Tag Archives: project based learning

Abby’s Corner: Project Based Learning and More

Getting In the Pit: Developing Growth Mindset during our Winter Performance

As we wrap up 2019 at Tapscott, teachers and students are heavily immersed in preparation for our Winter Performance, Maisie’s Journey of Friendship. In past years, we have chosen a story that we could retell. This year, we asked our incredible drama teacher Matt to write a story for us. I want to give a huge shout out to Matt, who worked with many colleagues and helped us find a way to weave our care for the environment, animals, and the climate change issues currently needing attention into the story. This story allowed us to teach students about environmental changemakers, climate change, and changes that should give us hope.

During the two weeks prior to our performance, instead of adhering to our typical class schedule, we employ a project based learning (PBL) focus and have created 90-minute blocks for students to dive deeply into different aspects of this story. They engage in making art, doing research, applying technology skills, and practicing music, dance, and singing – all related to the winter performance story and our PBL learning goals. Every year, we try to build community through a shared learning experience; practice and build upon 21st century learning skills such as collaboration, communication, and creativity; connect the power of story to the learning of people and places (and animals!); and celebrate our learning in a final presentation to our community.

We also want to help students understand that having a growth mindset means sometimes pushing through moments that are “hard” or “challenging” in some way. I have often used this visual below with students, which was shared a few years back with me at a math conference. Being “in the pit” here is seen as a good thing – a moment where your mind is stretched. We encourage kids to share when they feel they are “in the pit” as this is a way those around them can offer support and encouragement to keep learning.

As a school dedicated to deep, meaningful understanding, our hope is that our winter performance is a chance for you as parents to see how the power of a simple story can bring community together while deepening learning and developing skills for students. Please join us at one of the two winter performances this year (please plan to come to only one). This year students also worked across grades to create stop motion films, which will be playing prior to the start of the performance.

  • Thursday, December 19: 1:15 p.m. (stop motion film will begin at 1 p.m.)
  • Friday, December 20: 9 a.m. (stop motion film will begin at 8:45 a.m.)

Resources for Parents

A Quick Read
Kindness Isn’t Enough by current kindergarten parent and former elementary teacher Brett Turner is a fabulous article put out by Teaching Tolerance. What I love about Brett’s article (besides the fact that I know the author!) is the way in which it reminds me of what we value and know to be true at Prospect Sierra. This article absolutely validates why we dive into learning about identity deeply, as we know there is value in not just knowing who you are but also in having an understanding about identity as it relates to inequity, both past and present. Thank you Brett for writing such a powerful message for teachers and parents alike. While kindness is important, it is only with a “culture of justice” that we can expect kids to go out into the world and feel empowered to make needed changes.

We want to support you as you consider technology tool choices and use at home. For many students, regular technology use tends to happen outside of school. Here are some suggestions we often share with parents, and these might be especially helpful over the winter break.

  • Ideally, devices live in public spaces within the home (not bedrooms).
  • There is open discussion between parents and children about what each wants and needs so that agreements and expectations can be made in advance.
  • Your digital footprint must be discussed, as elementary students do not always understand that anything they say or do online lives forever and is connected to them. This must be discussed repeatedly as it is still a developmentally tough concept to grasp for most third and fourth graders (this is the age we are seeing that many students are now engaged in apps that allow them to communicate within a game, for example, text friends, and other online activity that requires more sophisticated communication skills and awareness than most elementary students have).
  • All forms of communication with others via text, chat, email, etc., should be closely monitored by an adult or avoided completely at this age. This means that if they aren’t comfortable with you reading or seeing what they are sending, it probably isn’t a good idea to send.
  • Parents should have passwords and access to all devices and accounts so that you can regularly monitor what is going on.
  • When something comes up that feels like it could be going down the wrong path, it is helpful to reach out to parents of students involved to be sure they know as well. Parents need to work in collaboration so that your children know you are all talking together.

If you want to research more in the area of developmentally appropriate technology use, Common Sense Media is a great tool for parents and teachers. We use this resource often and feel that it is a reliable source in terms of identifying appropriate ages for things such as online games, movies, and much more. They have reviews on current books and movies with age suggestions that are not by reading level but rather by content and include information on language, violence, etc. They have a parent concerns tab that has everything from suggestions by age to articles about very specific questions you might have around technology use.

I hope that you all have a fabulous winter break and I look forward to seeing everyone in 2020 – the start of a new decade together!



Project Based Learning Comes to Life in 7th Grade Science

Project based learning, a dynamic classroom approach in which students actively explore real-world problems and challenges and acquire a deeper knowledge about a subject, is one of many approaches that our classroom teachers use at Prospect Sierra. But what does project based learning actually look like in the classroom? And how specifically is it employed in a middle school classroom?

Every year 7th grade science teach Hannah Grimm teaches a unit on paper circuits. She recently documented her thinking and teaching process for this project for fellow educators, and by sharing this with us is able to show us how PBL comes to life in 7th grade.

Typically Hannah spends twelve days of class time on the paper circuit project, two days of introductory lessons and ten days of project time, and her goals for her students during the project are as follows:

  • Learn how electricity moves through a circuit
  • Learn how loose connections and short circuits can cause circuitry to fail
  • Learn to solder
  • Practice prototyping
  • Practice troubleshooting problems
  • Meld art and science

Hannah begins with a basic introduction to circuits, how electricity moves through them, and how buttons and switches work. Students practice working with the materials to get a pair of LEDs to light up using prototyping tools (scotch taping them down instead of soldering). Then, each student gets a soldering lesson and works on the design stage of their circuit. Next, they diagram their circuit. Each student draws a first draft in red (for the positive line) and black (for the negative) of their circuit. Hannah makes some suggestions to this draft, and then they do a second draft to scale on the actual paper they’re planning to use.

Once they’ve drawn out the second draft, they’ll cover their lines up with copper tape; this ultimately becomes the final project. They’ll first use prototyping tools (scotch tape) to make sure the different parts of the circuit work, and perhaps most importantly, here they learn how to troubleshoot. They’re given troubleshooting steps on paper and on the board that are accessible throughout the project, and Hannah helps them to understand that their circuit not working is an expected and important part of the process.

Once they’re sure their design makes sense, they begin soldering on lights and adding artwork. The first few lights test their manual dexterity, but during this stage they quickly move from nervous, shaky-handed solderers to confident adepts.

Here are some examples of how a concept translates from a diagram to the actual circuitry to a piece of art.


In addition to the goals set forth for this project, Hannah notes that this project lends itself especially well to differentiation. For example, one of the finished cards has six LEDs, the other has nearly 100. But if we go back and look at those learning objectives, both kids have succeeded! Both kids understand how electricity runs through a circuit. Each designed and prototyped their card. They both learned to solder, and had to deal w/problems in their circuitry and troubleshoot. Both integrate their circuitry with art. Most important, both are proud of what they accomplished.


The baseline for this project is doable for all students: 5 LEDs in a parallel circuit as part of a piece of art. Hannah knows that every student will hit that goal post and that most will vastly exceed it and seek ways to extend it: adding buttons, switches, origami, pop-up art, arduino microcontrollers, and more. Her advice to fellow educators seeking to create this kind of “low floor/high ceiling” activity: never forget what your goals are for the students, and make sure there is a way of reaching those goals that is accessible to every single student. From there, allowing kids the freedom to experiment and try new things is critical. Hannah often finds that students will essentially design their own extensions for this project, and many of her favorite techniques, like these animated slide buttons, were actually invented by students!

Thank you Hannah for sharing your work with the PS community and beyond so that we can deepen our own understanding of project based learning in the middle school classroom.