Sunday, January 16, 2011

Why I Do In-Class Projects

There are a variety of reasons to do projects with students.  Literacy, Inquiry, and Numeracy Skills.  Cooperative Learning.  Creativity.  Integration.  Engagement.  Intrinsic Motivation.  Authenticity.  Fun.  The reasons why to do projects are countless.  Where to do them, home or school, is another matter.

Some teachers decide to have their students do their projects at home.  Their reasoning for doing so are typically the same reasons for assigning homework on a nightly basis.  Practice.  Responsibility.  Motivation.  Time Organization.  Here are the realities:
  • A child has none of the necessary resources or materials to complete the work, and so does not do the project.
  • The child loses the project and/or project guidelines and the project does not get completed. 
  • The project is completed, but does not meet any of the criteria.
  • A parent or older sibling does the project.
  • There is a last minute scramble to gather the necessary resources and materials, and the family pulls an all-niter to get it completed in time.
All of this can be eliminated when projects are completed in the classroom.

Whatever criteria you have for the project (the best criteria is agreed upon by the class) you can monitor.  All along the way, throughout the creative process you can ask questions, interject suggestions, and get students back on track.  If the criteria is designed and agreed upon by the class then it is clearly posted for all of the children to view and access.  If they don't remember what to do you can point them back to the criteria to review.  By doing this you are teaching your students how to maintain a focus, and what to do if they lose focus.

Not everyone likes to work alone and sometimes we have to work with others.  Doing a project in class allows you to control this.  You can provide a choice of working alone or with someone else.  You can give them the choice of who to work with.  You can also expect that they work in a small group.  Completing a project in class, with peers is an invaluable experience.  It is not always easy working with other people.  You have to listen to each others' ideas, share materials, divide responsibility, determine strengths of individuals to best support the group.  And body language is key!  Making sure that our bodies are positioned in such a way that says to everyone in the group, "You are part of our group and I value what your contributions." Teaching children how to navigate their way through this is not only a 21st Century Skill, but is a life-long skill they will use in any workplace or social situation.

Work quality and audience consideration can be an issue.  If you are present to guide children through the project process, you can provide suggestions.
  • Have you considered using a ruler to make the lines of your square / words straight?
  • Did you know that people get overwhelmed when they see a lot of writing in a PowerPoint?  Let's think about what else you can do to share your idea.
  • This is a great point you made!  I bet your audience would really enjoy hearing WHY you think that. 
While you do want the children to enjoy what they are doing, you also want them to do it well.  Not to mention you want them to be aware of the fact that much of what we create is for someone else and we have to take their needs into consideration.

Community is key.  One of the best way for children to learn is from their classmates.  At the end of work time, have your children share what they did that day.  What did they struggle with?  What went well?  Is there something you'd like to show us what you did?  Children are more than eager to share what they did, and even more eager to help each other when they are stuck.  I cannot count how many times a child has said they did something and another child liked it so much that they tried it.  Or once they saw what everyone else did they wanted to rework their own. 

Organization.  This can be a dreaded word.  Teachers often take for granted that children know how to organize materials, time, and information.  Some may be able to do this, but most cannot; they need to be taught.  This is our golden moment; teaching children how to organize.  There are so many ways to organize information, but two of my favorites are IIM and Foldables.  Both are visual and interactive in nature providing concrete ways to organize information.  Just because someone knows how to organize information does not mean they know how to organize materials and space.  We can teach them to either keep projects separate from other things or how to create sub-folders, pages, or pockets so that everything is in one place.  (If I am doing a research project, I typically like to use baskets so that the children can put all of their texts and notes in one spot.  But, after discovering Notebook Foldables this year I may reconsider.)  Let's not forget that sometimes children underestimate the amount of space they need to work.  A question I often ask is, "Do you think it would help you to either clear the table of what you don't need or to work on the floor?"  Time, time, time.  Children, particularly young children, lack a sense of time.  They cannot tell the difference between 1 minute, 10 minutes, or 1 hour.  I have found it helpful to create a schedule with the children.  I use a desktop calendar and we plot the project out together.  We determine how long it should take us to research, organize, plan, etc. (for research projects).  For other projects we determine when we should be done gathering evidence, planning/drafting, gathering materials (particularly if they need to get things online).  Budgeting time is also a life-long skill, and eliminates the tendency to become a 'Last Minute Molly". 

I have to say that there is one other reason why I enjoy doing projects in the classroom.  It becomes a common language in your classroom.  Because the children are often engaged in creative ways to develop and share their thinking, it becomes a norm.  Since it becomes a norm the children ultimately ending up creating ideas for classroom projects.  I recently experienced this with the book The Giver.  After reading the book aloud my students were compelled to share their thoughts with others in a creative way.  I had no intentions of doing a project because I don't believe in doing a project for everything, but I did because they wanted to do it.  Over time they want to create things and understand that there is a medium to do so.