Students take on projects, hands-on learning in new course

Students in Kelly Fallot’s project-based math class line up their Jenga sets

Ninth grader Makenzie Allen works best hands-on, like when making a Jenga set– from block to teetering tower– in the new Caledonia High School problem-based math class.

“I’m a visual learner. Something about actually doing a project makes it easier,” Makenzie said. “I learn better that way; it makes a lot more sense.”

Mackenize is among the first group of students –150 freshman– enrolled in the inaugural Project Based Learning Program at Caledonia High School. PBL shifts classroom learning away from teacher-centered instruction and emphasizes student-centered projects. “I’ve never done something like this in class before,” Mackenzie said about making the Jenga set. “It doesn’t really feel like school but you’re still learning.”

Ninth graders Makenzie Allen and Averil Byrd with their Jenga sets

Students had to look up the price of wood, research sales tax, measure materials and calculate expenses. “For students who want to have their own businesses they get to see what’s really involved,” said problem-based math teacher Kelli Fallot. “They get to see how much work goes into even a project like this — a project that really focuses on all the components this program promotes.”

For Makenzie, the traditional classroom environment was challenging, she said, but the PBL program is more her style.  “Working on projects like this makes it easier to stay focused,” she said. “These are definitely skills that I will use outside in the real world.”

She and her classmates spend time thinking outside of the box, taking more of a leadership role in their learning. PBL classes include integrated English and social studies, problem-based math and problem-based science classes.

“In a traditional classroom environment there are still aspects of PBL learning, like a visual component,” Fallot said. “The main difference is that the class isn’t as teacher-led; this is for students who want to dive more into project learning.”

For the first year, applicants were selected through a random drawing, with those not chosen put on a wait list. The program requires a one-year commitment and after that students can decide if they want to continue or open their spot, Fallot said.

Each year, the program will add a grade level, eventually going through 11nth grade.

Students in the project-based math class measure wood for their Jenga sets

Focusing on the Four C’s

All projects are designed around state standards, though PBL courses may cover fewer standards than a traditional class to develop a deeper understanding of key concepts. The focus is on critical thinking, communication, collaboration and creativity.

“This class is dependent on collaboration,” Fallot said. “In the workforce, you’re going to have to work with other people. We’re practicing that here.”

The curriculum also focuses on presentations, including how to maintain eye contact with an audience and present materials in a creative way, Fallot said.

“In a way we’re learning how to work with people you may not always agree with, but you still have to respect and get the job done,” she said. “We’re learning how to present something to your boss in the future, not just your classmates.”

Fallot’s said she likes to see how students respond. One student was very excited to tell her parents about the Jenga sets. “She came back the next day and told me that she was making these with her parents at home,” Fallot said. “It’s truly rewarding to hear something like that.”

Caledonia High School students practice using their finished Jenga sets

Prepping to Build the Program

All teachers attended training on PBL over the summer. “We’re all very dedicated to this program, it’s something that we believe in,” Fallot said. “Each year we’ll get better and learn more, but this is something that we are passionate about as a community.”

Though the first year has had its challenges, Fallot is looking forward to seeing how the program evolves until it is fully implemented in all three grades.

“As an educator, I leave work every day asking how I can be better,” Fallot said. “I’m sure next year will look different. Teaching is always changing; that’s what is so great about it.”

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Hannah Lentz
A 2017 graduate of Grand Valley State University and a lifelong teacher’s kid, Hannah Lentz has worked as a journalist in and outside the Grand Rapids area for more than five years. After serving as editor-in-chief at the GVSU student newspaper, Hannah interned at the Leelanau Enterprise where she learned a lot about community journalism. In addition to her work for School News Network, Hannah has worked as a freelance blogger in the furniture industry, focusing on design trends, and as a social media manager for World Medical Relief in Detroit. Read Hannah's full bio or email Hannah.

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