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Project-based Learning in Practice

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Fourth-grade teacher Bridget Spackman is passionate about project-based learning. With nearly 45,000 followers/subscribers on Instagram and YouTube, the Central York School District elementary school teacher offers organizational tips, project-based learning and other strategy ideas for the classroom.

Spackman, in her fifth year of teaching, discovered project-based learning while in college, and has spent the past five years implementing it in her own classroom. Before moving to York, Pennsylvania, she taught kindergarteners in Alabama.

It was in Alabama that she first began developing project-based learning curriculum for students. How did she get her ideas? Good old-fashioned research.

"Before I ever began my career in teaching I had a passion for learning everything about my soon-to-be profession. I found myself looking at blogs, googling videos and exploring social media sites that would give me some insight as to what could be expected after I received my degree," Spackman said.

It was at an Alabama Reading Conference that she knew project-based learning was for her.

"The conference changed my way of thinking about teaching. I was so excited about the possibilities of what more authentic teaching could be," she said.

Spackman has since incorporated project-based learning into core subjects and integrated it into science and social studies curriculum.

Project-based learning in the elementary classroom

One of Spackman's most memorable kindergarten projects revolved around creating a Thanksgiving feast, a celebration the school had each year, she said.

"I was excited to approach this lesson from a different perspective. As I sat with my students around the carpet I enthusiastically asked what holiday was approaching in the month of November. 'Thanksgiving!' they all yelled. After gathering the knowledge that my students had on the topic, I posed a single to them task: the task of organizing a feast. They all cheered with excitement and the ideas and questions began," she explained.

The project lasted three weeks and included learning the history of the first Thanksgiving, and creating their own feast.

"We incorporated math by calculating how many packages of rolls we would need to feed everyone... My students ended the unit with a beautiful feast that they had arranged, but the knowledge that they left with was the most beautiful piece of it all. That day I learned about the capabilities my students had and it steered me to create more of these authentic units," Spackman added.

Genius Hour

After moving to Pennsylvania, Spackman took her experience to York where she began a "Genius Hour" for students. The concept is based on a program at Google which allows engineers to spend 20% of their time each week working on outside projects.

Spackman's students had a total of 10% of their total week to research and developing a solution to a problem they were passionate about.

"This allowed them to incorporate skills that that they were learning in reading, writing, mathematics and science while working on ideas that increased student engagement," she explained.

Project-based learning starts with standards

Now entering her second year in Pennsylvania, she and other teachers are planning to incorporate more project-based learning into the upcoming school year, she said.

So where does she start? State standards.

"Everything that I do is standards driven. Over the summer, I take my science and social studies standards and I begin 'matching' them up. I look for similarities and projects that fit the majority of my students' lifestyles. I wouldn't have my students complete a 'save the sea turtles' project while living in Colorado. Everything we do is directly related to my students' lives. I try to make everything as authentic as possible," she said.

There are about 675 students with 45 teachers at the school. As with any strategy, planning is key. It's even more important with a multi-age classroom taught by three teams of teachers.

"We must be purposeful with every lesson and minute of our time, so we have been planning our individual conferences, small groups and lessons carefully... We know that it will not be perfect, but with excitement by our side and an optimistic mind frame we are eager to take on the new year."

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