If you have taken a glance at a calendar lately, you will notice that the summer is passing quickly. Have you thought about how you are going to start your school year? We know that it is best practice to train the students on your expectations for a successful classroom as you begin the year. One of the practices I have found successful during my 8 years of facilitating a PBL classroom is to begin the year with a culture-building project. Basically you use a PBL project to teach the expectations and basics of your classroom process.
When I taught in a traditional school and students came to me without any PBL experience, I started with a project called “What is PBL?” I launched this project with a letter to the students from me. Normally, I would want the letter to come from a community partner, but in this case I was their community partner because the final product was for my classroom. In this one week project, the final product was a poster of the expectations for each of the 4 group roles that we use in our projects throughout the year (Facilitator, Liaison, Team Tutor, and Recorder). As with all of my projects, I had a rubric that I created for the benchmarks and the poster, which was the final product. While we went through the 6 Phase Problem Solving Process, I made sure the students knew which phase we were in. They also began to notice how their “need to knows” planned the next steps of the project for us. It was a safe project to start with as I was beginning my PBL journey and as they were beginning theirs. Since there was no content in this project, the students and myself were able to learn together and see how the PBL process works.
Another culture project idea is to have students design a team t-shirt as a final product. The potential project scenario is for the students to design a team t-shirt that represents who you are as a school or as a class. In order for them to be able to choose and design a t-shirt, they need to learn what sets apart your style of teaching and culture from what they are used to in a traditional classroom. An additional idea for a short culture project would be for each student to create an “I Can” block to put up in the hallway. With all the “I Can” blocks designed and created, you can easily organize them to become a “We Can” wall.
Last year my school, Columbus Signature Academy Central Campus, did a project called “Go for the Gold.” We launched it by introducing all of the teachers for both our 7th and 8th grade team as students’ “trainers.” The problem the students explored was how they were going to “go for the gold” throughout the year and master our different learning outcomes (Agency, Collaboration, Written Communication, Oral Communication). As part of their workshops they learned about our expectations for the building, for the classroom, for our technology, and for working in a PBL environment. All of those aspects became answers to how they would “Go for the Gold” during the school year. Students were put into teams where they designed a flag that had symbols and specific colors on them. They had to write a paragraph about how the colors and symbols represented their team. Then at the opening ceremonies, we had a “Parade of Teams” that was to simulate the Parade of Nations for the actual Olympics. We also did a torch ceremony where the 8th graders started outside and ran through the hallways, up the stairs, to the auditorium where they “lit” up a fake torch we had created.
We showed the whole relay live so everyone could see it from the auditorium except for those involved. We finished the day with team-building games that the 8th graders put together for mixed-grade teams to participate in. This project really built our school culture and got us started on the right foot. Although we don’t want to use the Olympics this year, we are thinking maybe we could tweak the project to mimic training for a marathon.
Another idea that I haven’t used to begin a school year, but I can see has some serious potential is to connect with Pinwheels for Peace. In this culture project there would be a part of the final product where each student creates a pinwheel with their words of peace. The other idea I have thought about is to train all students on being tour guides or to know how to talk to visitors that we have come through our school. In order for them to be able to intelligently talk about the program, we would need to teach them about its various aspects, and they would need time to explore the school and what it offers. Again, neither of these ideas have been developed, but maybe they can help trigger the creative juices you have!
Regardless of how you decide to build the culture in your classroom or in your school, make sure to start the year off with a solid project! This will help the students learn your expectations without the risk learning content can sometimes create.
How do you build culture at the beginning of the year? We would love to hear your ideas! If you would like more information on any of the project ideas that my school has tried or to see PBL in action, you can follow us on Twitter @csantcentral.
Trisha Burns is an 8th grade math facilitator at CSA Central Campus in Columbus, Indiana. She is a certified teacher and trainer through the New Tech Network and certified through ICPBL for project-based learning in Indiana. She has taught in a PBL classroom since 2009 and facilitates for Magnify Learning in the summer. When she is not developing and implementing projects in her class room she loves to hang out with her family and scrapbook their memories!