Cleveland Schools Book Fund

Article Share: The Power of Project Based Learning

Screech Owls, Super Soakers, and School Gardens

Originally published on Kappan online, written by Miranda S. Fitzgerald, Annemarie Sullivan Palincsar | Jan 29, 2024 | Feature Article

Leon, in his efforts as a student ornithologist, surreptitiously attempted to slip a field guide into his backpack before his conscience got the better of him: “I had one in my backpack, but I had to put it back in the box. I didn’t really ask. I just wanted to keep it a secret so I can just learn more about the eastern screech owls.” Leon was a student in a classroom we were observing in a study of how elementary-grade teachers integrate literacy learning in the context of project-based science instruction. Over a year of observation, we were encouraged by the motivation and engagement of students in these classrooms.

For example, teachers found themselves in the unfamiliar position of hiding books. One teacher told us, “I kept [a book about the NASA scientist and designer of the Super Soaker, Lonnie Johnson] in the closet because I thought, ‘OK, this book is really going to end up not coming back to the shelf.’”

Teachers commented on students’ excitement about reading and their willingness to try challenging text:

” I … was able to see the excitement from them, whether it was a book [or] when they read something online … even some of their independent projects, they spun off of what we were doing in science or wanting to use their Chromebooks to look up information.” 

Students’ inquiries were not limited to the classroom. A teacher told us:

We’d be out on the playground and the kids would be so excited if they saw a bird or saw a smaller bird, probably a sparrow, going after a hawk and they would ask, “Why does that sparrow keep following that hawk up there?” I’ve heard the kids out there talk about the types of wings they have and [say things like], “Oh, I bet those are up there … I bet that … they’re looking for little mice or something down in that field.”

This teacher attributed these shifts in student behavior to “confidence as a learner,” that grew from the reading, writing, speaking, and listening that were part of project-based learning (PBL).

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