Thursday, September 10, 2015

Project-Based Learning (PBL) for Families

By Amber Chandler

        I was a teacher before I was a parent, but it wasn’t until I was a mom that I started thinking of my teaching as truly student-centered. It’s all well and good to walk into a room of 25 middle school students and want what’s best for them, but it is a whole other ball game when you are sending your child off to school, hoping that the people there are going to notice his interest and her sense of humor. You might say that since I became a parent, I started looking at children differently. I’ve come to believe from my own children, and the 150 or so kids I have a year in my 8th grade classroom, that Project-Based Learning is one of the best ways for students to learn, allowing for individuality and creativity.

            Project-Based Learning, sometimes called Problem-Based Learning, unleashes the highest level of critical thinking through hands on, student-centered, and inquiry based strategies. There are many websites that will explain the ins and outs of PBL, as it is often called. Buck Institute for Education is definitely the best I’ve found, though it can seem overwhelming. The way I explain PBL to my students is to tell them that we are going to do a project with BAM:
Burning questions. Gotta know, dying to know, really need to know, want to find out so much that you’ll stay after school, talk about it at lunch, and text about it
Authentic audiences: Share with the world, publish it online, put it in a class blog, make a movie, call the newspaper, do whatever it takes to reach over 300 people (double your class size)
Millennial skills
: Make memes, create a gif, record a song, make a video game; essentially, this means posters won’t cut it in the 21st century!
            My students love this approach, though some are overwhelmed by the daunting task ahead. However, I tell students they should become “obsessed” with what they want to know and go at finding answers like a reporter digging for details. Last year, my 8th graders read The Giver, and teams built what they considered to be a Utopia (keeping in mind that we had spent many days discussing unintended consequences and Dystopia). Read about this project here. They voted that I begin this year with this novel and project, not because I am a fabulous teacher of the nuances, but because THEY were the ones who did the learning and presenting, while I facilitated.

The reason PBL works so well in classrooms is the same reason it works for homeschoolers. As a teacher, I’m well aware of “summer slide” and what the National Summer Learning Association says about it: "A conservative estimate of lost instructional time is approximately two months or roughly 22 percent of the school year.... It's common for teachers to spend at least a month re-teaching material that students have forgotten over the summer. That month of re-teaching eliminates a month that could have been spent on teaching new information and skills." Needless to say, my own children do a project each summer to keep them on their toes.

Building a Pinata
A few years ago, when my daughter Zoey was six and my son Oliver was three, we decided that we’d capitalize on their love of Dora the Explorer and learn all about Spain and Spanish. (I didn’t think they’d understand a whole conversation about speaking Spanish in Mexico, but you might feel more ambitious depending on the child’s age) The first thing they wanted to do was build a piñata (can you blame them?!). I used this opportunity to show my kids how to Google a topic. We used these directions, though you can’t blame them for how it turned out! They loved every minute of it—from blowing up balloons (where we talked about not smoking and lung capacity) to using a ruler to measure (in inches and centimeters) the tissue paper.

A Spanish Meal
The next adventure in “Project Spain” was to have an authentic meal. Obviously I didn’t let my small children do much, but they shredded lettuce, and helped with the dough and made apple cinnamon stuffed empanadas. I let Zoey type up the menus on the “good” computer (the one without chubby fingerprints on the screen) and even let her print in color. Oliver worked on the flag, and at three that was pretty adventurous of me! We talked lots about color and what flags are for.

I bet right about now you are thinking, hmm…, what’s so special about that? This is what homeschooling (or good parenting for that matter) looks like. You are correct. However, to gain the most impact from projects, to truly utilize all the characteristics of PBL, there must be an intentionality to the work you do as facilitator. Me personally, I was so exhausted from the entire project that our “authentic audience” was a few friends we had for dinner, which was perfectly ok because my kids were so young. However, this summer, as Zoey (now 10) tackled “Why are dinosaurs extinct?” and Oliver (now 7) “How do you make a movie?” I had to recalibrate what I should be expecting of them. As you do what you are already doing—teaching children in authentic and rewarding ways—keep going about it intentionally and with BAM in mind.

Amber Rain Chandler is a National Board Certified ELA teacher and education writer in Hamburg, NY. She leads professional development in Project-Based Learning, Danielson's Domains, and Differentiation. Follow her on Twitter @MsAmberChandler and visit her website,

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