Empowering Students through Project Based Learning

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Tricia Furtek, Moorefield Station Elementary Loudoun County Public Schools

As educators, we joke about the need for more time, more room, or more resources. That, put  together with overcrowded schools with an ever-growing population, makes it seem impossible to have success with our students. Before the start of the 2015-2016 school year, a colleague and I were posed with the scenario of teaching in one room because we were running out of classrooms. After much debate and discussion, we decided to dive in.

The idea of co-teaching in a room of approximately 36-40 third graders, including special education and English language learner students, while completely embracing Project Based Learning, began to take flight. We sat down and looked at our Standards of Learning, our county’s pacing guides, and what we hoped to accomplish through the course of the year.  Of course, we wanted student success to soar, but we needed to be specific with what that success looked like. Those pesky test scores at the end of the year were always first in our minds as a measurement of success, but we also looked at other ways that we could collect data to show student growth. We reached out to many local businesses asking for support in our endeavor, knowing that we would probably exceed any monetary allotment.

The pacing guides were thrown out the window first. How can you intertwine curriculum if you are to follow a beautifully laid out curriculum? We began by brainstorming and researching ideas for project based instruction. Science and social studies were the backbone of content the students would be working with, as well as mixing in math standards. For example, wouldn’t it be great if students were working on economic content and developing a truer understanding of how money is used in the world around us? We found that every project that we wanted to take on easily covered all reading, language arts and oral communication SOL. We also had to be realistic that some content just needed to be taught to the students through direct instruction.

Through our newly laid out pacing guide, we were able to finish all necessary SOL instruction before the middle of April. That left almost a month of enrichment, remediation, and review before those almighty SOL tests. Our concentration during that month was application of information. We were able to focus on students applying the information they had been taught. They created lessons, games, presentations, etc. to enhance their understanding of reading and math material. We created lessons and projects that made them think outside the box.

Throughout the year, students were able to get more individual attention, as the student-to-teacher ratio was lower than other classrooms. Students that required more remediation or benefited from small group instruction were able to receive it on a daily basis, while the other teachers were in a more whole group environment. Teachers of special education and their assistants were also able to provide assistance to more students, both special and general education,in the classroom. The co-teaching model was a fluid one. All adults in the room knew they were part of the instruction delivery and students responded to that.

Was this environment successful? We think so. Our data SOL test data supports this success, but there was more than that. Students learned to communicate, critique, and most importantly, to solve problems. They were able to see, by using the PBL  approach, the connection to the world around them. Community members frequently visited, presented, and participated in our projects. Some examples of community outreach were business owners coming to listen to our students pitch their business ideas, geospatial professional presenting about how they use programs like Google Earth to help them do their jobs, health care professionals assisting in students researching and creating flyers to bring awareness of childhood health concerns. Their growth with these businesses was exponential in that these real conversations exposed students to their future.

Would we be embracing this co-taught classroom again? The answer is YES! The 2016-2017 classroom was rolled out and expanded to more classrooms in the building. As we approach preparations for the 2017-2018 school year, we  continue to expand to more classrooms and teachers in the building. We couldn’t be more proud of the learning environment and partnerships we have created. We only hope that the movement to think about how best to empower our students to become life long problem solvers continues and grows.

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