Project-Based Learning for the Virtual Classroom

Project-based learning (PBL) may not be the first thing that teachers consider when planning for remote or hybrid lessons. However, with a little creativity and an organized approach, project-based learning can engage students in a way that may be lacking during typical virtual instruction. So what is it, exactly? PBL, simply put, is an approach to learning through exploration of a real-world problem or question. Ideally, students choose to investigate a problem or challenge that means something to them – something that impacts their daily lives. Then, through research, collaboration, and exploration, students gain a deeper understanding of the issue or challenge and how they can contribute to a solution. Even more important is the fact that, through project-based learning, students gain a better understanding of who they are as learners and critical thinkers. With being said, let’s look at how instructors can utilize PBL in virtual settings.

How to Organize PBL for Remote Learning

“Embrace the chaos of now” by asking students to discuss what is currently troubling them. When students have a vested interest in their classwork, they will obviously be more inclined to engage in the work and follow through on the assignment. Ask about challenges or problems they’ve been having, such as:

  • What has been your biggest struggle with adapting to virtual/remote learning?
  • What needs are not being met in this “new normal?”
  • How has your daily routine changed since the start of the pandemic?
  • What is a problem that you see your peers, neighbors, teachers, community struggling with?

After students have identified an issue or challenge that they personally recognize in their day-to-day lives, ask them to do a little preliminary brainstorming about the problem using a standard KWL chart. The KWL chart is an old favorite in the classroom for any sort of introduction to a new topic, concept, or unit. For project-based learning, the KWL chart provides students with a visual starting point and a trajectory for where their research is headed. The graphic organizer, for those who have not used it before acts as a simple t-chart to organize what students already know (K) about the topic, what they want (W) to know about the topic, and what they learn (L) throughout their research process. This simple visual aid acts as the foundation for critical thinking by visually, yet simply, organizing a student’s thoughts.

Next, you can help students with backward design or backward mapping by outlining objectives first. Again, project-based learning is all about allowing students to explore a challenge and identify a resolution or fix for the problem. In order to adequately lay out the groundwork, students must have a clear and definitive end goal. Therefore, in planning for success, teachers need to help students employ backward mapping strategies by beginning with something like a S.M.A.R.T. (Specific. Measurable. Attainable. Relevant. Timely.) goal—then working backward from there to achieve that goal.

Instructors can also utilize haptic engagement or hands–on learning by encouraging students to physically try out or experiment with their ideas. Teachers can model this experiential learning by choosing their own PBL to focus on while kids are working. Show students that, in order to truly solve a problem, people must occasionally get their hands dirty. It is also important for teachers to note that success stories are almost always trial and error—a sound solution will not come right away. By testing hypotheses and modifying approaches, students truly understand the value of hands–on, experiential learning. Not only are these demonstrations helpful for getting closer to a solution, but haptic engagement also teaches students about grit, perseverance, and strategies around error analysis.

Another great skill set that students may develop while participating in PBL classroom activities involves retrieval practice. Since students are focusing their work on one primary challenge, they are able to hone their focus and truly absorb new information as they learn. Teachers can help foster retrieval strategies with activities such as Cornell note-taking, peer teaching, and Socratic seminars, in which students take the lead in delivering information to one another.

Try some of these PBL strategies out in your next lesson, whether it be virtual or in-person, and see the results for yourself.

Note-taking November: For the Elementary Classroom

For elementary schoolers, note taking as a reading or comprehension strategy is likely unfamiliar, and for a legitimate reason many younger learners are just beginning to get comfortable in their reading abilities at this stage. Many children view reading as a mundane task; but, if students begin to look at the reading material as a vessel for knowledge, they may change how they read for such information. Reading skills, particularly the ability to extract, analyze, and interpret relevant material, can be improved as students learn proper note-taking practices.

For elementary-age learners, taking notes while reading probably seems like an added burden on an already difficult task. Therefore, when introducing the concept, be sure to frame the instruction with expectations, benefits, and models of how the note taking should look.

Note-taking Takes Practice

Explain that note taking while reading is a practice which will take time elementary schoolers should expect to practice this skill consistently before it becomes second nature. They should also expect their notes to be messy, which is why a pencil is a must. Begin the note-taking process by simply recording a stream of thought while reading.

Encourage students to mark up words and phrases which are:

  • unfamiliar or confusing
  • bolded, italicized, or repeated
  • indicate the author’s purpose
  • signify an important moment or realization
  • present an interesting fact or take-away

Use these opportunities as a means of teaching context clues — if the term is unfamiliar, ask students if anything around the word or phrase provides insight into the unknown word’s meaning. Encourage them to brainstorm and experiment with possible word meanings until they land on something that makes logical, grammatical sense.

Don’t Be Afraid to Ask, “Why?”

Elementary schoolers should also feel comfortable asking “why?” while reading. Encourage them to add question marks to areas of text they don’t understand or don’t see the relevance.

Model the Practice of Close Reading and Active Note-taking with Students Regularly

For the most part, note taking is an unfamiliar skill for elementary-age kids. When modeling the process, start small. Perhaps you begin by using a text that students have read before. This sense of familiarity will promote risk-taking and allow students to feel more comfortable tackling the text with their thoughts and observations. As you move through the text together, show them how to refer back to earlier notes if they have made connections or discovered an answer to a previous notation or question.

Inform Students of the Benefits of Note-taking

They will be surprised to know that notes can mean an easier time when rereading or skimming while studying. If students get in the habit of taking copious notes, most of the studying “legwork” will be done ahead of time. Their notes should also act as place markers, meaning any content which struck them as important or especially tricky should be highlighted to indicate that it is vital to review. Also, let young readers know that note taking is a deliberate practice ensuring focus, comprehension, and other active reading skills on behalf of the reader. If your mind is disengaged or drifting, there is no way you will be able to maintain substantial notes or annotations.

Teaching for Change

Why are you a teacher, and what is the point of doing the job you do? Teachers really need to think about those questions and hopefully reflect beyond the surface answers of wanting to “inspire” students. I doubt any of us really got into teaching to “fill gaps in the labour market” or decided that their true passion in life was watching students fill out multiple choice tests.

For most of us, I would say that at some level we decided to be a teacher to affect change in the lives of students and the communities in which we serve. We felt a connection to a profession in which we could work with children and youth to promote qualities that may have been lacking in the world as we saw it.

change-4-1imepycHowever, for any of us that have been teaching for any length of time. you have probably seen how the inequalities of our world have impacted our students and their ability to learn. Poverty, racism, sexism, ableism, colonialism and homophobia, amongst many more forms of oppression, infiltrate the walls of our schools and shape the real world experiences of our students.

Regardless if our students come from a place of privilege or oppression, these issues impact our classrooms and challenge us to confront them to ensure that the students we care for can overcome these issues as well as not perpetuate them as they move from youth to adults.

For teachers, it means that we cannot be ignorant to how these issues impact education and the lives of our students. Teaching is an inherently political act as the decisions we make from choosing to ignore these issues or confronting them demonstrates to our students the attitude we should have towards the major issues of our times.

If we want our students to have a chance of following their passions in life and to take on the major social and environmental issues of our time, we need to demonstrate a sense of courageous teaching that is not afraid to speak out against the issues that impact education and our students. Teachers must act in a way that promotes the ideals we strive for that would create a more democratic and equitable world for all.

That is why it is necessary that teachers eliminate the ideas of objectivity and neutrality from their practice. As one of the greatest educators of the 20th century, Paulo Freire said, “washing one’s hands of the conflict between the powerful and the powerless means to side with the powerful, not to be neutral”. As we see governments take on more austerity measures against education systems and demonize teachers in the media, it is essential that we assert ourselves as a profession that has the power to change society.

It is my hope that if you are a teacher reading this, you will join me in embracing a radical vision of what your teaching practice and the education system you work in could be. Teachers, in partnership with their union and other ally organizations, must understand the power we can have if we understand the principles of social justice and democracy. When you signed up to be a teacher, you also signed up to advocate for your students. I hope you’ll join me, and many other teachers, advocating for a more just and equitable world free from oppression for all people.

Until that day happens, teachers must engage in the long-term struggle for justice both in and outside of their classrooms. Social justice must be a centerpiece for why we teach and we must advocate for social justice as a framework for understanding teaching and education to our elected officials, unions and all others concerned with making the world a better place.

My Journey as a Teacher and the Future of Education

I was never a good student. I didn’t get along with many of my teachers and didn’t take the majority of my education that seriously until I was in my early to mid-twenties when I decided to become a teacher. My experience as a youth who struggled academically is what motivated me to become a teacher and hopefully add to and push the profession into a place that would be more accommodating and inclusive of students needs.

Dan Scratch-Alberta Canada School Teacher

It is the memory of resisting teachers and struggling in school that informs my perspective of how and why I teach. I come from a school of thought that believes that the purpose of public education is for social and political action. It’s the idea that we should equip students with the tools to participate in democratic life and be active citizens within their worlds.

This is the reason I teach. It’s what motivates me to work with youth to hopefully empower them to create a more democratic and just world for themselves.

As I began my career in teaching, I started my practicum at a school in my home town. I was extremely excited to finally learn the craft that I was so passionate about. Unfortunately, my mentor teacher had a different idea. She believed that it was her job to mold me into a teacher that was very undemocratic.

She made me line students up outside the classroom and demand their silence before they could enter the room. She taught me that it was unacceptable to allow students to challenge my ideas in the classroom and worst of all, she taught me that teaching was about how well you can control student behaviour.

I fundamentally disagreed with these practices and any time I didn’t follow her policy she would punish me. She told me I was a terrible teacher, she reported my “bad teaching” to my university and even publicly evaluated my teaching in the lunch room in front of other teachers.

This experience left me shattered and insecure about my future in education. I allowed her words to infiltrate my own purpose and drive for education. I loved teaching so much but did not want to be a bad teacher within the educational system. I had two choices. I felt I should either quit and find another profession, or fight for what I loved and work on my skills as a teacher.

I decided to fight and struggle. I spent the next two years unemployed looking for someone to take a chance on me. I know I didn’t come off as a traditional teacher and I’m sure my lack of confidence and insecurity came out in the few times I even had the chance at an interview. I was lost within a profession that I loved and felt that there wasn’t a place for me within it.

After getting my foot in the door with a few teaching experiences it wasn’t until 2011, with a chance move to Edmonton, that my first authentic opportunity finally came. I was hired at a school for at-risk youth in inner city Edmonton. When I entered the classroom, I saw a room full of students who felt as shattered and insecure as I did when I was a student and how I felt as a teacher at that time.

Together, my students and I worked to build our confidence as learners. As we worked on our skills, my students made me feel that I was actually helping them. My confidence began to grow and I started believing in my abilities as a teacher. Over the past three years I have had the utter privilege of learning alongside my extremely resilient and intelligent students. I just hope that I have been able to give them close to the experience that they have given me.

This brings me to the point of why I am telling my story.  If you’re a teacher reading this, I want to you think about why we teach. What is the purpose of us standing up in front of a group of youth each day? Is it to teach them how to get a job? Or, do we want them to learn the value of justice and citizenship? Whatever the reason was that we chose to become teachers, I would bet that at some point we chose this profession because we felt we could make a difference in young people’s lives.

When we dreamed of becoming teachers, I’m sure that almost every signal one of us did not imagine ourselves teaching the values, skills, and ethics that were determined by corporations. I’m sure that we dreamed of a school that was a hub for the community where parents, teachers, students, and community members worked to give the best education possible to our youth.

Unfortunately, we are faced with a reality where corporate involvement in education is becoming more pervasive. Corporations are influencing our schools, curriculum, and even they way teachers teach. I don’t know about you, but I don’t think corporations have the same interests for our students as we do. We want our students to become intelligent and ethical people who care about the world they live in.

Corporations on the other hand are legally obligated to be focused on maximizing profit and ensuring there are workers for them. And as we know as educators,  education is not a business. Preparing students for the life of work is just one aspect of our role as teachers. More importantly, we work to ensure that students have the opportunity to pursue their passions and become the people that will create a better world.

In our past, teachers, parents, students and community members came together to ensure a strong public education that would work for all students. We still have a long way to go to fulfill that dream, but if we understand that ordinary people can have just as much power as the powerful, then we can ensure that education remains a public good.

And in order to do that, we have to continue our history of parents, teachers, students, and community members working together to create the best public education possible. It’s important to do this because if we don’t act, corporate involvement in our education system can drastically change the type of people our students will become. Our students are more than workers and consumers. They are intelligent, creative and resourceful youth who can be a force for good in the world.

If we don’t act to stop corporate influence in our education system, we will cease to engage our students in an actual education. Corporate education will reduce teaching and education to training students how to get jobs. The art of teaching will be lost as we become a cog in the wheel of transferring knowledge and skills from a textbook, computer, or ’21st Century” gadget to students.

So, right now, I’m asking you to join me in an effort to resist corporate involvement in public education in Alberta (and hopefully across Canada and the globe too). Let’s take a stand for our students to make sure they have the opportunity for a healthy, democratic, and equitable education. If you can, please take a few moments of your time and complete this form to join us.

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