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Successful Planning for Authentic Learning

By Shari Edwards on May 15, 2013
  • Grades: 1–2, 3–5

Have you ever found yourself in the middle of a big project when you realize a little more planning would have been useful? Have you ever felt like you were being swallowed by a project that is growing faster than you can handle? Whether you are a beginner at project-based learning (PBL) or a seasoned vet, you can probably identify with the dreaded "out of control" feeling that can take over your classroom when a project outgrows your plans!

Thoughtful selection of a topic and purposeful pre-planning of an inquiry- and project-based learning unit are critical to its overall success! The week before a project begins, my mind is racing and full of plans and ideas. I have to sit myself down and tell myself, "Shari, you can't do it all!"

Planning the project is one of my favorite parts of bringing authentic learning into my cgirls measuring canoelassroom. Let's consider a few important steps to making a unit successful and worth the extra effort. I will use my current unit, The Uncle Reuben Project, to illustrate my points.

(Authentic learning in my classroom may look slightly different than what you might find on an official PBL site, because I use a mixture of project-, problem-, and inquiry-based learning with interdisciplinary studies. In this way I can fit portions of the learning into different subject areas and cover multiple standards in the most intriguing and connected way for my students.)


Select the Topic and Align Activities to the Standards

Possible topics are everywhere. I look through my current curriculum and pacing guides and if there is a topic coming up that typically invention time line workinterests my students, I look for possible projects that will enhance their skills and understanding. Smart teachers choose topics they find interesting, as it helps to be personally vested in something that takes so much of your time.

I look at my standards and try to find some that need more coverage than what the curriculum provides. There are many opportunities for students to apply skills in a well-planned PBL unit.



Plan the Big Picture and Develop Driving Questions

I look for a topic that will fit into a variety of disciplines and after I've found it, I'm ready to plan! I'm a big-picture person, so I usually take a step back and look at all the possibilities that surround the topic. planning sheetThis is when I bring out my plan sheets and, with my standards and curriculum close by, I begin building my unit. With the time constraints most of us work under today, it is much more efficient if I can intersperse activities throughout the day rather than try to do everything during a few social studies or science sessions each week. You can download my interdisciplinary plan sheets by clicking the image to the right.

My plan sheets for The Uncle Reuben Project show a wide variety of academic and art applications. By “zooming out” from the topic, I can see how activities connect and enhance it.

Driving or essential questions keep the unit moving by reminding us where we are going. Reviewing and answering the questions often helps my students process their new learning. These questions should be related to standards, be open-ended, and be something teacher and students will be able to answer in different ways throughout the unit. They need to be broad rather than narrow. Read some examples below.

Our driving questions for "The Uncle Reuben Project" are as follows:

working on time lines

  • What can we learn about U.S. history and geography by studying Uncle Reuben?
  • What can we learn about Uncle Reuben by studying U.S. history and geography?

It's amazing how many times we have answered these same questions! We sit down together once or twice a week during our unit to ask the questions and add to our growing list of answers. It helps them re-examine what they've learned and review what we have accomplished.


Build in the Rigor and Relevance

I enjoy pepperdioramaing the unit with activities that immerse my students in the topic and make it relevant to them. My students need to retain their sense of enjoyment and wonder about our project or their interest will fizzle out and the work will become a labor instead of a joy. I sprinkle music with lyrics, movement, and art around the unit where it's relevant to involve the right side of their brains in the learning. That being said, the tasks and activities should be rigorous or the unit can turn to fluff and lose its power.


Sample Activities

We have been working with and creating time lines in our project. Students examine several types of time lines, choose the best type for the task, and create a time line of their own lives, as well as Uncle Reuben's.

ledger mathThey work with pages from Uncle Reuben's farm ledger and check his math with and without calculators. The study of money notation suddenly becomes real when they are checking the math on a receipt for supplies Uncle Reuben purchased for his farm. In this study they are required to concentrate on dollars and cents, price per item, and a quantity column.

I hand them transcribed copies of pages from Uncle Reuben's travel journal. The vocabulary is rich but difficult, but that doesn't stop my students from working! They can't wait to find out what Uncle Reuben has to say! It's a great way to get students into complex and challenging text.

We have been reading lyrics and singing songs from the 1920s. "When the Red, Red Robin" and "Put on a Happy Face" are fun to sing, and having the lyrics in front of students helps them practice their reading fluency using music!

Check back next week for more activities, tools, realia, and music that can be included in an interdisciplinary unit.

Resources to Help Get You Started

Resources for the Uncle Reuben Project

Resources for Learning More About Project-Based Learning

How do you increase rigor and make work relevant to your students?

Comments (5)

Wow! It is inspiring to see teachers driving the extra mile!! I truly believe that we learn by doing. Creating projects in a classroom with meaningful purpose is what makes the 21 century education big!! Thanks for sharing this beautiful ideas!!

Hi Joanna! I believe my students learn much more this way. They are completely engaged when we are in the middle of one of our projects. You're right, 21st Century students are who we are educating and this ways seems to fit their style of learning better than anything else. Thanks for your comment!

Thank you for the kind words, Lisa! I agree with you!

This is the way children learn the best! It's also how to bring the joy back in teaching! The notion that teachers should carefully follow almost scripted curriculum guides day in and day out has sucked the life out of our classrooms. I can see how energized your students and you are with the projects you choose, Shari. The students will remember the skills they learned because they had purpose. Bravo!

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