Friday, October 11, 2013

PBL in the Elementary Library

 Words and phrases throughout the post in blue are links to handouts and other web pages.

After hearing about Project Based Learning (PBL), I decided it was time to step out of the center of the classroom and move the kids to the center (Follow #PBL on Twitter & check out these resources: Edutopia & BIE).

The perfect opportunity presented itself with our Digital Citizenship unit of study.  What better way to get students engaged in their own learning than to challenge them with problems that are relevant in their lives and that they are already attempting to manage on a daily basis?

We're currently about midway through the process, and I have been reflecting and re-adjusting the whole way.  After some bumps, I feel confident that we could do this again, with some modifications from the beginning.

Starting with a question

I started with this question in mind: How can we demonstrate that we are good Digital Citizens by showing that we are safe, responsible, respectful and fun when we use technology?

With this question in mind, I developed 6 different scenarios per 3, 4 and 5 grades for students to explore and troubleshoot that dealt with: private information, appropriate communication online, plagiarism and copyright protection, usernames & passwords, cyberbullying, responsibility with technology.

The Hook

Our Case Files
To get students interested, I put all of their information - scenarios, project planners, QR codes to resources for third graders working with iPads, notes sheets, evidence/source material into a file folder labeled "Case File", and explained that over the next 5-6 weeks, students would be acting as Digital Detectives.  As Digital Detectives, it was their job to solve the problem in their case file and develop a project that would educate others so they don't make the same mistakes.

The third graders LOVED the premise and showed a lot of enthusiasm, the fourth graders quietly nodded their approval and looked ready to tackle the issues, and the fifth grade - well, let's just say I'll need to come up with a better hook for them in the future.  There may have been some eye rolling!

The Process

Since this was our first time out, I decided to streamline things, and I curated research materials into Blendspaces.  Each group at each grade level had a problem to investigate, so in total I had 18 Blendspaces (linked at the bottom). Blendpaces is the perfect way to help students move through the process.  You can embed notes, presentations, web pages and videos. Using this method, students don't get sidetracked with other things, and it reduces the amount of information they have to wade through. Here's an example:

We began the process with an introduction to what we would be doing and why, and I walked students through the contents of their case files and a Big 6 project planner I have been using for the last few years. I then turned students loose to explore their case files and Blendspaces and take notes using the general notes guide (linked above) we use often in research.

Students have been collecting information for a number of weeks (I only see them once a week), and they are now all beginning to transition into synthesizing the information for their project.  Students are working on a variety of projects that include: posters/presentations, PSAs, puppet shows, and skits.  As for me, I have been drinking a lot of coffee and doing my best to conference with every group, every week.

The Technology

Kids have been working with our 5 desktop computers, the Smartboard, and third graders have been using iPads.  They have practiced with QR Codes, multiple browsers, gathered information from traditional webpages, video and self guided PowerPoint. To create projects, students will use iPads, flip cameras, computers and plain old poster board and markers. 

Improvements that will make things easier in the future

Since I introduced the whole concept to my students, I have been working hard at reflecting, and when possible making changes on the spot to improve the experience for all of us.

The first change: Project planner. After using the project planner for a week, I finally realized that, while I love the 1 page format, it's too busy to really help kids focus.  I also end up talking them through extra steps that I had never included.  As a result, I've been working to revise, and I plan on rolling out the newly designed, 2 page project planner for our next major research project.

The second change: After the second week, I realized, with the help of Twitter and some excellent PBL gurus (Mr. Piercey and Drew Perkins - links are to their Twitter pages, but please don't miss their blogs linked there) that I needed to establish clearer daily goals for students.  I came up with a checklist that students can work through, and that I can use for conferences to help guide discussions.  As a result, I'll revise our Blendspaces next year so that the type of resources are all presented in the same order.  I have found through conferences, that I really just put resources into the Blendspaces all willy nilly and we've had to jump around in the checklist.  I will also re-do the checklist to better establish goals - for example, kids can find more than 5 facts on PowerPoint presentations.


I think I can chalk some of the challenges up to this being our first attempt at Project Based Learning. First, we have a bit of a "digital divide" happening.  My 3rd grade has iPads, but 4 and 5 right now do not.  I've had to be creative with how we use the technology, and at first I tried to give students 20 minutes each class period to work with tech....I quickly realized that's not enough time, and we switched so one week a group works with tech, and the next they have to use resources I've printed out for them. 

We've also found it challenging at times to get the tech to work.  Brainpop videos won't work in the Blendspace on the iPads, and wouldn't you know it, Blendspaces works best in Firefox.  It has forced me to introduce the concept of different browsers to students, which has been really good to discuss - but I wasn't expecting to have to do it for this project.  Our District Tech Coordinator is working on a possible solution to get Explorer working, but it's taking time.  Next year, 4th and 5th graders will likely have access to more technology, so I'm hoping it's a little easier next year.

As for work - I have kids that will be creating projects next week, and I have groups that due to multiple issues - some related to technology, some related to focus - will not be ready to put projects together for another two weeks.  In all, I've been a little worried because I planned on this taking 6 weeks, and it's looking more like 8 at this point.  I've been thinking about it though, and even as I'm typing I can see that in those 8 weeks the kids have been exposed to more learning experiences than I actually could have planned.

Wordle: PBLWhat We've Learned and are Learning

In considering everything students have learned, I've noticed these things: research skills, digital citizenship, persistence, note-taking skills (for print, digital and multimedia), synthesis skills, video production, creative writing, speaking and listening, collaboration, and computer troubleshooting to name a few.  In all, I'd say this 8 weeks is worth it.

Collecting Data

Example of our "Dot Data"
Of course, I need to see that the kids have learned.  At the start of the projects, I posted a number of perception style rating questions about digital citizenship topics on our door, and students placed a dot under their answers.  After kids have presented all of their projects I will ask the same questions and will add the question: How much do you think you have learned?  And we will compare the results...listening to the kids talk, I think they've learned a lot - I just hope they realize they did!

 Learning Together

We are truly learning together. I think I have learned as much (if not more) from this whole Project Based Learning endeavor as my students.  I cannot wait to see what they create as we get into the synthesis part, and while I know that we will encounter new challenges, I am confident that the learning will continue.  Look for a report in the upcoming weeks about our progress and our projects:)

Blendspace Projects

I do have plans to revise these a bit before next year so that the structure and resources presented are all presented in a similar way - always room for improvement!
Third Grade Links

Fourth Grade Links

Fifth Grade Links  

How have you used Project Based Learning with your students?


  1. Thank you for sharing this Heidi! This is an area I would like to do more work in too, so that I can support my teachers as they do more of this in their classrooms.

  2. Love the reflection, and thanks for the shout out!

  3. Great Post. i am in the high school library and this authentic PBL is something I hope to encourage staff to try. Thanks for writing so honestly and so well.

  4. Hi! I love this idea. I am not able to open any of your blendspace links. Do you have these materials available anywhere?