Sunday, December 30, 2012

Winter Break Ramblings

Ah, another year almost over and a new one about to begin (that's right, I just plagiarized John Lennon's Christmas song.  Deal with it!).  Now is the time to refresh, recharge and eat a metric ton of rich, delicious, fattening holiday foods.  


But with the year coming to a close, it also seems like an ideal time to reflect on where we are as teachers.  

My mantra as of late has been, "why are you doing what you're doing?  What purpose does it serve?  Who are you doing this for?"  Whenever I'm about to design a lesson plan, lay down a rule or stop a child from doing something, I try to ask these questions.  A surprising amount of the time, the answer is "because it makes life easier for me" which does not always go hand in hand with what is best for the students.

To that end, I give you The Switch That Changed My Life.  Before this year, I did the typical pre-k/kindergarten routine: themes of the week.  Cute, manageable, CONVENIENT.  So convenient that at this point, teachers don't even have to do any real planning anymore- just pop on over to Teachers Pay Teachers, etc. and you can print out games, centers, worksheets (ugh) for any number of topics.  

But is that what pre-k or kindergarten should be?  Are we really saying that after a week, a child has mastered a topic?  Do you take any real meaning out of something you studied for a week?  And what are the topics we're exploring?  Do they have any real meaning to kids or do they just make for cute projects?  And one final question: why do we teach?  To earn a salary or to change lives?

That's why I switched to project based learning this year.  It takes more thought, more planning, more creativity and more time- but it is infinitely more rewarding.  And as a bonus for you, the teacher, it also produces students capable of work you never imagined.  My kids want to write because they need places to express their ideas, they sit focused at morning meeting because we're talking about things they care about, they hit state standards that I was not even targeting during choice time because it dovetails with what they're working on.  

So how does this work?  Well, as with anything, you first have to come up with a topic.  Ideally, the children's interests will lead you to this (first main difference from theme of the week).  For example, my kids are OBSESSED with the squirrels they see every day outside our windows.  As in, activity stops when one passes by.  So when we get back to school on the 2nd, we will be studying (you guessed it!) squirrels.  Unlike theme of the week, these projects last a long time.  It's up to you to sense when the interest is drawing to an end.  For the purposes of this post, we'll be looking at my last unit of study: buildings.

Sweet E checking out a picture of a building.

Your job starts before the kids have even been introduced to the topic.  You need to research whatever you'll be focusing on so that you can guide discussions, help find answers and see where your standards will fit in (and they ALWAYS do!).  I find that the easiest way to accomplish this is through a thought web.  I put the topic in the middle and try to think of where the kids thoughts will go/where I can guide them if needed.  So for buildings, some things I thought worth exploring were: buildings serve many purposes (great for sorting- sort structures into categories: restaurants, living spaces, work spaces, etc), buildings come in many shapes (more math!), buildings can look different depending on region (hello, neglected social studies), buildings have labels (words and numbers- suddenly you're hitting literacy and math in a meaningful way!).  

The first day of our study, I brought in tons of pictures of buildings and invited parents to send in more.  And the magic started.

I started us off with wooden block and legos in our block center.  The students (without my asking!!) grabbed books and pictures and started building off of what they saw in pictures.

A likes McDonalds.  Here he is trying to recapture it in blocks while referencing a photo.

Then A encountered a problem.  He fell in love with the design of Epcot and wanted to build it.  But it's round ("and spiky looking!").  So his friend E suggested play doh- I built on that and brought in clay so the kids could make more permanent structures.  That led to a week of building with clay and many more problems.  Our sky scrapers started collapsing.  After reading "Building a House" D suggested that the reason our buildings weren't standing was because they had no support beams.  So he pulled out some pipe cleaners, folded them up, placed them on top of his clay and then covered them up.  A FOUR YEAR OLD did this.  He saw a problem, thought about it and SOLVED it using pretty sophisticated vocabulary.  J built on this further when she suggested we needed better foundations.  I almost died hearing those big words out of those little mouths. 

What you would see if you could look through D's building!

At this point, my knowledge was wearing thin.  The kids had questions I couldn't answer.  It was time to bring in some experts.  I put out a call to families and a few parents with construction experience volunteered to come in and share what they knew.

Mr. O is an an engineer.  His talk brought blueprints into the picture (more numbers, more shapes!).  The kids loved it and left our conversation producing blueprints of their own, adding features that were previously missing from our discussions.  Mr. D brought in tools and we fell in love.  The kids got difficult questions answered and were so excited to get to play with 'real' tools instead of the plastic ones we had in class.  

Oh my... I see you D!!!!

That led us to our culminating activity: building real houses made of wood.  With real hammers and real nails (eep).  HEAVILY supervised, the kids used all the knowledge they had accrued to build structures of their own.  I was floored.

Yes, there is a child SLEEPING THROUGH HAMMERING in the background.  Color me impressed.

We finished our unit with a special party for the kids to showcase their hard work- we opened a buildings museum and invited family and friends to check out what we had been doing for the past month (yes, MONTH- it was incredible!).  

I can't speak more highly of the Project Based Approach.  It literally changed my life as a teacher.  I love coming to school every day to see what the kids will come up with.  Parents love it because of the amazing knowledge their children come away with- about the topic, yes, but the kids really delve deeply into state standards while working on the units.  From one of our visiting 'experts': "Nina loves school, thank you so much for everything you do to make school fun and interesting. The kids are extremely knowledgeable and very well informed on a challenging topic.  I was very impressed."  But that's nothing compared to how much the kids love it.  They rush in every day to finish up projects, start new ones, ask questions and find answers.  

See this?  All them.  They came up with the idea to build a skyscraper from boxes and a bulldozer 'to dig foundations.'

Lev Vygotsky once wrote that "In play a child always behaves beyond his average age, above his daily behavior.  In play it is as though he were a head taller than himself."  Project Based Learning is proof of that sentiment.  It's hard work that requires a lot of thought (no more falling back on teachers pay teachers in a pinch) but it is life changing. We live in a world that requires critical thinking but teach in a system that often squelches it.  If there's one thing I can say about my month immersed in buildings, it's that I witnessed every. single. child.  think critically as they made inquiries and strove for solutions.  And yes, you can still do cute projects.  It wouldn't be winter without a snowman or two!

Scrappy Teacher is enjoying all-day-pajama-days while she can!


  1. I really enjoyed your post. It truly gives me so much to think about.

  2. I've done an ocean "unit" for years, but until last year I hadn't given control over to the drive specifically what we learned about, to use their words and thoughts in our end product. What started as a teacher directed study had morphed into Project Based Learning. Yea, it's a TON of work, but the excitement, energy, and creativity that come out of ALL of us is so worth it. I'm trying to figure out how to do more of this in just a half day earlier in the year.

  3. This sums up exactly how I feel! I teach Pre-K and my love affair with the PBL approach began after a voting/election we held in class. Like you, I watched 4 and 5 year olds blossom. They had new ideas to contribute and did a fine job of leading their own learning while I supported it. Now I'm hooked. Great post, thank you!

  4. You mention that this project lasted a month. Is that your typical length for a project? I'm thinking that, while jumping in to PBL, if I design kid-centered projects based off our reading curriculum, I could both teach PBL and appease my district's requirement to teach the curriculum with fidelity. A month would be perfect!

  5. My K kids just finished up with our first PBL about elephants! We showcased our learning with an Elephant Extravaganza! We designed an African savannah and forest out of moss, tubes, sticks pebbles, paint and lots more. Next, we drew massive elephants (directed drawings) and they wrote reports, the art teacher made clay elephants with them which were amazing and finally we did a shared research report on google slides........ I'm hooked.