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5 Tips for Bringing Project-Based Learning (PBL) to Health Class

Amy Lauren Smith

Editor's note: Project-based learning is vital, but can feel overwhelming. That's why Choices Teacher-Advisor Amy Lauren Smith--a 6th-8th grade health teacher at the Shanghai American School in Shanghai, China, and the brilliant mind behind our monthly Teacher's Guide--has put together a few simple tips on bringing project-based learning to the classroom.

When I became a health teacher 15 years ago, my resources were limited. I was handed a stack of textbooks, a teacher's guide full of worksheets, and a box of outdated videos. Not wanting my students to suffer the same awkward and tedious experience I had, I set out on a mission to create other opportunities for them to demonstrate what they were learning.

Without access to the Internet or student devices, I had to get creative, but interestingly enough, many of the projects I had them do back then--such as videos, skits, and poster campaigns--are still a big part of my classes today. While technology has improved the quality of my students' research and work, the ideas behind the projects remain the same.

Teachers had been creating projects for their students long before we made the big educational shift to PBL. What's great is that we now have the tools and experience to take our projects to the next level. These five tips helped me advance my projects along the way.

Tip 1: Set up the classroom for interactive learning.

In my first health class, with 36 high school juniors crammed into rows of desks, I found this extremely difficult. So when the weather allowed it, I took them outside to work on skits, engage in small group discussions, or walk around the track while project planning. I took advantage of any chance I could get to put them together in groups.

Now at a school with smaller class sizes and more resources, I'm able to set my classroom up for collaboration, with tables instead of desks, soft furnishings, and plenty of floor space for the kids to get down on the ground and work.

For more ideas on how to the most of your space regardless of budget: 3 Tips for Designing a Healthy and Inviting Classroom

Tip 2: Keep your content current and relevant by getting students' input.

One of my main reasons for creating projects all those years ago is that the resources I was given didn't align with the current health concerns of my students. I got their input on what they wanted to learn and built my curriculum around that. With true PBL, there's more student voice and choice, so they have the freedom to create projects based on their interests and passions, which allows for customizable and adaptable learning.

For projects created by and for today's students: 12 Grab and Go Projects for Health

Tip 3: Hook students with a powerful 'entry event.'

Every good project kicks off with something to hook the students and spark a passion for deeper inquiry, such as a current event, guest speaker, or video clip. Gone are the days of entire class sessions spent watching classroom DVDs. Often a quick news clip of a teenager doing awesome things is all it takes to spur students on to do the same.

Tip 4: Stay on top of student learning with check-ins along the way.

It can be tempting to set your students free and let them work on their own, but continual conferences and check-ins help ensure that they're on the right track, and will help you when it's time to give them a grade. If there have been ample chances for formative assessments, no grade will be a surprise.

There are a myriad of formative assessment ideas to help your students stay on track, such as exit tickets, online discussion boards, and fun apps like Kahoot. I've been using journaling in my classes since the beginning--I find it useful not only as a formative assessment, but also for getting to know my students on a personal level.

Tip 5: Don't go it alone.

Health teachers often exist in a bubble on their campus, with no one to collaborate with. That's why social media can be such a useful tool. Hop online and follow the #HealthEd hashtag to share ideas with health teachers around the globe.

And if you don't have time to launch a full project in your class, team up with another teacher at your school for a cross-curricular project. Health is universal, which gives us the opportunity to connect our content and skills to almost every other subject on campus.

For more ideas for collaboration: 4 Ideas for Cross-Curricular Learning and 6 Online Resources for Planning a Health Curriculum

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