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

Running as a Metaphor for Teaching

I was out for my run this morning, and I got thinking about how similar running and teaching are.  I have been running for about 10 years.  I wasn’t a runner as a kid.  I thought it sounded good, but the actual work of running wasn’t appealing, so I never got into it.  I’m a recent convert.  I like to tell people I run, since no one ever asks if I run fast.  I don’t.  I’m slower than a turtle going through peanut butter.

Anyway, I find that teaching has a lot in common with running.  For instance, you have good runs and bad runs.  There’s never a reason behind a run being good or bad.  Yesterday, I went out for my run and felt amazing.  It was cold, windy and early in the morning (none of which are good in my book!), but my running felt good.  I finished and felt so proud that I had accomplished a run.

Then, today.  It was awful.  I had to take a number of walking breaks.  I hated every minute of it.  I was in a  terrible mood when I got back (no runner’s high for me!)  It was just plain yucky.   Beautiful, sunny sky, warmer than yesterday, not as windy, later in the morning.  None of that mattered.

I have those kinds of days teaching, too.  Some days, everything just clicks.  No reason for it to be a good day, but there it is.  Friday was just such a day in my classroom.  Full moon, Friday, big unit test.  All things that should have caused the kids to be a problem.  Even a mix up with the unit test and I gave them the pre-test for the next unit instead of the test we had been prepping for.  None of it stopped them.  They worked hard, were happy to be in school and generally had a great day!

Then there are the days where you’ve planned everything out.  You’ve got an exciting lesson plan, full of fun activities that will lead to those light bulb moments.  Until everything falls apart.  You know how that goes – you expect it to be wonderful and it’s NOT.  Everyone frowns as they leave for the day.

Teaching is like training for a race.  You put in the hours, day in and day out, slogging through the tough workouts, until the day when it all pays off.  Friday, it paid off for me.  I have a student who has been failing my class all year (and everyone else’s).  I’ve been working with him every day to get his work for the week caught up.  Friday afternoon, he had everything done and got to hang out with his friends for the last half hour of the day, instead of catch up on work.  He was so excited!

What else is a metaphor for the hard work of teaching?  What do you compare it to?

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 

United States Social Studies Projects

www.mrsfenger.wordpress.comAs we study the United States in my class, we’ve been using projects to demonstrate learning.  This has actually been quite a challenge for my students, who are used to worksheets with fill in the blank or multiple choice questions.

We generally have spent about 2 weeks studying a region of the United States.  We started in the Northeast.  When we finished watching some Discovery Education videos and reading from the textbook, we then spent time researching basic facts about each state.  This was a great chance for students to practice researching online.  They had to find the origin of the state’s name, the year it became a state, it’s state motto, song, tree, bird, etc.  Interestingly, that was the first they had experienced the idea that states have mottos, songs, etc.

We then moved on to the South.  As they studied the South, we watched a video about the Appalachian Trail.  This fascinated my  The idea of hiking for months at a time was a new idea for them.  Their project this time was creating a brochure about a shelter on the Trail.  This required research online to get information about the shelter.

The Appalachian Trail Brochure Rubric

The biggest challenge was when we studied the Midwest.  Their project was to create a Midwest Amusement Park.  www.mrsfenger.wordpress.comThey were given certain pieces of information they had to include, and a 12/18 sheet of white construction paper.  Again, research was needed to get the information for the rides, restaurants, etc.

Create a Midwest Amusement Park

Finally, for the Western states, we made videos.  www.mrsfenger.wordpress.comUsing the iPod touches that I have available, each small group made a video showing information about the region.  We then mirrored the videos on the smartboard.  Since I have a class that needs more structure than that, they created scenes on paper, which we then videotaped as they were moved into view.  This allowed the students to still participate in making a video, but with more structure to the process.

Each of these projects were seen as “fun” for the students, but also provided a challenge for all levels of learners.  We’re moving on to Canada next – I’ll have to think about what to do with the Provinces!

United States Social Studies Ideas

www.mrsfenger.wordpress.comFor the first time in a lot of years, I’m teaching social studies.  It’s actually been kind of fun.  After 2 years of teaching a highly scripted curriculum, the idea that I can plan my own lessons is quite liberating!

We’ve been working on the United States, with a lot of success.  Our book divides it into 4 regions, so we’ve worked on a region at a time.  Before we began, I gave the students a map of the United States and asked them to write down all the states and capitals they could.  Obviously, they weren’t able to do many.

Then, we started with the Northeast United States.  The formula I’ve found for studying each region is:

Day 1 – we watch a video from Discovery Education about the region. These are great because they have discussion questions embedded in the video.

Day 2 & 3 – we read the section from the book and discuss what we’re reading.  While I would like to think they can understand what they read as they go, trust me, they need a LOT of help!

Day 4 – start a project to use what they have learned.

At the end of the second week, we have a quiz over the states and capitals of that region.

After the first quiz, I started giving them the previous quiz(zes) along with the current one.  Research shows the best way to learn information to be tested over it.  So, while they don’t get a grade on the old quiz, it’s a good way for them to pull that information back out of their brains.  Most of them take it very seriously and do their best on the review quizzes, even though it’s not for a grade.

www.mrsfenger.wordpress.comI also started the first quiz handback giving students who got 100% a Starburst (because they are stars).  While it won’t necessarily motivate someone who refuses to study, it’s a nice little reward to those who do.  They LOVE it (I know, what they won’t do for a little piece of candy!)

In my next post, I’ll share the projects we’ve been doing.  It’s been fun to see the creative ways their minds think!

Four Strategies to Get Students to Participate

Getting Students to ParticipateI think every teacher, at some time, has had trouble getting a class to talk, raise their hands, pretend to listen…

When that happens, I often feel like the teachers you see on the movies – standing there, asking a question, waiting, answering it myself, asking a simpler question, waiting, answering it myself………

How many of you have felt that way?  Come on, raise your hand – you know that’s happened!

My class this year is like that.  I have about 3 students who always have their hand raised, begging to be called on.  Then there are the other 28 who sit back, either completely zoned out or hoping I won’t notice them.

Here are some strategies that I have found to be successful *disclaimer – not all strategies work all the time and some strategies don’t work with certain students and using these strategies will not make you rich…

Getting Students to Participate

Getting Students to Participate

First, if it’s a piece of information they’re going to need, like what is a setting, or what is the predicate of a sentence, I have them repeat the definition with me as a class several times.  Then, I ask what it is, and remind them they should all have their hands up.  Then, I call on someone, get the correct answer (I usually stack the deck and call on someone I can be sure will have the right answer), give praise for getting it right, ask it again, call on someone, get the right answer, praise them, ask it again…you get the idea.  Then, throughout the year, I bring that back up and ask the question.  The kids like this method because it lets them feel like they know an answer and because I try to make it fun and silly.  Sometimes I’ll act surprised that they know it (that usually gets a laugh, since they have been drilled on it so many times).

Second, I’ll give them about 30 seconds to check their answer with their group.  I find this is effective because if they don’t know the answer, they hear it from a group member, and if they do know it, they can check to make sure they’re right before saying it in front of the class.

Third, I use sticks to randomly call on students, AFTER having them check their answer with their group.  Then, I don’t let them say I don’t know.  Occasionally I’ll give them a hint, or let them off the hook after some uncomfortable silence.  In those cases, I ask the group if they helped out that student.  If so, it’s a good lesson for them to listen when the group is talking.  *Note – I warn them before talking to their group that they will be called on randomly and I won’t take I don’t know.  Otherwise, it feels like a “gotcha” situation.

Fourth, I have a poster on my wall with things to say other than “I don’t know”.

  •  Can I please have more information?
  •  Can you please repeat the question?
  •  Can I please have more time?

By reminding them that they have other options, they are more likely to try to answer.  Occasionally they’ll use one of those questions and I always praise them for doing that.  We’ve all zoned out during a presentation before, so I try to be understanding about that (but they’re not allowed to zone out every time!)

  1. Finally, I have been known to threaten that if they don’t talk to their groups and participate with the discussion (and pretend to listen to me) they’ll have to write their answers instead.  I know we’re not supposed to use writing as a punishment, but I say “I need to know you’re understanding this and if you won’t talk to your group or me about it, I have to ask you to write your answers down.”  That usually motivates them to be part of the discussion.

One bonus strategy: (and this one takes a while to set up) I also spend a lot of the year building up their confidence and telling them how smart they are.  Often, I find these kids are convinced they don’t know the right answer.  By demonstrating, out loud, that I believe in them and believe they can do this, I find later in the year they’re more likely to try to answer questions.  I also point out times when I don’t know something or when I got it wrong.  I tend to laugh at myself a lot, making them feel like they can be wrong, too.

Pick me!

Pick me!

5 Ways to Brand Your Middle School Classroom

www.mrsfenger.wordpress.comEach year, our team of two to three teachers selects a team name.  In the past, we’ve been the Scooby Doo team, the Mustangs, the Titanic, and many others.  This year, we’re going in a different direction.  In an effort to help our students see themselves as competent, smart, amazing students, we are Team Awesome.

We’ve made posters to put on the walls, a sign for our showcase and postcards to mail home to the students.

IMG_0221 www.mrsfenger.wordpress.comDid you know you can make posters at Office Max for just over a dollar?  My daughter does this for her job, often, so she suggested I check it out.  I made 9 posters – 11X17.  They cost $1.18 each!  They look awesome, too!

The postcards will be mailed home to each student to get them excited about going to school.  We don’t have much time to motivate them, so  I like to start as early as possible.  They say

Welcome to Team Awesome!

Congratulations on being selected! You are a valuable member of the team and we are thrilled to have you.

It also explains about our Back to School BBQ and the first day.  But it ends with

Hope you’re excited, because we are!

See you then,

Your Teachers

Ordinarily, we would sign our names, but we’re in the process of hiring our third teacher, so we couldn’t do that.

IMG_0226 www.mrsfenger.wordpress.comI also put letters above the door to my classroom – going in they say “Make Today Awesome”.  Leaving, they say “Be Awesome Today”.  I also used window markers on my window – I wrote “Make Today Awesome” and “If it is to be, it is up to me”.  The window is right next to the smartboard, so they will see it every day while they are in my classroom. (And, of course, who doesn’t spend time looking out the window while you’re in class, right?)

We are hoping to find sponsors to purchase t-shirts for the students, too.  With these t-shirts, we’ll be able to build that identity in our students.  Which leads us back to the title: Branding Your Classroom.  The longer I teach, the more convinced I am that students are searching for an identity.  We can give them a positive one, or they can find one of their own.  The problem is, some of the identities they search out are not positive for them.  By making them a member of Team Awesome, we’re giving them that positive identity.

What do you do to help your students feel like a part of a team?