Digging up dirt on PBL

How does soil give us everything we need? Curious first-graders at Central Lutheran School in New Haven spent several weeks trying to answer this question. Small groups of students read books, conducted research online, and examined soil close up to “dig a little deeper” into this critical question. In the end, they shared their findings with the public in a Soil Symposium held in the Central gym this April. These students were engaged in project-based learning, or "PBL" for short. PBL is an instructional approach built upon authentic learning activities that engage student interest and motivation. The activities are designed to answer a question or solve a problem and generally reflect the types of learning and work people do in the real world.In the case of our Central first-graders, teachers allowed students to research specific topics related to soil based on the students' interests. As a result, students were able to present four facts in one of nine categories. In order to do this, small groups of children had to learn how to work together and share information with one other. The facts they collected were then presented in a variety of formats, including self-made books, posters, and videos. In addition, visitors were encouraged to ask the students questions about their topic during the symposium.Erica Ernst and Danielle Smith teach first grade at Central. They both admit that this experience “took a lot of work.” Yet students were proud of their accomplishments and excited to present their learning to parents and peers. They also learned how to collaborate and communicate effectively with each other and a public audience. How were these teachers able to design such a terrific learning experience? Erica and Danielle both attended IMPACT 2012. This weeklong class is offered during the summer and focuses on the planning and development of PBL units such as this.Last summer, 10 Lutheran schools sent teachers to IMPACT, and these participants left with fully developed PBL units. This year, all around TLSP schools, students were answering critical questions, such as “What if I were an American Colonist?” or “How can we decide which country would use $1 million from the United Nations in the best way?” Even preschoolers were exploring important questions like “Which foods are the best foods for our bodies?”This summer, IMPACT 2013 is ready to train more teachers in PBL. The Lutheran School Partnership is dedicated to providing valuable learning experiences such as this as we help schools prepare students for the future. As we collaborate with fellow educators, we continue to ask ourselves a critical question:How can TLSP champion academic excellence by supporting best practices in curriculum, instruction, assessment, and faith development so that all students reach their full potential?First-grade soil symposiums? Seems like a terrific start.