Project Based Learning in the Middle School Classroom


Project Based Learning.  Everyone is talking about it.  Probably because it’s a great way to get kids to care about learning.  But where do you start? What should you do? How do you find something that kids are going to get behind?


In my classroom, I use entrepreneurship.  We start out working with Junior Achievement. They are an awesome group that sends local businesspeople into classrooms to teach lessons about money and economincs, for free!  Check them out here:

They do a “start your own business” unit that sets things up well for my students.  


Once they have the basics, it’s time to step it up with some competition.  I’m lucky because in my area, there is an economic development group that sponsors a startup challenge for middle school and high school kids each year.  They hold it in a venue that typically hosts these kinds of events and secure sponsors who pay for everything, including fabulous cash prizes. However, when I started doing this, I actually just did it in my middle school library and invited the local chamber of commerce to come and hand out fake money to the kids as investors.  

Step one: help students decide what their business will be.  I try to guide them toward something they know about – pets are a perennial favorite, as well as lawnmowing and babysitting.  However, I have also had students invent something to sell or bake cookies or cupcakes.


Step two: guide students through writing up a business plan.  Check out my templates (which I give the students to help them understand what to do) here: _Youth Startup Challenge Business Plan

Step three: help students revise and edit their business plan.  This takes quite a while and involves a certain amount of math as they figure out their profit and expenses.  They tend to want to guess at how much things will cost and how much they will make, so I have to really hold them accountable for showing me where their numbers come from.


Step four: once the business plans are complete and well-done, they start on a display.  We use computer generated items for their displays. Google drive and are both great tools for creating the items to put on their display boards.


Step five: Start filling up the display board.  We use the tri-fold boards for our displays. I also have students use construction paper as a background for the graphics.  This gives a nice frame around each item and draws the eye in. I have them choose 1-2 colors to use for all of their display items.  That way, it’s more cohesive,


Step six: create business cards.  We use google slides for this. They create a slide which is their business card, then duplicate it six times.  Then, when printing, select handouts – six slides per page. This gives the correct size and ratio for the cards without having to do a lot of messing around on the computer.


Finally, hold your competition.  Invite the school board, parents, local business people, city council, the mayor – anyone who might come and oooh and ahh over your students’ work.  


Why do this sort of project?  It’s meaningful. Kids are more likely to revise and edit a paper that is going to get them into a competition than one that is just being read by an overworked teacher.  


It’s educational.  Students are learning more than just how to start a business.  They are learning graphic design, public speaking, teamwork, and written communication.  This is in addition to the experience they get from examining what makes a good business.  The analytical skills used in this project more than meet the common core standards.


It’s fun.  The kids are excited to work on it each day, which makes my job so much easier.  Instead of groaning when it’s time to do classwork, they beg for more time.


Other suggestions for success:

Teach students how to shake hands and introduce themselves.  One aspect of our work that gets the most comments at our Startup Challenge is the way the students interact with the adults.

I teach them the 10-4 rule: when an adult is 10 feet away from you, make eye contact.  When they are 4 feet away from you, reach out to shake their hand, saying “Hi, I’m ___ and I’m the CEO (or whatever title) of ___”.  


Read The Lawn Boy by Gary Paulsen to the students as you work through this project.  This book has a ton of economics based terms in it and explains them all through the story about a boy who starts a lawn mowing business.  Alternatively, there is The Lemonade War by Jacqueline Davies. Both books are great to use as you move through this project.





Expect this to take a while.  We typically start in early January and are ready for the competition in late March.  It takes about 6 weeks to get the business plans completed, revised and edited. Then, it takes another 6 weeks to get the displays ready to go.  This included the time practicing what they will say about their business in their “pitch”.


Be sure to invite your principal to your showcase.  It’s always fun for the principal to see what students can accomplish!


I have included links to the different templates I use throughout the unit below.  I have found the more structure I give the kids, the better. Since this is something of a new concept for them, extra help in setting it all up is best.

Display Boards

Business Presentation to Judges

Business Paragraph

Business Expo Display

Financial Summary Worksheet – Product

Financial Summary Worksheet – Service

Starting a Business

3 Ways I Was Teaching Vocabulary All Wrong

I have always taught vocabulary in my classroom.  In math, science and social studies classes, there are the obvious content words we need to teach for a unit.  In reading and writing, there are those words that come up during a reading passage or a writing assignment.  However, I was doing it all wrong!

What I Did Wrong


  1. I didn’t have the students say the word.  At least 12 times!  I said it when I was introducing it and occasionally as I talked about the meaning, but I never had the kids say it. Research shows that students need to say a word 12 times to truly remember it.

By having the class repeat the word as we go through the slides and talk about the words, they are beginning to make the words their own.

Jamestown vocabulary

2. I didn’t have the word in front of them with its meaning, part of speech, and word origin.  Back in the day, we used overhead projectors and I might have written the word down, even adding the meaning.  But I didn’t go over the part of speech or word origin.  I also didn’t include related words or examples.  I certainly didn’t include non-examples!  Now, I use a PowerPoint for each lesson and make a slide showing these items.

Satchel Paige Vocabulary PowerPoint


3. I didn’t review the vocabulary words for several days.  Once I had taught the words, that pretty much did it.  Now, each successive day of the unit, at the beginning of the lesson, I run through the PowerPoint again with the class.  This puts those words in front of them one more time, giving them still more chances to say the words and/or meanings out loud.

All of this seems so obvious to me, now that I’ve done it this way.

Of course, they need to also say the word out loud along with the meaning.  Don’t we learn something best by teaching it?

Of course, using this as another chance to go over parts of speech is going to help the students in grammar class.  When they are consistently seeing those words: noun, verb, adjective, adverb, etc, it’s reinforcing what they are learning elsewhere – something we all say is a good idea!

I don't know

Of course, having them see the word and say it will help.  It’s embarrassing to think of how many times I have mispronounced a word because I never heard it at the same time as I saw it.

Sometimes when I realize I haven’t been doing something as well as I could, it gets me down.  In times like that, I try to remember Maya Angelou’s words:  know better, do better. Now that I know better how to teach vocabulary, I try to do better.

What do you do to help your students learn vocabulary?  I’m always looking for other ideas!

Helping Students Learn to Write

outdoor writing

Teachers are funny creatures.  We go into teaching to help our students.  However, too many times, once we’re in the classroom, we forget they need our help.

For example, in teaching writing, we just assume they will figure it out if we encourage enough.  I was guilty of this for years.  I did my best to give interesting writing prompts, making the time for students to plan, write a rough draft, revise, edit, etc.  I thought that the less I talked about writing, or directed their writing, the more they would develop their own style.


However, I have since come to realize that isn’t really the best way for most of our students to learn to write.  Don’t get me wrong, there are some natural writers in each class that don’t need much help from me.  Give them a prompt and some time, maybe a hint or two about conventions and they’re all set.  Most students, though, need more direct instruction,

In the last couple of years, I have spent at least half of my school year giving students step by step instructions for their writing.  Think of it as the wine and painting class craze that is sweeping the nation.  When we go to one of those events, we don’t want the artist saying something like, “paint a picture of a moonlit night”, then walking around encouraging us to keep at it.  Most of us need more than that.  We’re very happy to follow the step by step directions given to create a “masterpiece” that looks something like the sample the teacher has in front of the room.

I am a writer

Does this mean we can’t eventually branch out and start painting our own ideas?  Probably not.  But without some direct instruction, we leave thinking we’re “just not cut out to be a painter”.  Do we really want our students to grow up thinking they’re “just not cut out to be a writer”?

To help my students, I now use a writing guide.  This scaffolds the writing process for them by telling them what to write in each sentence.  For instance, when writing a story, you start by introducing the characters, so I put that at the beginning of paragraph one. You can see one here Guide to Writing a Mystery

By telling students explicitly how to begin their story, and why, we help them internalize this information.

This method lets students complete a rough draft in a class period.  The more they write, the better they will get (just like any other skill), so being able to complete a rough draft quickly allows for more rough drafts.

What do you do to help students write well?  Comment below – I’m always looking for new ideas!

Creating a Tour of Canada

Sorry it’s been a while – life got in the way.


Here’s what my classes have been up to:

Touring Canada

We read about Canada from the textbook and did the obligatory end of the section questions.  We also labelled maps and watched some Discovery Channel videos.  I think it’s important to use the textbook and teach them how to answer questions from the end of the section because otherwise, when they get into higher grades, they’re clueless about it.  So we practice looking for the information, putting our finger on it, deciding how to answer the question using a complete sentence.

Now that we’ve got some background knowledge, it’s time for a little fun!

www.mrsfenger.wordpress.comMy students are planning a tour of Canada.  They can take their tour anywhere in the country they like.  We discussed possible themes for their tours: hunting, hiking, shopping, ghost towns, sports, etc.  Then they started their plans.

www.mrsfenger.wordpress.comPlanning Packet

I took them through this paper step by step.  As students filled in the blanks, we discussed possible answers they might like to put down.  I’ve found going through it together helps them complete the work more quickly.  Otherwise, many of them spend ridiculous amounts of time deciding how many days their trip will take, then never get to the rest of the packet.  🙂

I used manilla folders to organize all of their work.  The folders stay in my room.  This way, they never are stuck not being able to work because they left their papers at home.  They also won’t lose their work (which is an ongoing issue with 6th graders!)

I simply have each table group gather their folders at the end of the hour, then bring me the stack.  Each group of folders goes in a hanging folder in a crate.  The next day, I give the stack back to the table and they’re ready to go.

I also put all of the worksheets they will need in their folders to start with.  That way, they have everything they need and we don’t have to waste time handing more out.

At the beginning of the hour, I have the class look through their folder, decide what they need to work on that day (I generally give them about 4 choices).  Then, I take a chart on a clipboard and go down the list alphabetically and ask each student what their plan for the day is.  This takes about 30 seconds and I just note the date at the top, and an initial for what they’re doing.  This helps keep them accountable and I can see at a glance if they’ve spent too long on any one thing.


Now the fun part:

Each class will submit their tours at the end of this project.  I’ll choose the top 5.  Those tours will earn a Klondike bar (get it? for the Klondike Gold Rush?).  Then, the principal and counselor will choose the top tour from each class (from the top 5).  Those students earn a $5 McDonald’s gift card.  I posted a picture on the board of a Klondike bar and the McDonald’s logo to keep the prize in view.

klondike bar McDonald's

Here are the papers I used.  They have instructions, as well as point values, etc.

Canada Tour Packet 

Stopping the Tattling

tattle tale meme

I’m always amazed at how many of my sixth graders still tattle.  While I want them to report certain behaviors, sometimes it’s not really necessary.

We had a counselor a number of years ago who had a really good strategy for helping students decide whether to report a behavior.  He called it the 3 Ds.  The students needed to ask themselves whether the behavior is Dangerous, Destructive, or Disturbing.  If so, it should be reported to an adult.stopping the tattling

I still use this in my classroom today.  I teach it to the students at the beginning of the year.  We discuss what each of the terms mean and then go over examples and non-examples.  For instance, if a student is going to tell me that he saw someone using pen when they are supposed to use pencil, that would be a non-example.  We discuss together why that’s not really dangerous, disturbing or destructive.  On the other hand, if they see a student hurting another student, that would be appropriate to report.


no more tattling www.mrsfenger.wordpress.comI also talk to them about the fact that we are a team and we help each other.  Therefore, they need to report anything that does fit the 3 Ds.  Otherwise, someone or something could get hurt or damaged, and since we work together, we don’t want that.  I make a point of dealing with any behavior that is reported.  This builds trust in the students and they are more willing to report problem behavior in the future.

Between building a family kind of feeling and teaching them explicitly what should be reported, the students have a clear expectation that if they report something, it will be addressed.  I often ask students if they believe that I will deal with it, and they always say yes, they believe it.  That’s the real key, is following through after something has been reported.  Sometimes, it takes as little as a quick conversation with the other student (often they don’t realize they shouldn’t do whatever it was).  Sometimes it make require a phone call home.  Either way, the students can rest assured that it has been dealt with.

This has worked wonders with my students.  I get very little tattling, but they are clear that I want to hear about things that fit the 3 Ds.

Relationships Matter: AMLE

Just read an article that reaffirms everything I believe about teaching middle school students:

AMLE publishes a newsletter at  The article is entitled Relationships Matter by Sara Davis Powell.  It’s worth a read!  Simple things we can do to build a relationship with our students and let them know we care.

Click on the link below to see the article:

Relationships Matter article

Engaging Families in Middle School

Do your middle school students try their best to stay away from the middle school when it’s not in session?  Do your middle school parents tend to shy away from the building? Are you searching for ways to bring families into the school setting?

One way our middle school gets families engaged is by holding Curriculum Nights.  We hold a Family Math Night, a Family Science Night and a Family Language Arts Night each year.

First, the hook for kids: we offer extra credit to any student who attends.  We also offer prizes and fun activities, but, let’s be honest, it’s the extra credit that draws them in!

We plan several fun activities related to the content.  Our Family Language Arts Night is coming up next week and our theme is Read Around the World.  Plans include a photo booth with international style props, teaching a few foreign language words along with sharing a travel themed book, coloring a bookmark, creating a book poster (like a movie poster), using the computer lab to look up information about other countries, and playing Scrabble.

When families arrive, they sign in and receive a passport.  As they travel to the various stations, they get their passport stamped at each location.  When they finish, they can show their passport for a small prize before they leave.

We found several versions of printable passport templates here: or here:

We’ve also done a more structured evening, with groups enjoying opening activities during the check in period, then moving from one location to another en masse.  However, the more relaxed version we tried last year was very successful.  Busy families could come in when they were able to, join activities as their time allowed, then head out to get to their next event.

Generally speaking, our Family Nights bring in about 25% of our student population.  Given the busy schedules most families have, we see this as a rousing success!  100 middle school students coming into school in the evening is pretty impressive.