Project Based Learning in a 2nd Grade Classroom: My Story

Students raised money to make a difference in our school community. Here's my project based leaning experience in a 2nd grade classroom. How to's, mistakes, and my story.
Project based learning has always intrigued me. If we're being honest, though, I've always been a little scared of it. I never really understood what exactly it would look like in a primary classroom or how to go about actually making it happen. 

Here's my PBL story in hopes that it might inspire you too!

We use the reading series Wonders, and each unit has a "Big Idea" along with "Essential Questions" to help answer the Big Idea. Our Big Idea question was:

How can people (even kids) make a difference? 

Over the course of five weeks, we read texts, watched videos ({THIS} one from Kid President is my favorite), and had some great discussions about ways that kids can help their communities. 

At the end of the unit, we used Padlet to share our final ideas about the best ways to help our community. There were a lot of "Pick up trash" responses as well as "Give money to the homeless." 

I knew I wanted the kids to take some sort of action, so asking the right questions to guide thinking was essential here. For example- "It looks like you have a great idea to raise money, how can we do that?"

From there, came the idea of selling lemonade (as well as having a "yard sale" outside of our classroom with all of our old toys, and charging the students in our school $1.00 to come into our classroom and pet our class guinea pig, Brownie).  I didn't shoot down any of the ideas because I wanted the kids to decide which idea might work the best and actually be doable. 

We emailed our principal for her input, and it seemed that the lemonade project might be doable.

Lemonade. Seemed simple-ish, right. 

Well, we needed to get in touch with our food services lady to see if it was okay. 

This whole time, the kids were helping me write all of these emails and make all of these phone calls- shared writing and communication at it's finest. 

Our wonderful food services lady responded with an attachment of the school food guidelines. We printed this out and read it- (awesome information text reading lesson here!!!) and we determined lemonade wouldn't be possible because it had way too much sugar. 

This is where I normally would have quit and said oh well.

But through the awesome discussions and ideas my kids were coming up with, the idea of popcorn arose. 

Although it would have to be air popped popcorn. 

"What's that!?!?!" my kids asked. 

Enter an awesome science lesson on air popping popcorn and how heat changes things. We actually brought an air popper in as well as a regular oil popper and saw how each one popped popcorn and the differences. Talk about engaging!

At that point it was decided we would sell popcorn to raise money to try and make our school community a better place. 

Once the kids were set on selling popcorn to the students in our school, it was time to get organized. 

Drive seemed to be the best to organize ourselves, because there were so many questions we needed answered and lots of logistical things to figure out. *Here's where I'm thinking at this point- Oh my goodness- this is all going to take me FOREVER after to school to figure out!!!!!* 

Instead, I really focused on devoting our time together in class to letting the kids take charge and organize everything. And they did *with a little help and guidance from me of course*

Each student chose a "Popcorn Partner," and that was their go-to buddy for this project. 

Here were some of the questions asked and the answers we came up with:

Where will we get the popcorn kernels and bags from? We'll write letters to Trader Joe's to see if they'll donate popcorn kernels. ***This was another awesome writing lesson!!!!!! And Trader Joe's was happy to donate 20 pounds of popcorn kernels to us!!!*** 

How many pounds of kernels will we need? We'll have to measure. ***Awesome measurement lesson! Multiplication, division, measurement, and LOTS more all included in ONE lesson!***

What day will we sell popcorn on? On June 6th we'll go to classrooms to let kids know that we're selling popcorn. We'll also hang up posters. On June 7th we'll go to classrooms to see who brought one dollar. If they brought one dollar we'll give them a popcorn ticket. On June 8th, we'll pop the popcorn and deliver to the students who have a ticket. ***These were ALL their ideas. PLUS we fit in SPEAKING STANDARDS with the presentations to all of the classes!!!***

Do we have enough air poppers? We'll call and ask everyone we know who might have an air popper if we can borrow them. ***And we did. The kids literally spent one whole morning making phone calls to anyone I knew who had a air popper asking if we could borrow it.***

How will we let the kids at our school know we're selling popcorn? We'll make posters. ***The kids make both large hand made posters as well as smaller posters in Pages to advertise and hang around the school.*** 

Who will go to which classroom? Google Doc! ***Kids 100% created and managed this = NO work for me after school!***

What should we do with the money we raise? We had lots of great ideas, including 20 computers for each classroom and a pet guinea pig for each classroom. ***Again- great math lesson. We researched how much $ each item would costs, then multiplied by the number of classrooms and decided these might not be the best ideas. We put this question on the back burner as we got ready for the big day. ***

Finally, the big popping day arrived. The classroom was set up with five popping stations. Each station had an air popper, bags, two bowls, and gloves for the kids. 

I should mention here that I was extremely nervous about this because I didn't know exactly how it was going to go. And we had promised 345 students popcorn by the end of the day. I had no idea if we'd be able to actually pull it off....

But we popped. For four straight hours. It was absolutely glorious to see my kids so engaged, working together, on a shared goal. I had zero behavior issues that morning (come to think of it- throughout this whole entire projected there were very few issues...) 

When all was said and done, we had popped for four hours and filled 375 bags of popcorn, delivered them to classrooms, and raised a total of $346.00. 

Counting up the money we had earned the next day lead to ANOTHER amazing math lesson that included counting coins, place value, and addition!!!

Cleaning up was another story... Have a plan to get cleaned up! Make sure to have brooms, dustpans, and any vacuums available at your disposal if you plan to do something like this!!! Because Oh. My. Goodness. The popcorn mess. I'll probably be finding popcorn kernels in my classroom for years and years to come. 

We cleaned for two straight hours. On our hands and knees. 

If you wanted to try something like this, learn from my mistakes! Hindsight is 20/20, right!? 

1. Do this somewhere else. Not inside the classroom. Four hours later there was a two inch thick layer of popcorn covering the ENTIRE floor. I'm not even kidding. Side note- it was worth it. Although every time I took a step a cringed at the crunching sound... 

Students raised money to make a difference in our school community. Here's my project based leaning experience in a 2nd grade classroom. How to's, mistakes, and my story.
My favorite part of this picture? The XL size gloves the kids are wearing from the cafeteria. Hehe.

2. If I were to do this again, I would've assigned students jobs on Popping Day (it was pretty much a free-for-all in here but somehow it worked...). By the end of the four hours and 375 bags we had *finally* gotten into a groove. If I were to do this again, I would've assigned: Poppers, (to pop popcorn), kernel kids (to be in charge of the popcorn kernels), bag fillers (to fill bags with popcorn), runners (to deliver the orders to classrooms), and a bookkeeper would've been helpful (to keep track of which orders had gone out and which orders we still needed to fill).

3. Have a back-up plan just in case. We blew a fuse and the whole entire left side of my classroom lost power thirty minutes into popping. I panicked. But we just kept popping on the right side!

The wonderful thing about this project is that it didn't end when the popcorn was all cleaned up and the money had been counted. Then we needed to decide what to do with the money...

The Buddy Bench idea was born from {THIS} video and {THIS} video on YouTube. And the Buddy Bench it was. But benches are expensive. (I had no idea...!?) So we researched and found THESE!

Build your own bench kits from the Bench Factory.

Perfect! Inexpensive enough and another wonderful math lesson- division, multiplication, tax, etc.!!! How many benches do we need? How long do we want them to be? How much wood will we need? How much does the wood cost? All questions the kids worked on answering through research. It was basically a MATH PERFORMANCE TASK in REAL LIFE!!!! #teacherscore

This week, we'll work on painting the 2x4s.

And then we'll go ahead and put them together and place them on the three playgrounds at our school at the beginning of the school year next year. Check back for more pictures of the final bench projects soon!

We've also been busy writing thank you letters to all of the people who helped make this possible!

I know I'll never forget this project (and neither will my principal or the poor janitors). But more importantly, I know the kids won't either. And maybe, just *maybe* they'll hold onto the incredible learning that was done throughout our Popcorn Project. One thing is for sure, they learned more through the Popcorn Project than through any workbook they'll ever do. 

Do you have any experiences or resources for project based learning? PLEASE share! I'd love to hear all about them! 


  1. Wow. Your kids are super lucky to have you! This sounds amazing, and I'm so motivated to try something similar next year! Thanks for sharing!

    Third Grade in the First State

  2. Wow. Just wow. They will never forget this! What an incredible memory and learning experience. I wish every teacher (including myself) could duplicate this! Real, meaningful learning at its best. Well done!

  3. Super inspiring. I am moving from preschool to grade 2 and you just became one of my favorite blogs!

  4. I loved reading this! I teach 2nd as well and last year we implemented PBL (using ELM- engage learning model). It's intense, but so worth it. The students are so engaged in authentic learning and I hear ideas from them that I wouldn't otherwise. It's nice to hear about another 2nd grade's PBL. :)

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  7. Love it! Our school is implementing the PBL now and I am a bit overwhelmed by it... the planning and the time that it requires. But reading your experience just makes me excited about starting! Do you have any other PBL experiences I can read about?

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  10. This post is incredible! This is one of the most informative and helpful posts I've read about PBL. You make it sound easy! Thank you so much for sharing!

  11. Do you have any sample lesson plans of this PBL? I want to implement this in my own classroom but don't even know where to begin!