Using Plays for Project-Based Learning

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by Lisa Adams, Bad Wolf’s Fearless Leader (and sometime photographer)

This past spring I had the pleasure of seeing FIVE classes (three 1st grade, one 1st/2nd combination, and one 1st grade special day class) put on an amazing performance of Grammarosaurus. It’s not unusual to see kids beaming with pride after a successful show—that’s what doing plays is all about!—but this effort was clearly the year’s culminating event. After the final notes had been sung and the happy kiddos went home, first grade teacher Lisa Untrauer explained exactly what I had just seen: not just any play performance, but the fruits of a teaching method called Project-Based Learning (PBL).

For those unfamiliar with PBL, here’s a basic description by the Buck Institute of Education:

Project Based Learning is a teaching method in which students gain knowledge and skills by working for an extended period of time to investigate and respond to an engaging and complex question, problem, or challenge.

PBL emphasizes critical thinking and collaboration as students work together to solve a problem. And one of the requirements is a public presentation at the end! “That’s why putting on a play is the perfect PBL project,” Lisa explained to me. “It fulfills all the PBL requirements—problem solving, independent thinking, critique and revision, and finally a public performance. The students are the ones making many of the decisions, working through conflict, and ultimately producing their own work of art. They are totally invested in the project and motivated to do their best work. Their social and academic growth is tremendous.”

Lisa showed me how she and her team designed activities throughout the year to hit all the PBL markers. They started with a “driving question”—“How can we as first and second graders create and perform an awesome show?” New and challenging terminology was added to, and defined on, the vocabulary board.

The kids then brainstormed dozens of smaller, more manageable questions that they were able to answer as time went on (either through research or hands-on experience), including, “Can we have lights? Are we going to dance? What will the costumes look like?”

As their expertise grew, the students developed a Performance Checklist (“sing loudly,” “have energy”) that they used to give constructive feedback to their peers and improve their own performances.

There were also many opportunities for interdisciplinary class work, expanding the reach of the project and fulfilling additional common core standards. The kids wrote reflection papers and even composed their own stage bios that festooned the walls of the auditorium!

With their emphasis on student initiative and engagement, plays and Project-Based Learning are a natural fit. It was a wonderful end to my school year to see those 150 (!) glowing faces on stage, so excited to bring their culminating project to life. Their pride was palpable and every bit deserved!

First and Second Grade Students Perform Grammarosaurus First and Second Grade Students Perform Grammarosaurus

For more information about PBL, visit


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