“”I think there’s this misconception that there’s no structure in PBL, that it’s just kids fluidly moving towards the completion of projects, but as a facilitator, we know it’s highly structured, it’s just INVISIBLE.”- Kristin Damburger, Instructional Coach

How will you build a collaborative and reflective classroom culture at the start of the new school year? 

One of the biggest misconceptions teachers new to deep, project-based experiences have, is that students, when given an engaging topic or hook, will magically get to work right away: find partners, collaborate with ease, divide tasks and identify strengths; while the teacher sits back and takes pictures.

And while this is a nice goal, it’s hardly the way it happens.

Learner-centered environments are the result of countless activities, conversations and routines that hone the self-management, collaborative and reflective skills of the learners who inhabit them.

As learner-centered practitioners, we have to build those skills from Day One of the new school year.

Here are five quick and easy activities to build those skills in your students this August:

  1. Shape Challenge: Divide students into 5 equal teams. Draw a shape on a small whiteboard so that only you can see it. Set the timer for 1 minute, turn the shape around and ask students to form it in their teams. Repeat the activity with progressively harder shapes and less time on the clock. Reflect by fishbowling successful groups and asking them to share their winning strategies.
  2. Classroom Contract Skits: Divide students into 5 equal teams just like the last activity. Tell teams that they will be creating two skits: One to act out an undesirable classroom behaviour, and one (after ‘rewinding’) to act out the hoped classroom behaviour. At the end of all performances, create a collective classroom contract of the 5 expectations that everyone signs with a handprint.
  3. Rapid Bridge Design Challenge: Design challenges are not only a ton of fun; they also help model the divergent thinking, task division, and idea generation necessary for success in DEEPER learning experiences. For this activity, face two desks together at the front of the classroom at least two feet apart. Divide students into 5 teams and supply them with 2 sheets of paper, 5 pieces of tape, 2 pipe cleaners, 3 paper clips, and 1 small piece of cardboard. Tell them that they will have 15 minutes to design a bridge between the two tables that can support the weight of a toy car. At the end of the allotted time, have each team try out their bridge and reflect on the process they used to devise it.
  4. Learning Style Exploration and Presentations: Our classrooms include diverse learners of all backgrounds and learning styles. Use the beginning of the year to help each student own their style and communicate it to others. First have them take this short questionnaire. Next, have them group up according to their learning style (kinaesthetic, auditory, or visual). Provide each group with a large sheet of butcher paper, some markers, and the simple instructions of sharing their learning style with the other two groups. Spotlight each group during the presentations and evidence of where you observed their learning style in action.
  5. Circle Games: These games are wonderful for building whole class collaborative skills. Circle up your entire class and establish the ground rules: Be kind, Be helpful, Be inclusive. Game #1: Tell students they must count to 30 with each student saying a different number. If two students say a number at the same time, they go back to ‘1.’ Add a layer of challenge by making them close their eyes. Game #2: Invisible fireball pass: Pretend to hold a ball of fire between your two hands. Tell the student on the left and right of you that they must shield themselves from the fireball by placing up the hand closest to the ball. Next, take the invisible ball of fire and throw it to someone else in the circle. (must say their name) When that student catches the ball, the peers on their right and left must shield themselves immediately. Speed up the pace of play. If students don’t shield themselves fast enough, they are out. Get down to two students and reflect by asking the winners to share what allowed them to be successful. Here are several more circle games to build a collaborative culture.

Building a reflective and collaborative culture is not easy.

Yet by taking the time to build collaborative skills in low risk activities at the beginning of the year, you will be ready to embark on the DEEPER, more meaningful learning experiences that demand mastery of them.

Have a great start to the year!