These Kids Are Amazing: Project-Based Learning in Lower School
Kate Remillard

 

Last year, I had the honor of being the faculty representative on our Strategic Planning Task Force, in which we took our "blue sky" visions of all that St. George's could be and crafted a plan to achieve that vision. For years, our Early Childhood program has been the envy of all for their work with the Project Approach. As a teacher, walking through the Michael R. Boh Early Childhood Center is inspiring. Evidence of student-driven learning covers every wall; children run up to you and tell you how excited they are to learn; and when even our youngest learners encounter a problem, you will hear another child say, "Well, what have you tried?" We have seen the research, and our Early Childhood teachers have lived the experience: this method works to create inquisitive, independent, collaborative learners. In Lower and Middle School, we teachers asked ourselves, How can we do this, too?

Thanks to Rebecca Teall, our Early Childhood Curriculum Coach and a true master of the Project Approach, we had our answer: project-based learning (PBL). This method differs from the Project Approach in one important way: rather than choosing a topic of exploration based purely on student interests, teachers choose a topic that will connect with that grade level's core content. All other student-driven elements remain the same. With both methods, learning standards are then interwoven into the project so that students continue to learn content and develop skills in a standards-based way.

In 4th grade, fellow lead teacher Lindsey McConnell and I were admittedly nervous about making this shift. As rather Type A teachers, we like knowing where our lesson plans will take us. But we also felt like we were ready for a change, and our upcoming social studies unit on U.S. government seemed like the perfect vehicle with which to explore this new approach. We had already taught students about the Constitutional Convention of 1787, the articles of the Constitution that created our three branches of government and the responsibilities of each branch. With this essential background knowledge, students were ready to get into the driver's seat. Rebecca guided us with a question: What do they care about the most? 

That answer was easy. Recess.

And so the Recess Constitution Project was born. Unbeknownst to our students, we began hatching a plan. Dr. K would be King George, the evil tyrant who would take away their recess from afar. We announced it on a Monday at recess. All games were banned until they could create a plan to improve recess. How would they earn their recess back? 

The hardest part of this approach is stepping back. As adults, we know the answers. We want to solve problems. It's so much faster if we just tell them how to do it. But with project-based learning, the learning is in the struggle. Students need to test ideas, flounder, reevaluate and restart in order to refine their learning. And so, Lindsey and I stepped back. We only asked questions.

Would a few of you like to meet with Dr. K to convince him to change his mind? Students elected representatives and signed petitions. However, they did not have everyone's signatures on their petition, and Dr. K insisted on 100% buy-in for whatever plan they would create. 

What should we do next? We canceled math and reading groups on Tuesday to discuss. 

Is there any way we could create a more organized plan? "Ah ha!" said one student. "We need a government!" "Yea," said another. "We need a recess constitution!" 

What is a constitution like? Working in small groups, students outlined how their government could function. They brought their ideas back to the larger group for approval, negotiation and eventual voting.

And so the process has continued. It will come as no surprise that students quickly earned back their recess (Ten-year-olds need their recess, after all.). My class is now the House of Representatives, Lindsey's homeroom is the Senate and Morning Meetings have become Joint Sessions of Congress. Sometimes, the process has been quite tedious-- just like our real government! At certain points, we have returned to our standards to teach essential content, i.e. checks and balances, the Bill of Rights, how a bill becomes a law, etc. With this additional information, students are then able to take the next logical step in their own government process and immediately apply what they have learned. 

Of course, the magic of this real-world simulation has been in the way we have seen students develop as critical thinkers in a collaborative environment. They have needed to build consensus in order to succeed. Logical action has become paramount: when one student expresses discontent over something that happens during a recess game, another student will now respond, "Let's write a bill about it." And every child is involved. Students who struggle with writing are eager to record their ideas. Students who have usually been quiet in social studies are now loud participants in the process. At varying points, each child gets to be a leader. 

This is what reimagining education looks like. Our strategic plan will not exist only on paper, but in these real moments in the classroom when we turn to each other and say, "These kids are amazing!" Undoubtedly, the Recess Constitution will be a memorable experience for the Class of 2025. And who knows-- maybe we will have a mayor, congresswoman or senator in the not-too-distant future.

 

 

  • Faculty Voice
  • Lower School
  • Project-Based Learning