Rebecca Teall is St. George’s Project Coach and a Pre-K3 Assistant Teacher, and she is also mother to StG alumnus Gardner and current 6th grader Graham. She attended the University of Central Florida and received a B.S. in Classical Humanities; she also has a certificate in Education Policy from UMass Dartmouth. Before moving to New Orleans in 2011, she was looking at schools that would allow her own children to grow socially and academically, and when she visited St. George's, she realized that this was going to be the best place for not only her children but also a place where she could grow in her love of teaching! In her 10 years at St. George's, she has engaged in many wonderful projects; she was able to present one of these projects at NAEYC, and the project is also highlighted in Judy Harris Helm’s book Growing Child Intellect: The Manifesto for Engaged Learning in the Early Years. She believes that there is nothing that she can tell her kids that is as powerful as allowing them to experience it for themselves.
Several years ago, I sat in front of my class with a large piece of paper ready to web “Books,” and two students quickly raised their hands. As they spoke, I wrote down all the things they knew about books. They spoke so fast that I could barely keep up. When I looked up and asked if anyone else had anything to add, only one hand went up. “Why are you writing down all their words?” the child asked. Without thinking, I said, “Because their words are important.” Immediately, every hand shot up. I smile every time I see those students, now 5th graders, who turned into one of the most talkative groups I have ever taught. They were so quiet and so nervous to share their ideas, but the minute they felt like I cared about their ideas, they wanted to share their knowledge.
I’d been in the classroom for 15 years by this point, and no child had ever questioned why I wrote down all their words. I thought about how many kids hadn’t spoken up, how many kids didn’t trust me enough to share their stories. Maybe I didn’t take the time to ask questions, maybe the kids I taught didn’t feel comfortable enough to speak openly or maybe I just didn’t have the time to think about it.
Through my practice with the Project Approach, I work to make student voice crucial in my classroom. I’ve learned to slow down and listen to what my students are trying to explain to me, the connections that they are trying to make and the knowledge they are excited to share. Learning is a social act, and talking with peers and adults helps students clarify misunderstandings, work through confusion and deepen thinking.
The Project Approach and project-based learning is the kind of learning that draws students in and creates a sense of ownership for them over what is happening in the classroom. It is an opportunity for every student to access the topics in a way that fits with their interests, strengths and needs. It involves learner-centered questions driven by student inquiry. That being said, it is our job to create an environment that allows our students to see different perspectives. Asking questions about other places, other cultures and other individuals can spark powerful inquiry for students. We are delving deeper into a topic, asking hard questions and allowing time to pursue the answers. The Project Approach experience should offer every learner a way to participate and feel valued, but before children can talk freely, they have to trust that the people they are talking to will be there to support them as they work through their tough questions.
We don’t start projects within the first few weeks of school because teachers always tell me, “We need to get to know our kids.” But, really, it is the kids that need to get to know us. They need to know that they will be listened to and supported by their teachers. When they trust us, they show us what they want to learn, the skills they need to practice and the questions that they cannot answer on their own.
At St. George’s, the teachers work from the first day of school to build relationships with their students and their families. They set firm limits and allow for times of freedom and silliness, and they take time to get to know their kids. In doing so, our teachers offer every learner a way to participate and feel valued. We prioritize this period of trust-building between our teachers and each new class. Without these feelings of acceptance and understanding, it’s difficult for young learners to take risks as they tackle new subjects. When a strong level of trust has been established, teachers believe in their students and are ready to dive deeply into a topic that will excite and challenge their students. While planning for project-based learning, I ask teachers to consider these questions:
- Is the learning connected to the shared interests of the students? What can we do to create a shared experience?
- Do students have the chance to connect ideas to their own life experiences?
- Is the project based on a meaningful problem to solve or a question to answer that all learners can access and understand?
- Does the project promote diverse perspectives?
- Does the project have real-world connections that every student can be part of?
- What experts do we know in our community that can help the kids answer their questions?
- Is there a location that we could travel to easily that will make this concept more concrete?
Project work is a learning opportunity to uncover different perspectives and new ideas— ones that will push the thinking of students. With our youngest learners, the teachers are working to help them notice the other children and their feelings. As the kids get older, it is our job to help students go beyond just noticing the similarities and differences in their friends. We encourage them to celebrate those differences to find out more about them and to listen to the perspective of someone else.
If we want all students to be open to things that are different or to things that they don’t yet understand, we have to be incredibly purposeful, proactive and flexible. Through the authentic and collaborative work with projects, students will not only build the skills needed to be successful in a school but also develop critical skills such as empathy and understanding as we interact with others in our community.
- Faculty Voice
- Project Approach