by Kendy Johnston
Principal, Hardin Elementary School, Burkburnett, Texas
We know, as educators, that spelling, the scientific method, order of operations and a myriad of other topics we teach in schools have a purpose. We want students to be well-rounded and have exposure to, and knowledge of, specific information in order to be productive citizens in a global world. We know all of this because we are the adults in their lives who have spent YEARS studying the information we are teaching. We know citizens need to be able to spell and formulate well written sentences that follow basic rules of grammar in order to effectively articulate their thoughts and feelings in written and verbal form.
However, the average 3rd grader is bored out of his mind writing his spelling words three times each day and taking a test over them on Friday. Does that mean we just throw spelling, in general, out of the proverbial window? Not necessarily. However, we DO need to balance what we know students need to learn with experiences that allow students to actually apply that knowledge with purpose and value. And that is where Project Based Learning comes into play.
This year our district is taking the leap into PBL and I am already seeing the difference it is having on true student engagement, versus student compliance, and not just in the classroom! More importantly students are working with purpose.
An Authentic 5th Grade Project
On September 7th I had the distinct pleasure of helping one of our amazing teachers, Mrs. Nolan, launch a 5th grade PBL project with the goal of having our students redesign a small, unused space on our campus as a student clothes closet. Our school, like many others, is composed of approximately 70% of students who qualify for free and reduced lunch. As you can imagine, there is a definite need for a free clothes closet on site.
The launch went incredibly well. The students were very excited and immediately began sharing their ideas. That was a Thursday. And then something happened that I didn’t fully anticipate. First thing Friday morning…and I really mean first thing…one of the students approached me at breakfast in the cafeteria and showed me how she drafted design spaces on her iPad for the clothes closet, including labels and other notes. I provided her with some positive feedback and reminded her to share her ideas with her classmates. I was excited for this student because it was obvious she was invested in this project.
I went about my day and during 5th grade recess I heard my name being called multiple times. As I turned around, I noticed a small mob of students running toward me with notebooks, pencils, and looks of pure excitement on their faces. The students had been working during recess on ideas for the clothes closet and frantically shared their ideas with me. Seriously? These kids “gave up” recess to work on this project that we just launched the day before?
A Purpose for Learning
But wait…there’s more! Saturday morning I was traveling with my family to my son’s soccer game when I received a text from a parent of a student in the class. She said that she found the following on her kitchen counter Saturday morning.
Her child spent Friday night making labels for the clothes closet, despite the fact that we are truly in the infancy stage of this project. Take a moment to truly think about this. What does this picture represent? On the surface it looks like some white paper with labels on it. But it is so much more! It means that our scholars are invested. They have a purpose for their learning and I believe they will take that purpose to new heights that will impact others in a positive way.
It doesn’t matter that the word “sleeve” is misspelled (for now) because our students have brainstormed committees for this project. A committee of students will collaborate to determine which materials will be optimal for organization and functional for the space we have, label and organize items in the clothes closet and make flyers (with proper spelling and grammar). Another committee works on gathering donations and a third committee determines how students can access the clothes closet while maintaining their dignity and confidentiality at the same time. I say this not because these are my ideas, or what Mrs. Nolan and I have told students they need to work on. I say this because these are the ideas of our scholars!
The term purpose is defined as the reason for which something is done or created or for which something exists. Our scholars know their purpose for this project and in knowing their purpose they are not only learning the standards, but also building empathy and helping those in need in a positive way. Knowing their purpose is reinforcing their own value as little people who can make a BIG difference in the world!