

PBL Doesn’t Crush Imagination and Creativity
Let’s face it, schools do a really excellent job at crushing creativity and imagination. We don’t do it on purpose, but it happens. And it happens more than we’d like to admit. Sometimes I think that’s why we get so excited when kids come up with something wonderful—because we’ve been holding them back.

PBL encourages imagination and creativity because it involves the ability to problem solve (and even think critically). There isn’t a set course of rules and mandates that must be followed to solve an issue or find an answer. It’s one of the main reasons why I think visual design, drawing, and creating are such important elements within project based learning for elementary students.

I tell my students that if they ask me a question of “can I do this?” my answer will always be yes. This confuses quite a few of them. For years they’ve been waiting for instructions, now they’re being ask to take a risk and use their imagination. Don't make your students want to be told when to learn. Encourage and teach them to go after it for themselves.

PBL is Cross Curricular
In the real-world with real jobs and real people most projects involve more than one thing. Math, reading, science, history, art, collaboration, management, whatever, or everything combined—life is cross curricular.

If life is cross curricular, opportunities within the classroom should be too. And that’s where project based learning fits in perfectly.

PBL Doesn’t Care About Your Learning Level
The ability that all students have to learn and progress at their own level is a powerful tool to have. In the classroom, PBL is perfect for pushing students to their limits and even past them. They allow for immediate differentiation because every student or group is working at their preferred pace.

They’re also choosing how they want to learn or solve the issue at hand. All students have multiple ways to learn from books, magazines, internet, collaboration, hands-on experiments, STEM, interviews, and the list can go on.

You can read more about why I feel it is such a powerful tool for learners at lower levels.

If you’d like to read more of my musing on how to get started with project based learning read this. It doesn’t have to be difficult.

See more PBL Activities here.

RECHARGE & UNPLUG, A Teacher's Guide to Breaks

22 December 2016

Winter break, fall break, spring break, or whatever breakin’ electric buggaloo you’ve got coming up —make sure to make it your own.  There’s nothing more exciting than coming home and realizing you have ZERO teaching to do for the next week or so.  No planning meetings or PLCs or bus duty in negative degrees. Just a bunch of days that you get to fill. For many of us they’re already planned out but you need to remember to take a couple of days for yourself.  

Call it recharging or unplugging (I even put those in the titles) or whatever cool buzzword they got for it (right, bae?). Just make it your own. I’ve spent a little time and put together some of my favorite past times that I’ve found effective.
Feel free to insert "NOTHING" in that box above.

Organize Your Classroom Before You Leave For Break
Yes, you want to fly out the door when that bell rings. Just wait. Clean up your room, throw away all those piles of papers (that will just get tossed when you get back), and get your room in working order for your return. This little prep work means you’re coming back on a clean slate.

Dogfood A Project You Want Your Students to Do

What does that even mean? Dogfooding is when you test out a product/resource/project yourself. So if you’ve got a project your want your students to do, take a day and do it yourself. Figure out what works well, what doesn’t, and understand the issues students will face. 

Buy A Cake For Yourself
No regrets. No remorse. Besides, you've got a whole week to eat it.

Give Back
Find a charity or organization that you'd like to help.  Call them up and see if they need anything.  Our local animal shelter loves getting homemade cat toys that my daughter's girl scout troop makes.  

Or take a box of cookies up to a fire department or police station. Yes, just like you see in the movies.   

Don't Sleep the Day Away
Unless you really want to, then it's cool.

Practice Your Teacher Voice in the Middle of a  Grocery Store.
You know, just for fun.

This is just a sampling of some ideas to guide you through a teaching break. You can find the BIG LIST at Upper Elementary Snapshots.

If you need more ideas you can find me doing my favorite one --reminding my kids to turn off all the lights when they leave their rooms.

Flexible Seating on a Budget

07 November 2016
Flexible seating doesn't have to break your bank account. Sure, we'd all love to get a $5,000 grant to transform our classrooms-- but that probably won't happen. So instead,  I wanted to share some simple and effective ways to introduce flexible seating options into your room without having to buy stock in IKEA.

Personally, I LOVE flexible seating.  Although if I'm going to be technical, I prefer the term flexible learning spaces because it needs to be more than just what they're sitting on.  It should include spaces within the room that can facilitate learning, collaboration, and problem-solving.

This year the fifth grade team at my school decided to give flexible seating a try.  Each teacher came in with some different ideas that they wanted to try and incorporate; the results have been pretty incredible.  

Jump over to Upper Elementary Snapshots to see the rest. CLICK HERE


Classroom Must Haves: Things I Can’t Picture Myself Teaching Without

14 August 2016

There is no standard classroom that is perfectly mapped out for us containing everything we need. We take our time curating materials, along with hitting up every garage sale to find the perfect classroom resource.  Whether we're hoarders or throwers, every teacher has those specific items they can't live teach without!  

From the perfect coffee cup or roll of duct tape, we all have our go-to favorite resources, these things just seem to make our teaching life click. I've teamed up with the bloggers over at Upper Elementary Snapshots sharing my Classroom Must Haves.  In fact, I can't "picture" myself teaching without them!  So, will they match up with yours?  Make sure you collect our "Must Have" freebies and enter our Giveaway at the bottom of this post!

This is a my ratchet set. It is my best friend. We've taken apart and put together so many wonderful things at school. From dissecting a computers, to raising tables and lowering chairs--this little buddy has been with me a long time. This ratchet set is used at least once a week to fix a problem.

I hate having to rely on the custodial staff.  They're busy enough, which is why this guy comes in handy.  It is an absolute classroom must have.  Just to be clear, I don't teach with this, but I have used it with students for teaching moments.

In school we have parts and materials that can be brand new to fifty years old, meaning that assembly (or unassembling) isn't an exact science. Let's be clear--this is not a tool box (but you should have one of those too). It can screw/unscrew with more than 50 attachments--which is something, considering we have rounds out screws, rounded bolts, and school furniture older than my grandma.

And if you needed more convincing: This is one of the best tool for putting together items from IKEA or Target.  Think about that shelving.

If you're looking to get one like this, I'd highly suggest checking out this Ratchet Screwdriver SKIL set at Amazon. This one is a little smaller (mine has since been discontinued), but contains all the essential elements and options to become your best friend. Tim the Toolman would be proud (mid-90's reference).

For context.

I don't care what read aloud you have or how big your classroom library is.  If you don't have the a Calvin & Hobbes book, you are doing your students an injustice.  That's right, and injustice. These books are literary staples. They are a must have.  

It's a bit tough to convey all my feelings for Calvin & Hobbes. Bill Watterson created a safe place for creativity, imagination, and unlimited possibilities for kids and adults in his stories and characters. And as educators it's our responsibility to give kids a chance to get lost in those ideas, and maybe find their own stuffed tiger.

Grab a copy for your classroom (or get the whole set) for around ten bucks at Amazon.

My must have resource my class is Zoo Design.  My inner child is coming out, as a kid all I ever wanted to do was be a zookeeper.  It didn't happen.  Instead, I'm a teacher.  Zoo Design is framed around having students apply area and perimeter skills to build their own zoo, but it is much more, as students must make key decisions while problem solving to complete the project.

I started by designing two levels that can easily and immediately be differentiated BUT the PBL activity looks exactly the same to all.  This helps with my resource students who work at different levels, but don't want to stick out. Besides applying math skills and using a project based learning approach, this resource allows me to gauge how well students can create, imagine, and be inventive.  I can see their strengths true strengths also, which don't always come out on the tests.  Find ZOO DESIGN, Area and Perimeter here.

You, my friend, have made it all the way to (possibly) my favorite resource.  The power of being a good friend is critical, that's why I love my How To Be A Friend poster set. This'll be the third year to hang it from my wall, which means more time to discuss how and why to be a good friend.  

Make sure you grab your yourself a copy for your classroom. You can see it on my wall (above).  I like to put it low enough so students see it at eye level. Find it here or click the image below.

This is just a miniature version I've scaled down.

After you've downloaded my FRIENDS POSTER be sure to visit each of the blogs below to add 12 more FREE RESOURCES to your own collection of things you can't picture yourself teaching without. Afterwards swing by our collaborative blog, Upper Elementary Snapshots for lots of great content and ideas you can put into practice in your own classrooms as well as a chance to win gift cards to Amazon, Barnes and Noble and Teachers Pay Teachers so you can stock up on your own Classroom Must Haves.

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