Using Project-based Learning to Emulate Real-world Experiences

When I was in elementary school, some of my favorite activities were the read-alouds conducted by our school librarian. They captured my imagination and gave me the ability to dream despite any circumstances. Yet, my enthusiasm and motivation often went away when we had to go back to class to read and work out of workbooks. My grades were average but could have been better if my learning experiences were different. 

Though I often became uninterested in class, the library visits helped me decide from a young age that I was going to grow up and become an elementary school teacher. As I grew older, I promised myself that if there was a way that I could impact the teaching profession to make learning fun and imaginative for my students, I would seek that opportunity.

Recently, while visiting the South Carolina Educational Technology Conference, I walked by a vendor whose booth allowed me to explore an electronic whiteboard. I had come across a few such boards before becoming a teacher, and I had an idea that it could be a tool to strengthen my instruction. However, because of the cost, I doubted my opportunity to receive one. Each day I would visit this booth, imagining it being in my classroom. The vendor noticed my daily visits while at the conference and inquired about them. I was able to share my visions about using the tools in my classroom and explained my love of technology. By the end of the conference, the vendor decided to gift an electronic whiteboard to my classroom.

My electronic whiteboard and personal experiences led me to create more project-based learning experiences for my students. My use and implementation of technology supports group and individual projects addressing a wide range of skills and abilities in my classroom. My students have been able to create original works through programs such as Microsoft Power-Point, Microsoft Word, Photostory, and many other web 2.0 and technology tools. Using technology when implementing and creating customized lesson plans has enabled my students to apply existing knowledge to generate new ideas.

I have provided students with opportunities to use digital media and their environments to communicate and work collaboratively, including at a distance, to support their individual learning and contribute to the learning of others. I accomplish this by using digital homework and classwork assignments, as well as web 2.0 tools. These projects have brought real-world experiences into my classroom and allowed students to apply the skills they are developing to their own lives.

Project-based learning encourages cooperative learning –  and both address a wide range of skills and abilities in the classroom. I believe cooperative learning is a powerful teaching tool.  It helps children learn how to work together, share their strengths, and provide a support system for each other. Duties assigned within these groups encourage self-esteem and independence; minimizing fear and frustration that may be associated with learning the content. It also supports children in feeling they contribute equally to the group, despite deficits they may be working to overcome. 

The use of technology in creating project-based learning experiences has allowed my students to engage with their work in a different and deeper way. I’ve found it to be a powerful tool in my classroom. It has allowed us to move away from the worksheets that I myself was uninterested in as a student. By combining project-based learning and classroom technology, I’ve been able to bring more fun and imagination into the curriculum and I encourage other teachers to explore the various resources and ways tech could be used to bring new energy to their classrooms.

Stephanie Johnson is a 2nd-grade teacher in Columbia, SC, where she has been teaching for 14 years. Stephanie is certified in elementary education and administration and is also National Board certified in early/middle childhood literacy. She received a Bachelor of Arts in English and a Master of Arts in Teaching from the University of South Carolina and also earned a master’s degree in Executive Leadership from Gardner Webb University. Stephanie was a 2018 Lowell Milken Educator for Unsung Heroes Fellow and a 2017 Horace Mann Award for Teaching Excellence recipient, one of five educators from across the country to receive the annual honor.