Are you looking for ways to hold your students’ interest and ignite their passion for learning? Look no further! In today’s blog post, we will explore project based learning ideas that are guaranteed to engage and inspire your students. By integrating classroom learning with practical application, students will develop critical thinking, problem-solving, and collaboration skills. These are all essential skills needed for success in the 21st century. So, let’s get ready to transform your classroom as we dive into these awesome project based learning ideas!
Personal Classroom Experience
This year will be my second year teaching a strictly project based learning class. Last year, we tackled the real-world experience of creating a mini-golf course, complete with a restaurant. Students created websites, envisioned and implemented complex mini-golf courses with fun themes, and caculated prices. They also solved issues around seasonal scheduling, made advertisements, and tackled so many other challenges that arise when beginning and running a small business. It incorporated economics, math, art, design, engineering, and so much more.
I have been utilizing project based learning far longer than teaching this particular class. From my students creating zoos to learn area and perimeter from my history class completing WWII projects, to real-world science projects, it has always been one of my most favorite educational approaches. Chances are, you, as a teacher, have implemented project based learning, even if you didn’t realize it.
Project Based Learning Definition
Project based learning is an educational method in which students learn through real-world experiences. PBL was first widely implemented around the 1960s in medical schools. Project based learning was quite active in the science and math world, especially in medicine, technology, and engineering. However, project based learning has been around much longer. John Dewey, an educational pioneer, in the late 1800s, was formative in project based learning. He believed students should not be passive learners in their education, but active participants. Researchers of project based learning trace this practice back to Confucius in 550 BCE. Confucius is famous for stating, “I hear and I forget. I see, and I remember. I do and I understand.”
Student-Centered Approach to Education
One thing that can be agreed upon is that project based learning is simply education by “doing.” It is a student-led way of learning that involves giving choice and autonomy. In a nutshell, project based learning is a student-centered approach to education. Students solve real-world problems or learn a specific topic through exploration, engaging in research, collaborating with students, and applying their newly-acquired knowledge to solve problems or to display in a meaningful project. The project is edited, receives feedback, revised, and finally presented. Project based learning is less about the final product or destination, but more about the journey along the way. The learning is in the process with project based learning.
5 Advantages of Project Based Learning
We have a more in-depth blog post about the 5 advantages of PBL, tips for implementing, and the characteristics of this educational method. We recommend starting there.
Project Based Learning Ideas in Language Arts
When doing a deep-dive into project based learning, there are so many opportunities to learn social studies, science, economics, and math through this approach. Language arts is an area where project based learning is not as readily explored. Since project based learning involves attempting to solve a real-world problem, and most of what students read in language arts is fictional, it can be hard to find a connecting point.
How Do We Do This in Language Arts?
Within language arts, it may be challenging to find a real-world problem to solve. If it is not readily accessible, the approach of exploration and research can be utilized. Exploration and research is a subsect of PBL and can be easily used within language arts.
Project Based Learning Ideas in Themes
When reading a novel or short story with students, look at themes. What is the theme of what we’re reading? How can we take that theme and turn it into more research, exploration, and connection? How can we display our knowledge of this theme in a way that we can teach our classmates about something new?
Theme of Identity: The Outsiders by SE Hinton
When reading The Outsiders by SE Hinton, the theme of identity can be explored as students research the various social groups and identities students take on throughout school. Students can display their findings in a Google Slides, Canva poster, or Canva infographic. I have had students create their own identity group that is not readily known. One group of students created the Starbucks Girls Group and some of my male students created the Weights-Lifting Crew. Students dove into the specific theme of identity, connected with it on a personal level, researched, collaborated, and presented their findings in a meaningful display.
Theme of Unlikely Friendship: James and the Giant Peach by Roald Dahl
After reading James and the Giant Peach, by Roald Dahl, the theme of unlikely friendship can be explored as students create a poster showing each of James’ new friends, their connections, and special relationships. Students then, create their own display of their friends, from pets to classmates, from special family members to teammates. Students connected with the theme and characters, displayed their theme, and presented their connections.
Theme of Loyalty: Rikki-Tikki-Tavi by Rudyard Kipling
Project based learning can work with picture books and short stories. After reading Rikki-Tikki-Tavi with sixth graders, students explored the theme of loyalty, while incorporating science, as they researched how mongooses are especially useful in yards in India because of their reputation for attacking and keeping out venomous snakes. This theme project can be presented in a variety of ways, incorporating choice for students. From an Canva informational brochure to a Google Slides presentation, students choose how they want to display their newly acquired information.
Theme of How Names Shape Our Identity: The Name Jar by Yangsook Choi
In The Name Jar by Yangsook Choi, students explore the theme of how names shape our identity by doing a deep-dive into their name meaning, interviewing their parents on how their name was chosen, and finally displaying their personality traits in an art activity. Grab this mini-project for free here:
PBL Cross-Curricular Opportunities in Language Arts
Project Based Learning Ideas: Settings
Many books incorporate real-world settings, even if it is fictional. Historical fiction novels are some of my favorite to teach because of how much real-world information students can learn, explore, and research. Authors incorporate real settings and time periods such as The Great Depression, Civil Rights movement, WWII, and so on and so forth as a backdrop for fictional characters.
PBL: Setting and Historical Elements
Esperanza Rising by Pam Munoz
In Esperanza Rising by Pam Munoz, so many historical elements are explored from The Mexican Civil War, The Great Depression, The Dust Bowl, “Okies,” Immigration, and Repatriation to name a few. Students can connect with the setting of the novel and learn more about the history behind it in various projects.
A huge theme in Esperanza Rising is food. Each chapter is named after a fruit or vegetable they are harvesting or a dish they are making. Each of these food titles is symbolic of something in the story. Cooking, especially for this novel, is a project based learning activity that is quite hands-on, incorporates many standards, and allows the reader to connect to the deep theme of food. Food is crucial to the characters’ culture. Oftentimes, the dishes shows when they are in plenty and when they are lacking. Cooking is how they bond. The food dishes are also a comfort to Esperanza as everything else is changing around her.
In our latest resource, we have included two specific recipes that were mentioned in the book that you can use with your class to teach Esperanza Rising.
Grab our Esperanza Rising 14 Research Projects for the project specifically about the history behind the novel, along with other hands-on activities.
For more activities on Esperanza Rising, take a look at a previous blog post.
Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry by Mildred D. Taylor
In Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry by Mildred D. Taylor, the history of racism, prejudice, slavery, and The Great Depression are all traversed. Students can choose a topic in history to learn more about and display their findings through a quote and research project. This is a basic project any teacher can implement. Students pick a historical topic that acts as a setting in the book, and pull around 10 quotes from the novel that show this setting. Next, students connect the quote to the setting and to a real historical fact through pictures and explanation. Students display the quote, historical fact, and explanation in a type of spiderweb map either on posterboard or an online presentation.
PBL: Setting and Science Fiction
The Wild Robot by Peter Brown
Setting does not always have to explore a historical time period, but can also investigate the location itself, while incorporating science. The Wild Robot by Peter Brown, takes place on a remote, wild island with many animal inhabitants. From bears to otters, from fish to deer, from foxes to geese, students have ample opportunity to research a specific animal from the island, complete a project, and present it to the class in a jigsaw cooperative strategy.
Another intriguing setting investigation for this book involves figuring out where this specific island is located. The author never reveals the name of the island in the novel. Students can use text-based evidence to prove which island the author is referring to by investigating the types of animals on it, the climate, the landscape, and weather. Students then research various islands to come up with a hypothesis on the island Peter Brown picked for his book.
Check out our The Wild Robot blog post here.
PBL Cross-Curricular Opportunities in Real-World Problems
A big part of PBL is that students try to solve a real-world problem. This type of PBL is authentic. Many books, even if fictional, have real-world problems that students can tackle or even may have to face in their lives one day. Many of these real-world problems incorporate other subjects such as science, math, or social studies.
In The Stone Fox by John Reynolds Gardiner, the main character, Willy, faces a real financial problem. The farm he and his grandfather live on will be foreclosed due to back-taxes. Students can explore how to solve this problem if there were no dog-sled contest to win, or if Little Willy had not placed first.
In Hatchet by Gary Paulsen, Brian Robeson, a thirteen year old boy, is stranded in the Canadian forest after his plane crashes into a lake. A project students can tackle is creating a raft diorama or mini version of a raft Brian could build and use to navigate a river off of the lake to find help. This is a real-world problem that students can face (even though we hope they do not). The River Raft project incorporates critical thinking, STEAM, and so much more.
Find this project along with more in our Hatchet 12 Research Projects (STEAM).
A Long Walk to Water by Linda Sue Park is a novel that tackles real-world issues that affect real lives.
A Long Walk to Water begins as two stories, told in alternating sections, about two eleven-year-olds in Sudan, a girl in 2008 and a boy in 1985. The girl, Nya, is fetching water from a pond that is two hours’ walk from her home. She makes two trips to the pond every day. The boy, Salva, becomes one of the “lost boys” of Sudan, refugees who cover the African continent on foot as they search for their families and for a safe place to stay.
Enduring every hardship from loneliness to attack by armed rebels to contact with killer lions and crocodiles, Salva is a survivor, and his story goes on to intersect with Nya’s in an astonishing and moving way. Includes an afterword by author Linda Sue Park and the real-life Salva Dut, on whom the novel is based, and who went on to found Water for South Sudan.
Students can tackle the real-world project of finding water for Sudan. They can investigate how to avoid the long walks they must make. Last, they can compare it to the real-life Salva Dut and how he found a way to bring and keep clean water for South Sudan. A project of this scope can incorporate science, history, and social justice.
Project based learning can be fully implemented in language arts classes. Students can explore theme, settings, and real-world problems present in literature. Thinking outside of the box and taking a student-centered approach, virtually any story or book can be investigated through project based learning. The key to remember is that students take the educational journey of learning along the way. It is not the destination, but what is learned throughout the project that matters most. We hope you will take some time to look at the literature you teach and how to best incorporate PBL in your classroom.
Check out our Printable Cursive Alphabet Posters with ELA Book Characters for your upper elementary to middle school classroom.
Each letter has the name and picture of a book character from an upper elementary to middle school novel. In addition, it not only helps with cursive handwriting but introduces students to characters from different upper elementary and middle