Tag Archives: project based learning

Three Tricks for Sparking Students’ Creativity

By Amanda Rogers June 4th, 2014 2:15 PM

For many educators, project based learning can showcase a students’ knowledge of a subject better than any standardized test. However, let’s be honest, we all sometimes struggle to come up with a creative idea or the best way to start said projects. Here’s what I do in my classroom to stir up creative paths and guide students to a finished project.

  1. Start a classroom idea bin. During independent work, some of my students need more direction when it comes to beginning a project. An idea bin is a container, in this case a large empty plastic pretzel container, filled with strips of paper. On each piece of paper there is a prompt for beginning a project. For example, a piece of paper might say, “Crash! What just happened in the street?” The student who picked this prompt would use this creativity starter to jumpstart their own project, thinking of open-ended ideas that relate to the example. While I use this concept for visual art, it can easily be modified for classes in other subject areas. For example, a piece of paper in another class might say, “How can you use only a sheet of paper, scissors and tape, to create the parts of a flower?”
  2. Challenge students daily using creative thinking warm ups. When your students arrive in your classroom, they are coming from many different academic and life situations. Some students may have just nailed a test that they studied for last period, while others may have had a difficult situation at home that morning. Whatever the case, it can sometimes be difficult to light the fire of student engagement and learning. “Daily challenges” are one way to tackle those situations, get my students motivated, and strengthen their creative thinking skills. An example of a daily challenge warm up might be, “Using at least three geometric shapes, draw a symmetrical design.” These warm ups can also be used to review previous lessons and provide the teacher with valuable assessments of student understanding.
  3. Show Your Work! Writer Austin Kleon wrote the book Show Your Work, which challenges people to show off the things that they have accomplished. When people share their ideas and accomplishments, it can jumpstart a creative path for someone else. To do this in your school, set up an area in your classroom that showcases the work of your students. Encourage your students to use it as inspiration for their ideas, which can also be another valuable lesson in borrowing ideas versus copying ideas.

I hope that these three suggestions have sparked some creative ideas for your own classroom.

Follow me on Twitter @necityart


Post CAS Panic

By Amanda Jonas April 30th, 2014 5:30 PM

One of my favorite movie scenes of all time is from Dumb and Dumber, when Harry and Lloyd come back to their ransacked apartment to find out that their bird Petey has “died of old age” (we all really know what happened to poor Petey though). Completely fed up his life and apartment, Lloyd starts screaming, “That’s it! I’ve had it with this dump! We’ve got no food, we’ve got no jobs, our pets heads are falling off!”

What I love about this clip is not only that Harry and Lloyd think that their bird’s head just fell off, but how honest Lloyd’s complete frustration feels. In all honestly, Lloyd’s speech reminds me of similar emotions I was feeling after the DC CAS, just before spring break. In order to make sure my scholars were as well prepared as possible for the CAS, I covered every fifth grade standard before the beginning of testing. When the test wrapped up during that second week of April, I felt excited and proud of my students. Then, all of the sudden, I felt as confused as Lloyd from Dumb and Dumber.

In my head, I was thinking, “Wait. Spring break is next week. When we come back…Wait. How? What will I teach my kids when I’ve already covered everything?” It also hit me that, when my kids came back to school, it would have been almost 3 weeks since they had normal classes. What was I going to do to keep them motivated?

At a loss at how I was going to keep students engaged, excited, and learning until that last day before summer break, I met with my math coach Mikel (any of you who have read any of my previous blogs know how fantastic she is) to try and figure out a plan. Mikel told me, “Listen. You’ve finished the CAS. Loosen up, get creative, get your kids ready for middle school.” I think her best advice was that the classroom should feel different post CAS for testing grades. Now, I’m not saying stop teaching, but what I am saying is stop teaching the way you’ve taught.

Mikel and I came up with the following solutions:

  • We picked out three sixth grade math objectives that I knew would interest my kids: probability, ratios and proportions. We then problem solved around creative ways to teach them. For example, my students would give out surveys to younger grades, exploring the odds of gambling and creating their own ratios based on data they collected themselves.
  • We decided that on Wednesdays we would have “Mathematical History” days where my City Year, Mr. Brendan, and I facilitated lessons on famous mathematicians and math discoveries throughout time (this week Mr. Brendan showed them how to find pi using string and a cut out of a circle).
  • I also started to partner with the second grade classes for a pretty intense unit on multiplication. I’m teaching my fifth graders new tutorial strategies, like how to create centers and help another student find the answer without telling it. In a few weeks, my kiddos and I are going to help the second graders become multiplication rock stars.
  • I’ve branched out of my comfort zone a bit to try new centers that I previously found too time consuming. That’s the best part of our post CAS classrooms; we have more time to do what we didn’t think we had time for before! Instead of being filled with panic, I was suddenly excited at the possibilities that the next test free weeks held in store for my classroom. I realized that, as long as I was teaching my students things that I was excited about, they would be too. Lets be honest, we teachers can all use a little more fun and excitement in the classroom too!

Are you in a testing grade? Are you done with the CAS? Are you unsure about what to do next? Here are some helpful tips from Mikel and I on how to beat those post- CAS blues…

  1. Look ahead! Check out next year’s standards, or better yet, chat with a teacher who teaches the grade ahead of you and find what the priority standards are. Start your kids on those this year and make sure they know what a competitive edge they’ll have on their peers when they start the next grade.
  2. Play! If you can, make it into a game. I have my kids make “word problem mad libs,” where they create or copy a bunch of word problems, leave a few blanks, and tell other students to insert funny nouns or adjectives (blended learning anyone?) to see who can make the silliest problem.
  3. Projects. Now is the perfect time to implement project based learning. Remember teaching that unit on area? Now you can have your students use what they know about area to build their “dream houses” using graph paper and a whole lot of imagination.
  4. Expand your students’ horizons! Why not buddy with a lower or higher grade and peer tutor? Not only does it help your students build valuable social skills, but they are gaining confidence in their academic abilities and reinforcing things they have already learned. Nothing helps students retain information more than having them teach it themselves.

Whatever you decide to do after the CAS, remember one thing: your students see the value of education through your eyes. If you see these last several weeks as frustrating, they will as well. But, if you show them that learning doesn’t stop when the big tests are over, then your students will keep on adding and subtracting and reading and writing until that last dismissal bell rings on June 20th.

STEM in Any Classroom!

By Rabiah Harris April 7th, 2014 7:00 PM

“I finally think I’ve got it!” a student exclaimed as she figured out how to configure the wires in the shell to power her circuit.

“Ms. Harris! Ms. Harris! We got it!” Exclaimed another group of students in the back of the classroom.

As a teacher in a project-based learning classroom, it’s tremendous to watch a student struggle and then come to a conclusion after successfully creating a project. I admit, there are few things I enjoy more than the epiphanies of my students during individual and team collaborative hard work.

You often hear from non-English teachers that “everybody is an English teacher.” This is true!  However, it should also be true that everybody is a STEM teacher. This is because STEM instruction is an effective way to engage students in initial forays into critical thinking, one of the most important skills we teach at school. STEM instruction utilizes pathways that don’t traditionally make students think they are thinking critically, even when they are.

For instance, let’s say that you are a social studies teacher focusing on the Civil War.  You begin your lesson by showing a layout of the battlefield or the area where the Civil War was fought.  You then have students brainstorm ideas or tools that may have been used in combat by opposing sides.  As they are completing this activity, you bring in primary source evidence that describes what actually happened during the war to see if students can recreate those same scenarios.  At the very end, you introduce a final primary source that tells the “whole” story of a particular battle.  As a result of this lesson, students receive a short foray into engineering and engineering design while also learning the social studies content.

A DCPS colleague of mine at Stanton Elementary School has a great Kindergarten example.   Ms. Samples-Wright has her students create houses as they read The Three Little Pigs.  During the project, students go through the stages of the engineering design process and get to share their ideas with real engineers for observation and feedback.  Find this project, and more like it, on Ms. Samples-Wright’s website: 1humbleteacher.com.

Another great DCPS example comes from Mrs. Ford at Maury Elementary School.   Mrs. Ford teaches a “Think Tank” class where students get to experience a lot of STEM lessons with Mrs. Ford as their instructor. Most recently, budding 4th grade architects are being cultivated at Maury Elementary with a partnership with District Architect Center’s “Architects in the Schools” program. Check out more of Mrs. Ford’s projects here: maurythinktank.blogspot.com.

Interesting in trying out STEM in your classroom? Follow these key steps to implementation!

Start small, with only one lesson or one activity.  This will prevent you from becoming overburdened with supporting STEM.

Find one aspect of STEM to focus on and plan to do that well.  Whether it is science, technology, engineering, or mathematics, find a way to focus on one topic.  This will help you later, especially when you are trying to evaluate the effectiveness of the lesson.

Emphasize the path over the answer.  Many of the STEM process skills that we are attempting to highlight for students are more about the process of inquiry and not about the actual answer or product.  The key is to make sure that students understand (and maybe even journal about) the process for creation, data collection or analysis.

Students Learn More by Doing: Benefits of Assigning Projects to Your Students

By Destinee Hodge January 15th, 2014 10:30 AM

I don’t know a single teacher who wants learning to be boring. I also don’t know a single teacher who wants to do all the heavy lifting in their classroom. Yet these are two things that, from my experience, happen quite often as the school year trudges along. We begin printing worksheets without regard for our students’ perspective and without pushing them to be inventive, independent thinkers.

I remember taking one week toward the end of my first year of teaching to actually sit down and do the work I was assigning to my kids. This is boring, I thought to myself. All of a sudden, I could understand why my seventh grade class was not having it.

by Destinee Hodge

by Destinee Hodge

That experience got me thinking. I wanted to make learning interesting, and I wanted my students to take ownership over their work. I also wanted my students to actively use their minds and begin to think in different ways. What could I do to accomplish these ends?

Enter project-based learning. Of course we’ve all heard of classroom projects being hailed as generally awesome. But when you sit down to plan, what does including a project in your lesson look like? And sure, projects make learning interesting…but is that it? Since projects are a huge part of my teaching, I thought I’d address a few common questions about integrating them into the classroom.


Q: Sure, projects make learning more interesting, but is that it?

A: The biggest benefit of assigning projects is that it shifts the responsibility of learning from you to your students. For example, once I do the preliminary work of creating a rubric and a detailed outline of the project, it’s up to my students to do the work and me to monitor. That’s much more sustainable than constantly being the creative force behind everything in the classroom. Also, having your students create something is considered a higher order thinking skill on Bloom’s Taxonomy.

Q: Uh, you teach Spanish, do projects really apply to every subject?

A: They most certainly do! While the nature of my subject lends itself to projects more often, it doesn’t mean that they can’t be done in every subject area.  For example, math teachers can have their students pretend to be interior designers and calculate the area of different spaces in a room. It requires you to really think, but the result is that your students will want to do the work.

Q: Thanks for the suggestion, but I don’t have time for a project.

A: Not true. A project can be anywhere from one day to one year in length. YOU determine how long a project should be. For example, I’ve had my students create a skit about ordering food in a restaurant in one day and then present it the next.  I’ve also had students read information about Hispanic culture and then create a visual representation on chart paper (all in the same day). You just need to be intentional about planning appropriately.

Q: I have no idea how to plan a project. How do I start?

A: The most important factor is that projects cannot be random. You need projects to be integrated into your unit plan so that they will allow students to show mastery of specific standards.

  1. Decide on the content and skills you want them to learn. This is where you look at your unit plan and decide what information you want the project to help your students bring together.
  2. Develop rubrics, formats, and exemplar. This is SUPER important. If you don’t have clear guidelines, you will receive a number of completely different products.
  3. Develop a timeline and scope for your project. How long do you want students to be able to work on it? When do you want the final product to be due? If you don’t do this, you’ll find yourself spending much more time than necessary on the project because your students don’t have a sense of urgency.

Q: Is it better for students to work in groups or individually?

A: You know your students best, so you need to decide. Working in groups is obviously a life skill (life is in and of itself a group project), but at the same time, you may want each student’s individual expression to show through during the project.

Learning can be both rigorous and engaging. Hopefully you’ll consider using projects to make it both of these things.

Destinee Hodge is a Spanish teacher at Kelly Miller Middle School in Ward 7.