What Project-Based Learning Looks Like In An Elementary Classroom

Randy Pausch on Learning and Having Fun at the Same Time

To be honest, I was lost. Elementary teaching was something so new to me when I took a job as a Technology Staff Developer.

I taught middle school. I taught high school. I’d written curriculum for those levels, and connected with many educators who teach at those levels, learning so much along the way.

As a K-5 Instructional Coach, my eyes were open wide the first time I stepped into a 1st Grade Classroom. The teacher was actually teaching the kids HOW to read.

I immediately sent an email to my former high school colleagues saying that I had no idea what it was like in an Elementary school (and we should be lucky of the issues we had to deal with at HS)!

Flash forward 10 years and I’ve spent a ton of time working with Elementary schools, teachers, and students in some way or capacity (administrator, teaching, curriculum design, technology, consulting etc).

I’ve learned so much from Elementary teachers around this country who continue to inspire me, but nothing has made me more focused in on what innovation and project-based learning looks like than my own crew of kids.

Yes, I have four kids, all 9 and under (it is a blast…and a bit crazy at our house!). Two are in school right now, and I love seeing their faces light up when they come home working on a project or feeling excited about the day’s learning activities.

I get to see what Project-Based Learning looks like in an Elementary Classroom and the difference it can make in a student’s learning life.

So, when I got the question a few weeks ago from an Elementary teacher, “What does this ACTUALLY look like in an Elementary classroom?”, I was pumped to put together this article with lots of real examples of PBL K-5.

Check out what PBL looks like in an Elementary classroom, and thanks to the teachers who shared their stories!

We Bought a Zoo

Ashleigh Anderson (Micro Elementary in North Carolina, 1st-grade teacher, 6 years of teaching experience)

When Ashleigh Anderson student-taught just a few years ago, lecturing was the norm and she was not a fan. Ashley was introduced to PBL during her second year of teaching, and she now feels passionate about teaching. She explains that with PBL, she has two steps throughout the unit. The first one involves the student work and the second is the students collaborating together.

Ashleigh’s first-grade class “bought a zoo” and named it together. Each zookeeper was in charge of selecting one animal for the zoo, researching the animal, and convincing the rest of the class that they should have this animal. They were in charge of preparing a habitat for their animal and providing educational resources for visitors. Ashleigh assembled a long list of standards this unit was fulfilling. Just to name a few: 1.L.1 Understand characteristics of various environments and behaviors of humans that enable plants and animals to survive. 1.L.1.1 Recognize that plants and animals need air, water, light (plants only), space, food, and shelter and that these may be found in their environment. 1.L.1.2 Give examples of how the needs of different plants and animals can be met by their environments in North Carolina or different places throughout the world. RI.1.5 Know and use various text features (e.g., headings, tables of contents, glossaries, electronic menus, icons) to locate key facts or information in a text.

Individual student work involved creating a book about their animal to use when they presented to the group to advocate for their animal to earn a position in the zoo. They also created an animal advertisement to convince the other “zookeepers” to bring this animal to the zoo. During the group work, the zoo was divided into different ecosystems, and the children collaborated together to decide which animals would be featured in that ecosystem. They then worked together to create that habitat and animal together.

Ashleigh testifies that the impact of Project-Based Learning is far greater than any other way she has ever taught. Her student’s learning is personalized to their needs and wants. It is about a student’s learning and engaging about they want to learn. Yes, it surrounds a topic, but their choices of what to do with the information are endless. The learning is endless.

What better educational practice can you offer a struggling student? Your job as a teacher is to set every student up to succeed. No matter a child’s background, the impact is greater with this practice. Project-Based Learning allows a hands-on approach that offers a time to investigate and respond to a complex question. Students are learning at their own pace, and Ashleigh encourages them as they do.

For assessment, Ashleigh uses checkpoints throughout her projects to ensure student learning. She uses self-made rubrics or other rubrics that she has already found and tweaks them to make them her own. Project-Based Learning has given her students a chance to travel the globe and experience things that they never could sitting in a desk in North Carolina.

Ashleigh will admit that with PBL you will always fail, but it’s the great teachers that come up with a different plan and try again. Ashleigh personally has had times where she felt defeated and got upset that the projects did not work out the way she wanted them to. But it’s the moments when her students can tell you exactly what they learned and the smiles on their faces that are priceless.

PBL Project: The Mouse Library

Lisa Mitchell: Grade-2 teacher and curriculum coordinator

Barbara Reade: Grade-2 teacher

(12 years and 26 years of teaching experience, Hillfield Strathallan College, Hamilton, Ontario)

Lisa Mitchell attended a PBL conference held at Hillfield Strathallan College. She was eager to get back to school and discuss what she had learned with her teaching partner, Barbara Reade. They were both super excited to try this innovative approach to learning.

Lisa wrote a blog post with numerous details about this project. You can find it here: http://www.hsc.on.ca/HSCMouseLibrary.

The idea for this project was born when a student asked a question and it turned into an entire grade cross multidiscipline collaboration to build a library for the second grade’s stuffed mice. After researching and interviewing several experts, the library quickly grew beyond just shelving for books. The grade 2 students built a four-story learning environment for their mice that included working elevators, a café, a mindfulness zone, a rooftop patio, a gender-neutral washroom, a creativity center, a computer lab for research, and even a maintenance room! The students authored and illustrated an abundance of mini books for the book stacks.

Lisa explained that she doesn’t really strive to approach facilitating learning with a unit approach. Rather, she considers PBL as more of a mind-set and a process where learning skills and strategies are infused into the project as her class goes along. Barb and Lisa both feel that their students covered far more learning outcomes, skills, and strategies than they ever could have imagined and they’re confident the students will remember this experience for many years to come. The confidence, pride, and communication skills alone that the students gained through sharing this project were remarkable.

Their students used conversations, self-reflection, peer assessments, rubrics, and expert critique during their Mouse Library project. Lisa appreciates that this one project truly changed her approach to education. Facilitating her first PBL project was liberating, and the energy and engagement in her students were remarkable. This project was featured on the local news channel’s “Advertising Excellence in Education” segment; it has appeared in blogs and on Twitter and has been the highlight of her students’ learning!

Geometry Shoe—Applying Geometry to the Real World

Brandi Leggett (Rosehill Elementary, Instructional Coach, 12 years of teaching experience)

Brandi Leggett took a group of K-2 students and transformed how they learned about geometry. Students discovered how geometry is used in the real world. This unit built on smaller projects all leading to their culmination that is actually driving the unit. Students learned about shapes and lines and were able to describe their attributes and compare/contrast. Students learned the shapes through videos and memorized them. They completed worksheets on them and made some with play dough. This one project covered a number of common core geometry standards from K-2: K.G.2, K.G.3, K.G.4, K.G.5, 1.G.1, 1.G.2, 1.G.3, 2.G.1, 2.G.2, 2.G.3.

Students kicked off the unit by going around the school and looking at shapes. They took photos of different shapes and then discussed why they were used the way they were in the school, but also what shape could replace it and how that would change the architecture of the building. Next, students used a geometry stencil to create a picture combining shapes. They wrote about it and make a stop motion movie of the object they created. Then, students learned about symmetry by making symmetric masks. They had to discuss their designs and what all the attributes were. Students also read about shapes and then created two- and three-dimensional shapes using marshmallows and toothpicks. After this, students looked at different designs to see how shapes are used in the real world. They then drew a geometric city using some requirements and then are able to design them however they would like.

Finally, the students designed shoes using newspaper and tape but also were able to add on materials. It was supposed to be newspaper and tape, but when the media specialist looked at the shoes, she discussed with Brandi how they could be so much better with materials from the MakerSpace. Once one group got their shoes created, everyone just became much more creative. Also, students changed their designs many times. Some failed, so they redesigned and made them much better. Students learned how to persevere and how to combine all their ideas as a team. The students got district administrators shoe sizes and then designed the shoes for them. When they were done, students had to describe all the attributes of the shoe and all the geometry used in them. To complete the unit, all the adults came and participated in a geometry fashion show where the students were able to share the geometry concepts, what they learned, and walk down the red carpet.

Brandi’s greatest memory is how excited and proud her students were. She recalls that students who struggled in other academic areas gained so much confidence because they shined with their designs. One student who was normally very shy, walked the runway with confidence, completely shocking her parents. Students could not believe that their district administrators actually were able to wear their creations. Brandi’s students were able to learn much more because things that were not in the grade-level standards may have been in their shoe. The learning was relevant to them. Brandi supplied us with a few links to showcase the famous fashion show that the students were so proud of: https://www.kansascity.com/news/local/community/joco-913/shawnee-lenexa/article196790759.html.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Rs5of1PSDUk.

Brandi’s assessment procedure involved asking questions and also having the students describe their learning. She reviewed the grade-level shapes they needed to know and showed images where students had to be able to say what they are and/or compare them and list their attributes. This allowed Brandi to see who may need more practice. A lot of the assessment was ongoing by observing and listening to group work and prompting for information. Students also took a summative test.

One unique piece of advice Brandi conveyed when using PBL was to start backward. Always look at the standards and what you are trying to accomplish first. Identify the learning targets and then think about ways that it can become relevant to students. Start small and don’t try to take on too much at once. 

Book and Bake Sale—Economics Unit

Lisa Uesugi and Hazel Tagatac (Island Pacific Academy—4th-grade classroom teachers, 15 years and 7 years teaching experience, respectively)

To begin this unit, Lisa and Hazel’s students start by discussing what economics is. They go over economic vocabulary and do mini lessons about scarcity, supply and demand, and past and present assembly lines. They do activities on how to budget, instant gratification and opportunity cost, and creating a business based on their interest and passions.

Through student initiative, they then organized a book and bake sale. The students applied for their positions and got placed in teams. Each team took take care of a different aspect and had decision-making power. The Marketing Team met with the school Advancement Team to learn and partner with them to market the event. They also helped with social media as well as logos, merchandising and all signage. The Leadership Team met with Admin and Advancement to learn how to lead. They also created a market survey for the school and helped organize the event. The Finance Team met and worked with the school account clerks to work out the budget, spreadsheets, and plan out expenses as well as work as cashiers and reported the totals after the event. The Crew took care of organization and worked with facilities. They were our workforce. All students were mindful of their deadlines. During this time Lisa and Hazel also had guest speakers come in to talk about small businesses. They also got a panel of small business owners to come in to meet with the students. The students were able to ask these business owners questions about why and how they started their business. They were also given the opportunity to ask these business owners advice about their own event. There was a field trip to the Four Seasons where they learned about customer service and marketing. They followed a cookie from concept, marketing, creation, price point, and sale. All culminating in a school-wide sale where they worked every aspect of the event, also becoming customer service reps, created the entertainment (they wrote a jingle), and documented it. It was a huge success, almost selling out and making well over what was projected. This year when they implement, they will have rubrics that are teacher/student created for each team.

Lisa and Hazel noticed that there were a couple of students on the marketing team, specifically, who were able to problem-solve creatively and use their artistic talent to market. They were amazed and completely excited to see that their skills worked and shined in this arena.

Lisa has also been using “discussion sticks” so that the students take charge of the discussions. That activity blows her away every time. These fourth graders discuss respectfully, meaningfully, and intelligently. Lisa maps out the flow of the conversation using the Equity Maps app. The app provides quantified data that she uses to conference with students to help them reflect on how areas for growth in their collaboration skills. She will be trying “fish bowl” next.

Lisa implements multiple reflections and discussions based on their prior and current knowledge and how they are connecting it to the content. Lisa proclaims that she is excited to teach again. The depth of knowledge is incredible, and the kids are constantly amazing her. She knows these are the kinds of projects the kids will remember for a very long time. PBL is a way to get students engaged in real-world problem-solving while incorporating the standards across the curriculum. The students walk away excited, with so many soft and hard skills, as well as a deeper understanding of the world around them. They are also extremely proud of themselves and of their classmates. Talk about a long-term bonding lesson! 

The Great Spinner Debate

Jon Tobergte (Sycamore Community Schools, 5th-Grade Language Arts Teacher, 5 years of teaching experience)

For this project, Jon Tobergte had students research the pros and cons of using spinners in school. Students picked a side and gathered evidence to prove their case. Following that, students joined a debate team and debated in front of a panel of judges that included a variety of people (superintendent, board member, administration, and teachers). Whatever the judges decided would become the policy of the team. This project fulfilled several research standards, presentation standards, and text evidence standards and included opinion writing, and reading rigorous leveled texts.

Student level of engagement was incredibly high, and their passion for learning was more evidence than Jon has ever seen. Students developed a critical eye for good evidence versus bad evidence. He used a research data sheet, and students wrote a “brief” for their debates. They also assessed their knowledge through debate presentations. Jon has now realized the importance of allowing student voice and choice in his projects; making learning mean something to the kids makes all the difference.

There have been many, many success stories thus far. One student, in particular, happens to be a low-achieving student who is also on free and reduced lunch. This is a student who struggles daily academically. She was put into a group where one of the other students was a very, very bright student but struggles with the English language and has emotional issues that get in the way of his success at school on a daily basis. One day, the student who struggles emotionally had completely shut down (this happens often). The other student came to Jon for help, and he told her that he had “specifically” chosen her for her patience and determination to work with this student and that she was to be the leader of the group. The student looked unsure of herself but went back to the group and immediately began encouraging the emotionally challenged student to get into the work. She would say things like “I know you can do this. You are so smart, and we need you.” She would tell him “great job” and “we are making progress.” Within a half hour, the emotionally struggling student had a smile and had produced an entire page of writing, which we had not seen from him the entire year. The low-achieving student could not believe how great of a job she had done. Jon gave her an award and acknowledged her in front of all her peers as being the leader he always thought she could be.

Another one of Jon’s students struggles with reading fluently so much so that she can be tough to listen to. With the debates, Jon was very worried about how she might perform being that she struggles with reading in general. He wondered how she would sound for her group when presenting. However, what she produced was unlike anything Jon had seen from her before. She spoke loudly, fluently, and with great confidence. She was definitely the most surprising performance he had and was a big reason why her team made it all the way to the semifinals.

The struggle Jon encountered with this project is the amount of planning time. PBL projects take more time than he expected. He plans with his team every day for at least an hour a day, many days up to two hours. They have been able to take a full school day just to plan on top of that. Grouping the students in different ways presents some challenges as well because students work differently with different students. They also have many different ability levels. It is also a challenge to involve all four subjects into a PBL unit. Finding common standards can be a tough task.

To sum it up in a short and sweet manner, Jon took the jump with PBL because his Principal decided his team would be a good fit to try out the program. When he and his team researched it and tried it out, they never looked back. 

Mission: Planet Z

Melissa Dyas (Alvey Elementary, Prince William County Schools, VA, 5th-grade teacher, 16 years of teaching experience)

Melissa Dyas sparks an interest in her students by telling them that a distant planet has recently been discovered that is similar to Earth and ideal for colonizing. They will work in teams of a captain, geologist, farmer, and engineer to learn as much about Earth’s resources as possible, engineering designs and energy sources, and farming techniques. Experiencing a modern-day journey like the courageous settlers of the Midwest, this adventure will establish a new frontier for pioneers.

This is a two-month endeavor in which most of the day is dedicated toward this project. Almost every subject is integrated as well as fourth-grade science standards which are tested in fifth grade. The integration is natural. Melissa and her students study and make connections between weather phenomena, climates, regions, Earth’s rotation, and seasons. They study rock types, locations, and uses. They discuss natural, renewable, and nonrenewable resources as well as alternative forms of energy. They discuss the human impact, both negative and positive. They make observations and inferences, and always connect back to why this knowledge would be useful in colonizing a new planet. In social studies, they study regions and in learning about the Midwest, discuss early settlers in the pioneering days, using resources around them and farming techniques. They take an abundance of notes, journal their plans, and prepare for the trip to the unknown. Truly students do not know what they will be experiencing.

The “trip” is a one-day culmination of this project where the skills are put to use. Melissa spends a long weekend creating a planet in an empty classroom in her building. She designs the room so students will have much to discover: rocks, fossils, plants, sand, soil, water (fresh and salt), an active volcano, and signs of animal life (tracks, droppings). Students pack a bag of supplies to take with them, and they travel to this new planet still with no idea of what to expect. When they arrive, each team has a journal (like Lewis & Clark), and they explore their surroundings. They identify as much as they can, make inferences about this new environment, and eventually choose a place to settle. They take advantage of the resources on the planet, including a large forest (donated boxes) and build a shelter large enough for their team. Then they must plant crops to begin farming, begin to set up and use alternative energy sources (solar power, hydropower, water filters, etc.), and establish a colony on this new planet. Their final task is to create a video broadcast to be sent back to the people of Earth (parents, to be watched the next day in class, clip for morning announcements, etc.) highlighting their discoveries and settlement on Planet Z. Throughout the entire day, Melissa is discussing all their observations and choices with them. She also invites other teachers and administrative personnel to visit and interview students.

Students know the information at a much more meaningful level because they are thinking critically and applying so many different ideas in an authentic and natural way. They are excited to learn and prepare for the mission because they truly don’t know what to expect.

Melissa assesses their knowledge throughout the project with activities that have them demonstrate both their understanding and their application. She also learns a lot about what they know based on her interviews and discussions with them during the day of the “trip.” It’s essentially a six-hour test of skills.

Melissa is constantly amazed at what she’s seen students think of. She’s seen students create homemade functional water filters. Another group used a circuit kit to build a radio system to try to signal back to Earth. She’s seen students build solar panels and plant crops/seeds that later “sprouted” as they replaced crops with pipe cleaners. She once saw a very quiet student make a medical kit using special rocks and shells she collected around the land and then pretending to treat people in need. I’ve seen students get into live video recordings and act as news reporters showing all different features of the new planet. When “night” descends upon the new planet, all of the students suddenly start pretending to be wild animals and truly get into the creative spirit and role-play of the project. Working in teams of four, there are always some students who just jump into leadership and some quiet workers who really just work hard contributing to their teams. Melissa didn’t expect or anticipate any of those creations or ideas, but allowing the students to guide the project and being open to following their journey led her to so many more experiences and connections.

Now that Melissa is so comfortable with the curriculum and knows the connections between content areas and having the ability to integrate larger-scale activities throughout the day, she finds that she is able to make more in-depth, meaningful, and authentic experiences. Students are more motivated to learn, more active in the learning process, and usually end up covering way more than the curriculum actually requires. Students also learn better communication and teamwork skills, organization, problem-solving, and time management in the process of PBL than in anything that would been planned in a traditional setting.

The obvious struggle with this PBL project is the amount of time and curriculum it encompasses as well as preparing students for the unknown. Melissa spends about six weeks and integrates in just about every subject area. Maintaining momentum and excitement, especially when the students don’t actually know what they’re preparing for, is sometimes hard. She doesn’t want to give them information about the “big trip” event so it’s a lot of discussions of “how would this information help you…” or “why might this be important to know?” The other challenge is physically setting up the space for this one. It takes several hours to transform a room into another planet. Melissa would like to someday have real water for sampling and the illusion of water (blue plastic tablecloths) plus an active volcano, forest, rocks correctly placed, plants, signs of animal life, and the like.

Melissa’s advice regarding PBL is to choose an area of the curriculum that you are very comfortable and confident in first. Think of an authentic application/experience for the skills, and a way to share that knowledge outside of your classroom. Be prepared that the path of knowledge will stray far from the traditional line that you are used to. If students get too far off track, include some mini-lessons to fit in the must-know information, but continually tie in the project goal and how this new information will/could fit into it. Highlight the important and innovative ideas that groups come up with, and other groups will follow their example (without you even telling them to). Relax and just go with it—enjoy the students and their learning.

Have you done PBL in your Elementary classroom? Please share your story of learning below in the comments!

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Join the discussion 10 Comments

  • Anita says:

    It needs huge planning.

  • Fran C Reinhard says:

    Thank you for sharing some inspiring early elementary projects in your article! I especially like the Mouse and the Zoo projects because I am teaching Kindergarten Title 1 reading. I plan to work with my kindergarten colleagues to come up with an exciting PBL project of our own after your visit to our school district in March. Your ideas and resources are very helpful for teachers who wish to nurture curiosity, creativity, and authentic learning in their classrooms.

  • Angie Tillman says:

    Thanks for this post. It’s really sparked my imagination for new projects with my younger students.

  • Susan Maynor says:

    We are a project-based learning environment (K-5) in Liberty, MO. Current PBL experiences include 2nd graders creating mobile toy prototype (based on force and motion standards) – Guppy Tank is on Tuesday where they pitch to our K’s. Third graders are about to produce a mixed media documentary on Missouri History with plans to premiere in our middle school theater. Fifth graders just completed a hunger awareness event (for Clay County) where they raised funds to donate to our local food bank. We have over 15 raised beds on campus (through grants and PTA) – our love of outdoor learning led our fifth graders to write a grant for for cooking utensils and equipment (which they were awarded) and our third graders to apply for a grant (which they were awarded) for a new greenhouse. We love real and relevant work in our city, our state, our world!

  • Larry Tash says:

    I am trying to find workable rubrics to measure student growth in creativity and critical thinking. Does anyone samples that they use in these areas and would be willing to share? Thank you.

  • Deanna Marie Clayton says:

    Thanks for sharing. I am a 6th grade math teacher who will also be teaching science next year. I am interested in any ideas for PBL that you have that will combine both math and science standards for 6th grade.

    • Kim says:

      True STEM would work perfectly for you. Be aware many “STEM” projects are really activities that include some science, math, technology. They are not true STEM. STEM would follow in line with PBL as it should be real world and open ended. Hope this provides a place to start.

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