Friday, May 19, 2017

Discovering the “Ultimate Classroom”: A Student Led Project Based Learning Inquiry

At the beginning of this school year, I joined EdTechTeam’s Teacher Leader Cohort. I never imagined that the final course on learning space design would launch my students and I into the most exciting and rewarding project based learning experience of my career. As a teacher, I knew all about project based learning and how rewarding it could be for students, but I struggled to imagine how I would make it work in my 4th grade classroom. With the Common Core, state testing, interventions, and all else that goes on in the elementary day, how would I find time for my students to investigate and inquire into their interests?

One of the assignments we were tasked with during the cohort was getting our students involved in redesigning a portion of our classroom. As I met with my students, many who volunteered to come in at recess, we reworked our classroom library and opened up new areas for the students to work. Upon the conclusion of the assignment, I decided to ask my students what they thought an “ultimate classroom” might look like. Together, we created a giant mind map of all of their ideas and questions on our newly uncovered chalkboard space. As I stood back to look at all of their ideas, questions, and thoughts, I wanted to invite my students to take this inquiry beyond what was on the board, and after bouncing some of my ideas, fears, challenges, and dreams off of one of my coworkers, I took the idea back to my students that we make this our IB PYP Exhibition project to celebrate our journey through the IB program of inquiry.

In December, my students met with our IB coordinator and I to create a central idea that would guide our inquiry. During this time they sorted through all of their questions and discovered three major topics that stood out: how kids learn best, types of learning technology, and the organization of space. As the students worked together, suggestions were made, ideas were crafted, and our central idea was born: “Collaboration in the ultimate classroom can change how students problem solve, interact, and learn.” As we left for winter break, I realized that I had a massive homework assignment for myself. At the beginning of any project based learning unit, a lot of initial planning has happen behind the scenes. Over break, I had several tasks to accomplish:

*Mapping out our unit: I found out some scissors, glue, student questions, and chart paper helped me visualize where I was going.

*Visited several local libraries and InfOhio: I tapped into these resources which gave me over 300 books, magazines, and articles at various reading and interest levels.

*Contacted potential research mentors: I reached out to community members, board members, parents in and outside our classroom, and local universities.

As we returned to school in January, our inquiry took off. Students studied text structure, types of research, ways to research and record information, and different aspects of the classroom that interested them. Using Google Docs to help record their notes and the aid of research mentors to build their research skills, the students researched aspects of the classroom that interested them most while focusing on our three lines of inquiry: how kids learn best, types of learning technology, and the organization of space. While some studied robotics and social media, others dived into different learning disabilities and schools around the world. As they began to get a handle of book research, we moved into using videos to research with the aid of Video Notes. From there, we launched into online research, learning about how to read online articles and use two devices at once as we used sites such as NewsELA and TweenTribune to launch our research. All in all, the students researched ideas behind the ultimate classroom for two months with an immense amount of focus and dedication.

One thing I discovered during this time, is you have to keep amping up the excitement level to keep the students eager to learn more. To do this, I began bringing in guest speakers and diving into the world of Google Hangouts. We had speakers to talk about building libraries, collecting data about learning technology, school design, our future elementary school, learning styles, color selection, and creating a unique workspace. Through Google Hangouts, we connected with experts from outside our community to learn about school and classroom design from Christian Long and Maija Ruokanen and presentation design from Sandra Chow . We explored grant writing to learn about how grants are one way to bring new things into a classroom. Some students wrote a grant to a local company for flexible seating while others wrote for a classroom grant funded by a PTA gift. As we began to move into our next phase, the reflections, questions, and ideas coming from my students have been beyond my wildest dreams.

As I am writing this post, we are currently in our phase of taking action. Now that we have done all of the research, I wanted the students to come up with a way they could take action with their learning. I told my 4th graders “The sky was the limit”, and I found the level of excitement was uncontainable. I have students teaching lessons to other students in our building on learning styles and bullying and mindfulness and one who is writing a book about the ultimate classroom. There are groups introducing fidget corners, independent corners, BYOD, Chromebook care, slime as a type of fidget, and a surprise book corner to classes around our school. There are other students investigating the best type of STEM technology to put in a classroom, a classroom library checkout system, how to create a desk organizer, ways to create a school best for students in wheelchairs, best types of wall colors to help students focus while reading, and learning and creating tools for students with special needs. I even have a student who has decided to present to our board of education about types of furniture she would recommend to put in our new elementary school.

As we head into the final stretch of this year, I reflect back to the beginning of this project. I couldn’t have done it with without the teachers, volunteers, mentors, parents, teachers, speakers, and all others involved. Learning how to “let go” and open the doors to my room has not been easy, but it has been a lifesaver for me this year. Start with something small, maybe just relocating your classroom library, and see where it takes you. I have had many ask me what our final exhibition presentation will be about or what it will look like. My honest answer is, “I don’t know.” I’m waiting to see where my students take me.

Leah Burke has been teaching elementary school for 8 years and currently teaches 4th grade in Westlake, Ohio. She has her Masters in Educational Foundations emphasizing Instructional Technology. She is passionate about inquiry based learning and technology in education. She is a Google Level 1 and 2 Certified Educator.

Follow her on Twitter at @Leah440B, her blog at, or her webpage

Want to see where an idea takes you and your students like it did Leah? Join an EdTechTeam Teacher Leader cohort today!

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