Monday, June 13, 2016

Project Based Learning: Giving 4th Graders Choice & Voice in the Library

For the last few years I've been working to develop a makerspace in the library and a model of Project Based Learning that works for me and my elementary students in the library - a model that I can use to convince classroom teachers to take the leap into PBL with me. At the conclusion of this year, I think I've finally got a good recipe for success, and teachers, having seen the outcomes, are up for collaborating.

Projects in the library take a million times longer than in the regular classroom because I only see the kids once a week for 45 minutes, so what might take the classroom teacher 2 weeks to coach students through, takes me an entire semester.  But, without a doubt, these projects turn into meaningful conversations about content across disciplines and extended inquiry.

Update - Some Additional Background

For the course of the 2015-2016 school year, students in 4th grade were focusing on developing strong research skills.  At the end of their third grade year, students self assessed themselves on a number of research skills using a rubric I had created.  I looked at that data over the summer, and found that many of the kids self-reported difficulty with questioning skills, note taking strategies and identifying source information.   During conferences over the summer with the 4th grade teacher team, I shared those results and the idea that I would like to use one of those areas to work on developing for my Student Growth Goal (SGG). 

Once the year began, I had students self-evaluate their skills based on a fourth grade research rubric, and compared their perception data to the end of the third grade year.  After some deliberating and discussion with the 4th grade teachers, I decided to focus on questioning strategies.  Throughout the course of the year and through different research projects, students worked on developing good research questions as part of the Big6 research model.  Students wrote questions for Wax Museum biography projects, feature articles and quick activities during library.  I assessed them for growth on a question rubric I developed and found that by mid year most students had achieved proficiency.

As a final project to demonstrate proficiency in writing quality research questions, I challenged students to write a research question that would guide them through the process of researching a topic that would align with NGSS Standard 3-5 ETS1-1 “Define a simple design problem reflecting a need or a want that includes specified criteria for success and constraints on materials, time or cost.

Setting the Stage

Before we even begin PBL, students have been introduced to, and have a good understanding of the Big6 Model of Research and they've worked with our makerspace format that allows for more independence and choice in project design.

Self-Serve Research Area Promotes Student Independence
To set students up for success I have implemented a set of standard graphic organizers that we use that go along with the steps of either the Super 3 or Big 6 methods of research, and I have those organizers available for student self service in a research center in the library.   All graphic organizers that students would need to be successful throughout the inquiry process are available here, labeled in folders for students to come in and get when needed.  Students even pop in the library regularly to get handouts they need for projects they are doing in the classroom.

We use the Big6 model of research with a research guide - The Big6 Research Planner- that I have worked to develop and revise over the years.  

Even though the kids by 4th grade are familiar with the Big6, we always review using a video I made a few years back.

The planning guide featured in the video, has been revised, but it provides me with natural "milestones" for student check ins and conferences, and because we use it for all research projects, even those done in the classroom, by middle of the year in fourth grade, the kids can use it with very little direction.
Big6 Research Planner - students check in after Step 1, Step 2, throughout Step 3 as needed, and for conference on Synthesis in Step 5.
Prior to the project launch, I also do a little bit of research to try to find books I may need to order for the library collection and I look for a few helpful websites students may have trouble finding on their own.  This year I started to use Padlet as a way to share resources with students.  I like this approach because it is so easy to add and delete resources.  The kids also like it because if they find a resource that they think would help groups in other classes, they can add to the resource bank, thus increasing collaboration across classes.  Many of the groups this year requested their own padlet pages to use to organizer their own resources. This is something I would for sure continue in the future.

Project Launch that Features Student Choice from the Beginning

I wish I could say that I had some awesome entry event for the project, but instead I relied on the students being excited for the choice.  This year, I gave students the choice between four general projects. It was up to them to create a driving question for it.
  • Choice 1: Build a Raised Bed Garden One of our Spanish teachers had approached me the previous year to ask about collaborating on a butterfly garden to help preserve monarchs.  We had made some community connections and with the wonderful direction of the University of Kentucky Campbell County Cooperative Extension Office  we had managed to secure a grant to make that happen. For this project students would need to plan the garden and tell us what we would need to do to build it.
  • Choice 2: Assemble an Aquaponics System My brother needed to unload a 55 gallon fish tank, he usually just leaves this kind of stuff at my house and I find whatever he needed to off load after he's gone.  I had been reading quite a bit about aquaponics in schools and this seemed like an excellent way to try it out.  For this project students would need to design an aquaponics system, tell me what we would need to purchase and propose the design so that we could start plants in doors for the butterfly garden.
  • Choice 3: Fix our Raspberry Pi so that it would Tweet This was a continuation of our project based learning experience from last year that failed because of a mistake I made. For this project the kids would have to troubleshoot the tweeting program or rewrite it an entirely to get it working.
  • Choice 4: Prototype a Google Cardboard This one came about because I had been so excited to learn about Google Cardboard during the summer, and I really wanted to give the kids a chance to make one on their own.  For this project studnets were to study it and see if they could figure out a better material. I ordered lenses for them to use.   
When they saw these choices, the kids were pumped!  It didn't take much on my part to introduce things.  They were ready to run with it right away.

Writing The Driving Question

As part of their choice, students had to write their own driving question to guide their project.  As previously mentioned for my SGG I had been working to help the kids develop good questioning strategies.  The task sheet where they chose the project gave them some direction, but overall, they had been working with the idea that good questions:
  • Start with what, why or how
  • Can't be answered in a quick Internet search
  • Can't be answered in a few words or sentences
  • Usually include two parts  
 Approved questions went on the Big 6 planner and students began working the research process, pausing to conference after steps and discussing search terms and appropriate sources.

Managing the Middle

To help manage the middle, I circulated through the groups a lot, checking their source material and making sure they were writing in their own words and double checking to make sure they were still researching their driving question using approved search terms.  I kept checklists to make sure I was sitting down with groups regularly.

To help manage work, we had a timeline written on the library door (it's painted with clear dry erase paint), and students kept a progress chart.
Progress chart has students develop a daily goal and write down whether or not they accomplished it.
 As we conferenced I was able to have students refer to their progress charts and I was able to use their Big6 Research Planner as a point of discussion.

Summative Assessment

For these projects, since library is not a grade,  I asked students to assess their own progress in research using a Research Self Reflection. For a project extension I also had students create a documentary of their learning. 

Documentary How To

I used the documentary as an assessment tool to make sure that the kids could share the big ideas that they had learned and reflect on their learning.  They combined still images, video clips they made throughout the process and voice overs in iMovie.  These skills will come in handy next year. The process of doing the documentary was a nice writing extension.  The kids did a decent job writing their storyboards and creating the documentaries - although it was a little hard for me to convince them that the storyboard became the documentary.  There was a disconnect there, that maybe would not have been had we not been rushed at the end of the year.

Check back for to the blog for discussions about how the individual projects went.  Once I have those posts up, I'll be sure to update this post with links.

Ultimately, students made a lot of decisions in the process of what they were doing and I gave them the freedom to do thatHopefully some of the projects developed this year will continue into next so that we can have a chance to extend learning in ways the kids want.


  1. I might suggest not having students write their own DQ. I like allowing for autonomy, including in the DQ, but unless they know or are getting solid scaffolding and support in doing that it could be problematic. Regardless, it may be helpful to be clear about product, purpose, and audience when starting your DQ writing. Also, I wonder if you/they engaged in developing Need to Knows? I didn't see that in your blog but maybe I overlooked it. Those are really important leverage points to elevate thinking and learning. I'd also wonder how you might increase the authenticity. Difficult piece with your logistics but also an important leverage point to refine the quality of work toward craftsmanship.

    1. Those are good points- and while I ordinarily wouldn't have students develop their own driving questions, this was part of a year long focus on writing quality questions. The kids had a task sheet with a description of the choices- similiar to what I wrote out above. They used that as a basis for developing their question.

      We then conferenced over the questions, revised and I approved. The Big 6 Planner requires them to create a KW chart as part of that task definition process. Through the conferencing, the kids developed authentic questions.

      In reality, the PBL experience was PBL within PBL. The overarching intent for the year was to learn how to become a better researcher. Students were presented with a rubric that detailed what good researchers do at the beginning of the school year, and then throughout the year, after different experiences, we paused and they reflected on their progress toward goal. Those experiences culminated with students researching real-world concepts, building, coding or assembling and documenting their own learning - success and failure.

      Standards addressed in the PBL that students were most concerned with relied on NGSS 3-5 ETS1-1. Define a simple design problem reflecting a need or want that includes specified criteria for success and constraints on materials, time or cost. In my above post I could have discussed that, but had plans to discuss that with individual posts about the projects.

      We now have a raised bed garden, 2 prototypes of aquaponics systems (a float and grow system & a flood system), student made google cardboard and a Raspberry Pi that we can use to tweet book recommendations - and future inspiration for research. I can't imagine it being more authentic than that.

  2. Hi Heidi- as an instructional technologist who partners with librarians, I am here to say that I want to work with you! Wow, what an incredible, well-developed and engaging project you designed for your students. Nice work!

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