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Project-Based Learning: Relying on Resources

Project-Based Learning:  Relying on Resources

A project implemented by the 4th Grade team at Graded in São Paulo

Article by Megan Hoffmann,

I am fairly new to Project-Based Learning, but I’m already hooked.  Of course I’ve been excited about projects I’ve done with students in the past, but following the PBL process outlined by visionary Suzie Boss, I feel I’m integrating more authentically, and cannot stop talking about my students’ current project.  They (and I) feel empowered and ready to make a positive impact in our community.

At the beginning of the year, Graded invited Suzie Boss, a leader in project-based learning from the Buck Institute for Education, to host an innovation cohort, which involved both onsite workshops and at-a-distance, virtual support.  She challenged our cohort to develop our own real-world projects, keeping in mind the components for a successful PBL experience.  I am proud to share our fourth grade project through these components (in bold) in the hope that it helps you visualize your own PBL idea.

Getting Started: The Brainstorm

To make the project authentic, it was important for me to think about the “significant content” students needed to know and how it connected to issues in our community.  Our social studies curriculum was revised to reflect the updated AERO standards, and changed from units about ancient civilizations to a focus on Brazil.  Within this focus on Brazil, our host country, something immediately came to mind.  Since the first day of school, my students had been talking about a huge issue facing São Paulo: drought.  This is the worst drought in 84 years.  It was (and is) affecting them and the community around them and they were curious.

My PBL partner, Aaron Van Borek (Teaching and Learning Coach), and I looked at our standards and found seamless and meaningful integration between social studies and science.  We picked a few power standards, including “Describe characteristics, locations, uses, and management of renewable and nonrenewable resources” and “Describe ways Earth’s renewable resources (e.g., fresh water, air, wildlife and trees) can be maintained.”


Next, we developed a Driving Question: How can we manage resources to best meet the needs of our community?  The goal of a driving question is to help sustain students’ inquiry and guide them throughout the process.  We needed to make sure it was “kid-friendly,” that it pushed their thinking, and kept them engaged.

Then we designed an Entry Event, or hook, for the students.  We decided to use shock value.  Check out this picture/article about one of São Paulo’s reservoirs.  Our hook was the recently-shared scientific prediction that our city could run dry in less than 100 days due to lack of infrastructure and management of water, a natural resource. Here’s the video we used for support as well: Brazil’s largest city faces water shortage.


Another essential component of a “Gold Standard” PBL is a Public Product.  Suzie Boss explained that this could be more teacher-driven or student-driven, based on a teacher’s goals/comfort level.  Aaron and I decided that student-created Public Service Announcements (PSAs) would be good products to showcase student learning, as well as educate our community about the drought and provide actionable advice.  On top of this, it allowed for the integration of writing and technology skills, with students becoming cinematographers, actors, and editors.

We brought this brainstorm to my teammates, Nicole Engstrom, Rebekah Macden, and Maranda Schwartz, and together we made this into a doable project, complete with a unit plan, resources, and rubrics.  This is truly evidence of how teacher collaboration improves student learning.

Off We Go!

Intro: Shocking Entry Event.  The picture is bleak; the video is worrying.  Most students had no idea the situation was so bad.  After “hooking” the students, they determined their Need to Knows.  What were they going to have to learn in order to answer our driving question and help our community?  Students fired off questions– questions that helped drive their research.  For example:  Why is there a shortage in the first place? What is the best way to conserve water? What are some ways we can tell people to save water? How can we help those who don’t have access to water?




Students used a variety of media to research these and other standards-based questions.  After researching, students started thinking about their PSAs.  To incorporate Student Voice and Choice, the students chose their audience, wrote powerful slogans, and, in groups, drafted scripts and storyboards.  (This connected to our Literacy standards.)  They pitched their ideas to other groups, which led to Critique and Revision. They then filmed, edited, and produced their PSAs.


To be completely honest, I was not (and am still not) an expert on the drought when we started this project.  I am also not an expert on film editing.  My team and I had to do some background work in order to be informed, but we have also had to turn true experts both inside and outside of school for help.  For example, Aaron is a filmmaker and taught the students techniques of quality filmmaking.  (See below for more expert help to come.)  This is a BIG part of PBL: letting go a bit, recognizing others’ strengths (including those of students), and working as a team for the success of the students.

Where Are We Now?

Now, students have finished their PSAs and uploaded them to Youtube so that we can share them with a wider audience.


It wasn’t enough for for them to learn about the problem, though. Through their research, discussions, and work on creating PSAs, my students truly want to do more.  They want to take a measurable action now.  One idea they have is investigating rainwater harvesting to help those less fortunate who cannot easily access water.  They are going to meet with an engineer to determine specifics and then with a fundraising expert to help prepare a persuasive presentation to try to make it happen.

I asked my students at the beginning of all of this why kids should be taught about big issues like the drought.  Their answers affirmed for me that student ownership and authenticity provide powerful ways of deepening standards-based content.

“Kids have a lot of imagination and they can help think of ideas to help solve big problems.” – Sofia

“You should think about not just yourself, but other people and then learn that life is not only like just hanging around and having a good time.  Some people have a hard life and hard time trying to get water, so I think that people should really start opening their mind and start caring about what other people feel like without water.” – Michel

I am incredibly impressed at how they have developed their Key Competencies of critical thinking, collaboration, communication, and creativity throughout this process.

Aaron and I will be presenting this work at the Innovate 2015 Conference in São Paulo along with two innovative third-grade teachers, Patricia Gehrels and Claire Hamilton, whose students are creating books, plays, and films to raise awareness on the importance of green spaces in large cities.

It’s exciting to connect with other teachers using PBL to see how it can push student thinking.  That said, it’s definitely pushed my thinking, too.  I look forward to identifying new ways to infuse PBL into my classroom and hope to continue to connect with other educators to create a network of empowered students and teachers.


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