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Learning for Life: PBL in the Westminster Lower School

November 20, 2013

As Westminster Lower School teachers bring Project-Based Learning (PBL) to life, their students tackle real-world issues and see meaningful connections in their learning while building 21st century skills.

Beyond the limits of traditional instruction, PBL encourages students to take a more active role in their learning and to research in-depth while choosing to create products that interest them. In the process, PBL integrates the content of various disciplines, shows meaningful connections among them, and enables students to use cutting edge technology.

As such, The Westminster Schools embraces the project-based approach as a key learning strategy in support of our Living for Life vision. With Project-Based Learning, students learn to think critically and creatively, and problem-solve. They become intrinsically motivated, which improves their understanding of the concepts covered in the project. The outcome: meaningful learning.

Each PBL topic provides a platform for significant content and stresses the importance of developing 21st century skills through technology and research, while intentionally developing skills in the areas of Critical Thinking, Communication, Collaboration and Creativity. Developing computer skills is critical to student learning; moreover the use of technology increases the quality of their learning as well.

Finally to make the learning visible to all, class bulletin boards showcase student work and highlight the process of each PBL:  research, problem-solving, and reflection (see the Buck Institute for Education for more details about PBL).

 A well-developed PBL includes Eight Essential Elements

PBL Cycle from the Buck Institute for Education

PBL Cycle from the Buck Institute for Education

All Lower School grade levels and several special area classes have chosen a topic to study in-depth using Project-Based Learning. Students research their topic through field trips and other in-class or library opportunities. Their learning culminates in the presentation of a project that shows understanding of the process and concepts embedded in their course of study.

First Grade PBL: All About Bees!

Driving Question: Why are all the Bees Dying? 

First grade students created a buzz at Westminster in their PBL about bees. Students deepened their inquiry by laying out a research path with questions such as: What do we know about bees? What do we need to learn about bees? Why are bees important to us?

To find the answers, student first began with an in-house field trip complete with a beekeeper, an active beehive, honey tasting and learned all about harvesting! Research drew upon the efforts of teachers from several disciplines. Math and art were integrated into the study of bees as students explored the six-sided shape of honeycombs their bees made and learned about hexagons, and polygons. Homeroom teachers created twelve lessons including: music, physical education, technology and art.

To cap off their PBL project, the first grade students presented their newfound knowledge before a live audience – they dressed like bees, acted in a skit about bees, shared facts, and read aloud ibooks they wrote about bees. A visiting expert, Dr. Jennifer Leavey from Georgia Tech shared her expertise, helped make plans for the future, and joined in the fun as well.

Art teacher & students in Bee Project

Art teacher & students in Bee Project

Developing work from 1st Grade Bee Project

Developing work from 1st Grade Bee Project

Group Picture with GT Professor

Group Picture with GT Professor

2nd Grade PBL: Our Westminster Community Heroes!

Driving question: Who are the people who make our Westminster community work and how do they do this?

Second grade students created new and lasting relationships through their PBL by searching out the answer to their driving question. To begin this research, every second grade homeroom class walked the campus to learn about the different and important roles that people in our community fulfill, from campus security, to kitchen staff, to grounds crew and more. Students learned and perfected their interviewing skills with the staff members on our campus. They wrote and reflected about the importance of each individual’s role, purpose and value to our community.

To highlight their completed PBL, every student became an expert and shared information about a particular staff member (and department) with classmates from another homeroom in a jigsaw activity. In this way, all the students became teachers and learners in all aspects of the Westminster community. The final event culminated with students sending out invitations to their community heroes and by hosting them with a reception in their honor.

2nd Grade Project Wall

2nd Grade Project Wall

Staff member and student

Staff member and student

Staff members and students

Staff members and students

Third Grade PBL: Georgia On My Mind

Driving Question: As Ambassadors of Georgia, how can we help the Georgia Board of Tourism solve the problems of declining visitors to our state?

Teachers created a real world role for third graders in their PBL.   Students were informed that tourism had fallen off in the state of Georgia. With guidance and support, students decided it was important that they serve as ambassadors to help attract visitors to our state! After determining what they needed to learn in order to direct their research, students began an in-depth exploration into the geography, communities and historical events unique to the state of Georgia.

A field trip to the Consolidated Gold Mine in Dahlonega provided a glimpse into Georgia’s past. In their final product, students chose the medium in which they wished to share their information with visitors–either in the form of a digital brochure on an iPad or a hand-crafted one illustrating the different regions and attractive options available for tourists when visiting our fine state of Georgia!

3rd Grade Project

3rd Grade Project

3rd Grade at a Gold Mine

3rd Grade at a Gold Mine

3rd Grade Project Map

3rd Grade Project Map

Principal talking with 3rd Grade

Principal talking with 3rd Grade

 

Fifth Grade Science PBL: That’s So Bad For You!

Driving Question: How can we as students create awareness about the effects of water pollution in the Atlanta area?

In this PBL students become activists and educators who research and present their findings about water pollution in the Atlanta area. Since most pollutants are spread via water, which directly connects to their ecosystems studies, their study focused on storm water run-off, erosion and dissolved oxygen levels. Students first built and then observed eco-columns. As part of the research phase, students went on a field trip to Elachee (Aqualand Marina) and water treatment plant. As they dig deeper into this work, students become much more aware of how little water there is in the world and how important it is to conserve it! In an effort to share this understanding and make a difference, students participate in a variety of different final products including:  Public Service Announcements, iMovies, PowerPoints, Logos (to promote conservation), and a water lesson the fifth grade students will teach to the second grade students.

5th Grade Science Lab on Water

5th Grade Science Lab on Water

Guest speaker with students

Guest speaker with students

Elachee field trip

Elachee field trip

Project development board

Project development board

COLLABORATION AND COMMUNICATION

PBLs serve as opportunities for teachers to work together and share ideas while creating lessons that cross disciplines. To the casual observer, it may seem that students do all the work, but that’s only because the teachers have planned and prepared behind the scenes to ensure the work is ready FOR the students–when they get there. To share the demands of such intense preparation, many teachers have discovered that dividing up the work among themselves allows them to delve more deeply into the topic. For example, in one PBL, teachers divided the content topic into four separate parts. Each teacher researched and developed lessons for one part and taught quality content lessons on that topic to all four classes in their grade level. Teachers also met regularly to ensure delivery of additional content was consistent within the grade level, and to stay on schedule. Such collaboration brings teachers together to discuss and share their varied perspectives and interests, which in turn, raises the number and kind of options for students.

By researching authentic, curriculum-based and often interdisciplinary topics, students learn through experience. They decide how to approach a problem and what process to pursue. They gather information from a variety of sources and synthesize, analyze, and derive knowledge from it. Students practice collaboration and reflection as they work, both of which are critical skills necessary to adult life. Teachers act more as facilitators than teachers in guiding and advising students in their work.  This approach highly motivates and engages students in interdisciplinary work. More importantly, it empowers them to take responsibility for their own education in ways unheard of in most traditional classrooms–just what they need to learn in the 21st century!

Upcoming PBLs:

 Pre-First: Investigation of Sound

Students will explore how sound is made with pipes and strings, learn which make high or low sounds and why, and ultimately will create their own instruments!

 First Grade: So Now You’re a Wildcat!

Students will research what it means to be a Wildcat at Westminster and create a first grade book to inform incoming Pre-First students all about our campus!

Fourth Grade: Fundance!

Students will write an inspirational documentary about something meaningful to them, ultimately producing a documentary on iMovie, using Garage Band to inspire others to make changes within their community.

Foreign Language: Restaurant Menu

Students will research and write in either French or Spanish an authentic menu highlighting food indigenous to the culture studied.

 Fifth Grade: Civil Rights Movement Museum

Students will research the significant people and events of the Civil Rights Movement, focusing intensively on the role Atlanta played in this period.  In small groups, students will create museum displays, culminating in an exhibition highlighting Atlanta as the cradle of the Civil Rights Movement.

Guest blogger: Cynthia Montgomery

Lower School Instructional Coach & Coordinator for Project Based Learning
The Westminster Schools
1424 West Paces Ferry Road, NW
Atlanta, Georgia 30327
T 404-609-6238
E cynthiamontgomery@westminster.net

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