It's {almost} a Wrap! 2014-2015 Top 10 Highlights #7 School Budget Project

6 more days of school....and counting. I'm loving my kiddos right now and I love the projects we are wrapping up, but man I would love to be on summer break relaxing and chipping away at my to-do list. We just moved into our new home a few weekends ago and a few things are still in boxes and we are still trying to figure out where some of our furniture will land. We've spent most of our time painting, but thankfully, that's almost finished.

It has really been fun to reflect on this past school year and try to come up with my (and my students') favorite highlights. Today I'm sharing our "$20,000 School Budget Project" that I launched at the beginning of the year. With a new school environment, I had the mission to attempt Project Based Learning with kiddos that I did not yet know in an environment that I was not yet fully settled in. But, I already felt that project-based, real-world learning is a great way to make an impact, be relevant, and keep kids engaged and motivated.

What is Project-Based Learning?

The Buck Institute for Education describes a "gold-standard" for project-based learning units. In late 2014, BIE developed a new model for Gold Standard PBL that focuses on "Essential Project Design Elements" that identify what it means to implement PBL well. The Design Elements include:

* a Challenging Problem or Question (formerly "Driving Question")

* Sustained Inquiry

* Authenticity

* Student Voice and Choice

* Reflection

* Critique and Revision

* Public Product

and the central focus of the project should be the learning goals, described as "Key Knowledge, Understanding, and Success Skills"

It is a tall order to meet all of these criteria, and I will admit that our PBL's this year would not meet the "gold standard," but I do think it is important to have something to aim for {implementing high-quality PBL and not just calling a project "project-based learning"} and I know that our PBL projects made an impact and lots of memories for my students' 4th grade year. (The article I pulled this information from was just published on May 11, 2015, so the model I used to plan my PBL's earlier this year is now a little outdated and using the old language. Anywho--I hope to share more informative posts about PBL with you as I plan for next year's PBL units.)

First, I began planning by looking at my standards and deciding what would work best for the beginning of the year. I like to teach my government unit at the beginning of the year because it's the time when we are establishing a community, establishing routines and rules, and well, governing. I wanted to create a unit that was "real-world" enough that it would be meaningful and memorable for my students. I always look at my government standards (whether I'm in 4th or 5th grade) and think "This could be so much more than the 3 branches. How can I get my students actively learning about government?"

I decided to focus on our school budget (as it hit real-world math, social studies, communication, and collaboration) as a way to understand what Congress does. My students acted as a school congress by brainstorming budget ideas, developing a survey, interviewing constituents for their needs (staff and students), analyzing data from surveys, prioritizing and negotiating budget items and getting as close to $20,000 as possible, then reducing the budget by $5,000 (the local boards/principal cut funding!).

Here's a basic outline of the phases of our project. 

Our Guiding Question was: 

What budget decisions will allow us to maximize our impact as we are charged with the mission of improving our school? 

We worked as a class to develop a survey that would provide us with feedback and hard data to inform our budget decisions. I did a lesson on open-ended questions versus questions that would give you quality data using an "ice cream party" planning example. {If you just ask everyone what type of ice cream they would like, we could potentially get 20 different flavors. If you limit peoples choices, then you have a greater chance of collecting data that will help you make a decision.}

Students were assigned constituents (specific grade levels and staff members) to survey. They interviewed students and staff and tried to gather data about improvements that were needed and desired at our school. 

If I implement a project similar to this next year, I want to ask one classroom to volunteer to be our test-group so that we can try our survey questions out before we engage the whole school in interviews and then we can revise our questions to help us collect better information. One of the main elements of PBL I want to increase next year is the "Critique and Revision" phase. At the end of our projects, I have my students complete a reflection. One of the questions is "What would you do differently if you had more time to work on this project?" Next year, I actually want them to ask that question throughout the process, have an opportunity to share their work and get feedback, and take time to revise before showcasing our work to a larger audience.

What we found in the data: 

After much discussion and many challenges, students created an itemized budget for our principal. Prior to our meeting with him, we emailed our proposed budget with a cover letter. 

Students created a presentation (whole-class collaboration through google slideshow) where they shared their rationale for each budget item, ideas that had been ruled out, challenges of the project, and what they felt they had learned by doing the project. Some of the ideas for our presentation came from students' reflections prior to our presentation. {Much was said about "arguing too much" and "talking over one another when someone was sharing an idea.} Here's a peak at our presentation:

Our presentation to our principal created our authentic audience and our project culmination. Students worked in groups based on the section in the presentation they wanted to work on (explanation of budget, recommendations, rejected ideas, and reflections). Each student had at least one slide to present. Actually having my students present in front of our board of directors would have been an awesome "next step."

1) Students worked in small groups and sometimes I split the class into two larger groups. They had to learn to communicate without talking over one another and without starting side conversations. This was tough, but it was great to watch them develop their skills over time (and at the beginning of the year!). It was also nice to hear them voice their frustrations with being talked over and feeling like their ideas were not listened to in our closing reflections each day. Groups that functioned better than others were those who decided on specific norms they would use when in their committee groups.

2) Students quickly developed the notion that they should start by spending the money on the items that would impact the most students. For example, a smartboard in the art room would impact all students because every student has art twice a week. (Definitely a real-world concept and a great way to walk in the shoes of administrators, local commissioners, board members, and congress).

3) Students quickly learned the difference between wants, wishes, and true needs. Once they saw the cost of the items, wishes quickly got crossed off the list. I gave students a few minutes at the beginning of the project to go crazy on what they would LOVE to spend the money on. A pool on the roof had lots of support. After I allowed them to dream, I asked them to focus on realistic needs. Students were able to do this well and it shows in how they prioritized certain items in the budget.

4) When surveying younger grades, students learned that 1) some of their questions were not written very well and students had to find a way to restate their question on the spot, 2) it is often hard to get the information you are looking for out of an open-ended question, and 3) little kids sometimes don't have anything to say when you ask their opinion, but when they are your constituents, you have to try to get some opinions from them.

5) Many recommended budget items were actually purchased throughout our school year. The tarp for our sandbox was in definite need of replacement. We had a parent donate one, but when my students saw it, they immediately thought it was purchased by the principal because of their suggestion. We ordered Project Lead the Way (STEM) kits for K-5. My students had weighed the pros and cons of getting one kit per grade level or two kits per grade level and decided that it was our most important budget item, so they should make the investment in both kits for all grades. And, our art teacher will be getting a smartboard next year! How cool for my students to have made an impact on how the school budget is spent!?!?!

I hope that this post has given you some ideas for implementing a government or project based learning unit. I realize that I did not detail all of my lessons or steps, but I hope to revise this unit for next year (as my new students need something a little different). When I have the materials ready, I will be sure to let you know!