Sunday, August 21, 2011

Phase 3 Concluding the Project

I realize as I reread my earlier posts that there is so much more detail to this work that I am not writing about; the importance of and methods of engaging children in the question process, how to divide children into interest groups for field work, observational drawings, and so on.   If I covered it all it would be a book, not a blog post.  I am choosing the areas that I have chosen to reflect on the most.  However, I am excited to share this with other educators that are interested, to experiment with it and refine it in my own classroom and continue to learn more as I engage with other colleagues.  I am hoping to share more of this as I post actual project work that will be done with my students as we begin our school year in just a few weeks. 

That said I am particularly proud of my hot tub, so I am going to share some of my Phase 3 experience.

Sharing what has been learned with others enriches the process.  Knowledge can be shared in an infinite number of ways and the beauty of this type of work is that children are given choices.  Throughout the process so much choice is embedded bringing ownership to the learner.  Some of the ways to share findings are drawings, paintings, clay sculptures, rubbings, poems, stories, time lines, Venn diagrams, survey results, models, photographs displays, collage and so many more.  Inviting parents or other classes to see a display of their project work is rewarding and gives children a chance to be the experts and feel the fruit of their hard work. 

The final display is really the story of the process of the learning.  It will include the topic webs, Phase I writings and drawings, field sketches (Phase 2 work), photographs with captions and a variety of representations of the findings such as those mentioned above.  It should tell the story of the process and the learning that occurred along the way. 

In our group we had to negotiate with each other what we were going to display.  We didn’t display all the memory drawings, we chose one.  One person made a graph, another did a drawing and another created an experiment for people to try.  All of the work of each person was not displayed.  Choices are made.  With this approach it needs to be explained that the display portion is not about showing off everything that each person has done, but about using pieces of each person’s work to tell the story of the learning.  As a teacher I think it is very easy to get caught up in feeling that you need to always display something from each child.  This is what often leads to 16 school bus drawings lined up in a row.  This will need parent education as well.  Parents become very accepting when you are able to explain your reasoning and the process to them. 

I became very interested, okay obsessed, with making a working model of the hot tub.  I “borrowed” the ice bucket liner from my hotel room and gathered straws to create the jets.  My first attempt failed miserably sending water all over the conference room.

 But then, my team members offered suggestions and encouragement and praise and I kept going.  Again, this is what I want in my classroom, this sense of community and problem solving and helping one another.  By the time we shared our display, I had a working model of the hot tub, complete with bubbles!

Our group shared our findings and our process with the rest of the attendees answering questions and engaging them in our experiments. It is irrelevant that I now know how to test the PH of a pool, or the correct temperature of a hot tub, or that yes, they do enforce the rules and you should not be drinking a glass of wine in the hot tub…we were proud of our work and excited by the process.  We formed connections with each other and supported each other in the shared content of our project.  We felt the joy of learning.  This is what I want to give my students. 

                  My water feature group with Sylvia Chard and Lillian Katz

Phase 2: The Project Approach

Phase 2 in The Project Approach is the field work.  This is where the meat of the discovery will happen.  In this phase children will measure, count, label, compare, interview, sketch, make notes, do rubbings, design and complete surveys and take photographs.

We discussed in our group where our individual interests were and made a plan for our investigations.  One woman went off to count jets in the fountain and do some interviewing of the maintenance staff there, and another colleague and I threw on our suits and hit the hot tub-all in the interest of education of course!

When we got there an employee was checking the pool PH and chlorine levels.  He let us interview him and photograph his work.  He answered a great deal of our questions.  We did some sketching of the pool and hot tub, took more photographs, and then got in to investigate the questions unanswered.

We had a couple of hours of initial field study. Then we came back together to reflect on this part of the project.  What was noticed was the asking and thinking about the questions became infectious.  While in the field, so many more questions became interesting and it was very hard to stop when the time limit was up.  We formed relationships with each other based on this shared content and interest. I did not know these other women when we started this project and this shared discovery helped us to form connections with each other, something we try to help our students learn to do.  When we did add to the question list separately in lieu of our group being together, it felt isolated, and the collaboration aspect of this work became very rewarding.  We found ourselves very involved in the drawings-even people that felt they could not draw became engrossed in what they were noticing and trying to record. 

I know I had to keep myself in check as I found that if I saw someone on the elevator in a swimsuit, my inclination was to interview her.  I became so interested in this seemingly benign topic.  This incredible engagement is what I want to pass along to my students. 

As I have said in an earlier post, this was a simulated project crammed into a much shorter time frame.  What I did realize with this is the importance of revisiting the field site.  We did a few hours of field work, came back together and shared what we had learned, compared it to our predictions and became interested in other aspects that we hadn’t thought of earlier.  We were able to go back to the various water features a few more times to redraw something or ask another question. 

I have taken my students on several wonderful field sites, but only once.  Except for the studies that were held on school property, we have not revisited a field site.  I have gained a new appreciation for the value of this.  It is why Lillian and Sylvia stress for teachers to look around their schools and their neighborhoods.  What is in walking distance that would allow for several visits?  This will be a much larger focus in my work going forward this year.  What is around my school that I haven’t really looked at with this lens?

Saturday, August 20, 2011

The Rest of Phase I:The Project Approach

The rest of the time at this powerful seminar, Engaging Children's Minds, was spent simulating a project. 

We had to organize ourselves in groups and choose a topic to study.  Earlier I had seen a man inside of the fountain in the lobby walking around in it with very tall boots.  This had intrigued me.  Speaking with a couple of other teachers I had met the day before about this, we decided to investigate the water features of the hotel lobby; the pool, the fountain and the hot tub. 

First we took on the role of the teacher and prepared for this study.  We had to brainstorm 100 words that could describe these features and then organize them into a web to formulate our thinking and help us decipher all the various directions this study could go.  This exercise was done to help us get the scope of the questions that may come up and to see the interesting vocabulary that could be used.  It was not about brainstorming the activities or the learning centers that could be set up: that is more for emergent curriculum.  Their feeling is that the more you prepare yourself as a teacher on a topic of study, the more prepared you’ll be when you are discussing the topic with your students. 

Then we became the students and participated in the initial activities done in the first phase of project work.  We shared a personal experience with our group that had to do with a water feature, we drew a picture of a memory and we did a piece of writing.  The telling of personal stories is such an important part of getting authentic questions and wonderings from children.  We started asking each other questions about our stories and started to become invested in this topic. At this time, we were shown many slides of initial drawings that children as young as two had done. These pictures were used to focus the children on the topic, to help them share what their experience has been so far.

We engaged in a brainstorming of questions and made predictions.  This part was quite fun as we were wondering such things as “How long can you sit in the hot tub before feeling uncomfortable?” “Can you drink wine in the hot tub?” “Are there rules about this?”  “Who enforces the rules?” And so on…

Next, we planned our field work and decided how to best investigate these questions; would we take photographs, interview experts, do on site drawings? 

All of these steps were part of just Phase I of project work.  It is during this phase that it is important to send a letter home to parents informing them of the project.  Some teachers send home the question/prediction chart so that families can continue the discussion at home furthering the interests of the children.  It also allows families to see areas in which their background might be useful as an expert.  

In my previous project work I did not spend a lot of time of the sharing of personal stories before the investigation.  I have never done a pre discovery drawing and then sharing with the students.  I would have some conversations with individuals and various groups of the children, but would usually start with the question brainstorming.  I can see how this addition to the process would bring much more depth and meaning to the children relating it to a personal event. 

I am interested in how this initial process has worked for you.  

Day Two: The Project Approach, Topic Selection

Well, what was supposed to be my musings of day two of The Project Approach seminar has taken me over a month to write.  Duties of running a summer camp, hiring new staff and mothering three active children in the summertime took precedence.  Now I find myself preparing my class and school for opening again in a couple of weeks.  I am furiously rereading my notes and handouts and trying to decide what, how and why should I implement my learning.
The morning of the second day was heavily focused on topic selection.  I was very interested in this area as with Emergent Curriculum, I was constantly monitoring the children for their interests so that I could follow their lead.  If a strong interest did not seem to emerge we would try other provocations and wait.  We called these ordinary moments.  Wonderful learning experiences were still happening during these times between focused topics, but they were not necessarily related to one another.  Trying to decide what the greatest interest of the group was often proved difficult and sometimes the topic seemed too complex or abstract to study at the level a four year old would understand. 

Lillian Katz and Sylvia Chard explained that following children’s interests can be risky and create pitfalls as not all of their interests are necessarily the best topics for project work. 

For example dinosaurs, a often chosen topic in preschools and one my class has studied in the past, is not a good choice with this approach because one of the main criteria for topic selection with Project Approach is that it has to be relevant and many opportunities for direct observation need to be available.  We cannot take children to actually see dinosaurs and they cannot dig up actual dinosaur bones.  When I described how I would boil chicken bones and hide them in the sand in marked off lots to simulate paleontologist expeditions, they told me I was teaching children to find chicken bones, and draw chicken bones… not about dinosaurs. 

The criteria for topic selection with Project Approach are:

1.       It needs to be relevant to the child with sufficient opportunities for direct observation
2.       It needs to be within at least some of the children’s regular experience
3.       The class needs to have access to local resources and experts on the topic; the children need to be able to take a lot of data on the topic, to actually experience it.
4.       It has to have potential for representation in a variety of media; can the children write about it, draw about it, make models of it, etc. 
5.       It should encourage children to develop an interest worthy of their time; it is rich enough to last for an extended period of time.
6.       It is the right size; optimal specific; dogs rather than pets(too abstract), but not just Mrs. Smiths dog(too specific)

The purpose is to help children make better, fuller, deeper sense of their own experiences.

An example given was the topic foodFood as a whole is too broad of a topic, and My Favorite Food is very limiting and cliché, but Foods We Don’t Like allows opportunities for surveys, drawings, discussions, investigations, representations, experiments, and much more.  Food is something all children have in common.  It is real, relevant and rich.

Thinking about topic selection for a project this way, they explained that it can even be done in conjunction with a theme.  For example if your theme is the seasons, your topic may be The Changes in the Trees around Our SchoolSeasons is very broad, but The Tree Project lends itself to walking to the trees, doing some drawings & paintings of them, forming some questions about the trees and then discovering some answers.  There are opportunities to revisit the site many times to collect more data.  This is a worthy topic as it gets the children interested in their specific environment. 

Some extremely interesting projects done with preschool children were shared including a project done on balls, a nearby train station, a shoe store, and a study of geese along the river.  One idea that has me intrigued was proposed by a colleague at the workshop; a study of keys-so practical, so much a part of our daily lives and often a topic of interest to children.

This idea and one on cameras has my mind percolating.

I would love to hear your thoughts and questions on topic selection and any projects that have been particularly successful for you.