The Power of a Simple Math Problem: Part Two of My Visit to Southport Elementary

The Tour

In my previous post, I talked about my arrival at Southport Elementary in southern Indianapolis, and some of the conversation I had with the principal and vice principal. If you missed that post, follow this link: to get all caught up. After we had the chance to ask those initial questions and learn a little about the school, my classmate and I were eager to see project-based learning (PBL) in action. 

The school was separated into separate hallways for the various grade levels. We started in the first grade classrooms, and took a moment to look at the old projects from last semester. The first graders have slowly been learning all about butterflies like what plants they like to eat, what they do for the environment, and everything in between. Each time the project started back up, they worked on getting their new garden butterfly certified. Spencer explained how the first grade teachers incorporated the topic of butterflies into as many of their core classes as possible. He also asserted the importance of having a community partner to help launch and manage the project. A butterfly expert from the Indianapolis Zoo works with the classes to help them learn and get their garden up to standards. 

A Math Problem
Inside the classroom, the students were learning addition using the 10 frame method. Spencer had explained that even though the classes were not always in the midst of a project, the PBL mindset is always at work. Take this math lesson for example. Addition usually is taught using paper and pencil and those colorful math workbooks with animals on the cover. Very stagnant learning without much movement or hands on activities. The ten-frame method allows students to visualize the problems and do the problems in real time. The students worked in pairs and each student received one plastic ten frame and 10 plastic circles. A problem at the front of the room like 8 + 6, and the first student places 8 circles in their frame while the second student places 6 circles in their frame. 

Once the teacher made sure that all of the students had correctly filled their frames, the students worked together to rearrange them by using circles from one of the frames to fill the other up to 10. Then, they were able to quickly add 10 plus whatever number was left over in the other frame. This way, the students learned mental math techniques that allowed them to be active in their learning. I’m not sure if this is a common teaching practice or if I just forgot the way I learned to add in first grade, but the student engagement in a typically boring class showed the dedication the teachers at Southport have even when they are not in the midst of a lesson. 

Teachers Dedicated to Teaching Other Teachers

The next stop on the tour was to see a special classroom I had never seen before. They call it their cluster classroom, and there they support and guide the building’s teachers through the PBL environment. In other words, they have teachers to teach their teachers. It was absolutely mind-blowing to me. The teachers in the cluster classroom are known as Master Teachers, and both of them are PBL certified and experts in the field. They work together with the classroom teachers to share PBL techniques  and provide support and advice when teachers get discouraged. In addition to the presence of the Master Teachers, each grade level team has a mentor teacher who has been trained in PBL or has the most experience in it. This group of teachers works with the Master Teachers to test-drive certain projects and then share results and tips with the rest of the staff. Having this system helps new PBL teachers get used to teaching using projects and prevents discouragement because they know they are not alone.

As I walked through the school and all of its various classrooms, I learned how organized and efficient the building runs under Spencer and Witkemper watch. Spencer explained how the organization is what holds the building together as they all work to be better at PBL. Everyone is on the same schedule and, therefore, projects launch at the same time in all of the classrooms. By keeping track of the projects going on and having everyone start at the same time, the faculty and staff are on the same page and know what supporting actions might be necessary. 

One last thing from the tour! (I know it’s long but this school has so many noteworthy attributes!) Southport elementary has a Project Lead-the-Way classroom that allows students to experience and explore different STEM topics. When I visited, the third graders were in the middle of learning about coding. Southport’s Project Lead-the-Way teacher has also been PBL trained, so she teaches her students in the same way as the rest of the school. The third graders were learning how to code a video game, and to start, they needed to have a main character and an end goal. The teacher explained the importance of having a storyline mapped out before the coding could even begin. 

I also noted her insistence on group work. Some of the students were extremely adept at coding and wanted to rush ahead while others were caught in the thrall of storytelling. By working together, the students who are better at coding can help those who are not, and those who are interested in the stories can help the coders come up with a well-rounded story. 

Visiting Southport showed me not only how to use PBL but also how to make it thrive in the school. Reading about PBL and education theory has given me so many great ideas, but seeing those ideas in action made me extremely excited about the future of PBL. Seeing the dedication of the faculty and staff and the enthusiasm from the students just confirmed for me that PBL has extreme potential and truly puts learning in the students’ hands. I have one more post about my trip to Southport and the conversation my classmate and I had with Spencer and Witkemper after the tour!

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