By ALANA PURVIS
It’s November 2020 and there is no sign of returning to school for in-person learning for the foreseeable future. Teachers, students, and families are navigating between synchronous and asynchronous learning the best they can each and every day. All of a sudden it hits me...our classrooms are completely teacher-centered! We are in a virtual space with district-provided curricula our students need to be successful with limited synchronous instructional time. It was at this moment I realized we need to find a way to give students choice in a way that does not impede on our already limited instructional time. If you are in a similar situation, then you are just the innovative advocate your students need!
How a Mythology Mini-Unit Led to a Love of Learning
As a 4th and 5th grade English Language Arts teacher, I followed my scripted curriculum to fidelity to ensure students received instruction aligned to their grade-level Maryland College & Career Readiness Standards. As a result of following my district provided curriculum, I saw an increase in student data on our PARCC assessments, student confidence, and received accolades about my curriculum instruction from my colleagues and administration. This was great recognition, but something was missing. Were my students able to have a voice in their learning? Was I learning more about my students? Were they able to tap into unexplored potential? The answer was an astounding “no!” and that is when I chose to take matters into my own hands.
I made a plan to take our 5th grade mini-unit on Mythology and add opportunities for students to demonstrate their learning. Students not only had opportunities through tasks within the curriculum, but also through student choice in the culminating project. For the culminating project choices, I utilized a few suggestions from our Gifted and Advanced Learning curriculum for sixth grade, but also allowed students to propose their own projects. My mind was blown! At the end of our mini-unit, students presented Facebook or Instagram pages for their chosen Greek God/Goddess, board games based on a Greek myth, cover letters applying for the head seat on Olympus, and other student-created ideas that highlighted their passions and interests. I learned more about my students, parents learned more about their children, and perhaps the most valuable learning was that my students learned more about themselves. Isn’t that what we want at the end of the day?
There are some lessons you simply can’t teach your students. You work hard to prepare them with the ELA skills they need to be successful, supporting them with mastery of their grade level standards, and maintaining your instructional minutes, but you can also do this while supporting their love of learning through choice!
A Mini-Project Based Learning Project Aligned to Our Curriculum!
I didn’t know then, but the mini-unit I implemented with my 5th graders was a bite-sized Project Based Learning (PBL) plan. It was by no means the “gold standard” PBL strives for, but let’s be honest, I had a district-provided curriculum and limited instructional time, so I did not have the time to implement a full-blown PBL long-term plan (Buck Institute for Education, 2012; Patton & Robin, 2012). This year, I decided to continue with the idea of a bite-sized PBL project and bring it to the current third graders at my school!
My bite-sized PBL vision supports third graders as they engage in Module 2 of our text-rich and knowledge building English Language Arts Curriculum. During Module 2 students learn about outer space and answer their essential question, how do people learn about space? (Great Minds, n.d.). This module is always a favorite with third graders, and let’s face it, who doesn’t want to learn about outer space? This makes this module the perfect time to implement this project! There are currently little to no opportunities for students to use their agency to choose “what” and “how” they learn in the virtual setting, to learn and practice research skills and digital citizenship, or to explore topics of interest aligned to the curriculum (extension and enhancement). This project will support the skills students have not yet learned or experienced but need to be successful as a 21st century learner.
Unfortunately, our 60 minutes of synchronous learning time is being maximized to the tee with our curriculum content so synchronous learning time is not an option. My vision is to begin this first implementation within 30-minutes or less a day. This vision will only require less than 30 minutes from students and will take place during the asynchronous learning block once students have selected their topics, final products, and authentic audience to share them with.
After a whole group brainstorming sessions and one-on-one teacher conferences, students will be ready to explore their topics with the goal of answering the Driving Question: Why do explorers explore space? As students research their topic, they are using a website evaluation tool to determine if information is credible, tracking their references on a Google Docs tracker, and working on their final products. Students will have various options for their culminating project such as a brochure using Canva, a mini-lesson through FlipGrid, or a physical model using their STEAM kits. In addition, students will need to choose an authentic space to share their final products such as the Baltimore Museum of Industry, Enoch Pratt Free Library, Maryland Science Center, or the National Air and Space Museum. This bite-sized PBL opportunity will support student choices as they navigate their learning with a real-world connection at the heart of it.
Deeper Learning Through My Bite-Sized PBL Design
Meeting curriculum standards aren’t the only learning outcomes students will meet. This design will also support students with Deeper Learning Competencies (2013) as they will think critically and solve complex problems as they apply interdisciplinary skills to evaluate and analyze research, learn how to learn as they set goals, self-reflect, and advocate for their learning and needs, and also develop academic mindsets as they demonstrate perseverance and how to navigate through challenges, 21st century skills needed to be successful in the real-world.
Perhaps the most exciting deeper learning for students comes through the integration of key International Society for Technology in Education Standards for students (ISTE, n.d). Students will have an opportunity to begin their life-long journey of becoming Empowered Learners, Digital Citizens, and Creative Communicators (ISTE, n.d.). Our young innovators will become Empowered Learners as they create and articulate their chosen topic while utilizing technology and reflecting on their learning. Digital Citizenship will be supported as students use their Google Docs tracker to examine the credibility of websites, organize the resources they plan to use, and properly credit the sources of their research. I am also excited to see our third graders become Creative Communicators as they choose the appropriate platform and/or research tools that best support their final product choice.
Support Your Students with Standards AND Choice!
Curriculum expectations, limited time, and a virtual learning environment are real and valid concerns, but in less than 30 minutes a day, supporting standards AND student choice is possible! Join me on this journey…the time is now!
Purvis is a literacy coach for Baltimore City Public Schools. She is currently pursuing a master’s degree in Educational Technology at Loyola University, Baltimore, Maryland. You can follow her on Twitter @plovesliteracy.
Buck Institute for Education. (n.d.). What is PBL?https://www.pblworks.org
Deeper Learning Competencies. (2013, April).https://hewlett.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/08/Deeper_Learning_Defined__April_2013.pdf
Great Minds. (n.d.). https://greatminds.org/
International Society for Educational Technology in Education (ISTE). (n.d). ISTE standards for students.https://www.iste.org/standards/for-students
Patton, A. & Robin, J. (2012, February). Work that matters: The teacher’s guide to project-based learning.https://www.innovationunit.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/04/Work-That-Matters-Teachers-Guide-to-Project-based-Learning.pdf