Not all learning happens seated at a desk listening to a teacher. Today’s students must use a wide range of skills in their studies—the same skills they will one day need in their future jobs.
Over the course of the year in Amanda Beigh’s, Susan Biltucci’s, Susan Earl’s and Gemma Siringo’s fourth grade classes, students independently researched different topics and used a variety of creative ways to share what they learned.
When learning about the Iroquois of New York State, they read various materials then chose from a number of suggested projects. Some built a replica of a longhouse or crafted a diorama (a three-dimensional, miniature model) reflecting a scene from Iroquois life. Others created pottery using a homemade clay recipe, carved traditional clan objects from soap, made a quiver that could hold arrows, fashioned a bead necklace, or wove a placemat. The fourth graders proudly displayed their works in the school library.
After they learned about the Iroquois, students in Mrs. Biltucci’s and Mrs. Earl’s classes investigated explorers who played an important role of New York State history. Students chose from Henry Hudson, John Cabot, Samuel de Champlain, Giovanni Verrazano and Jacques Cartier. They researched information in books and visited Mrs. Biltucci’s web page to find links where they would learn more online. The final project was to make an explorer trading card fashioned similar to a baseball trading card. Students evaluated their own cards using a rubric (series of grading standards). This type of evaluation encourages students to reflect on their own learning. Their teachers then evaluated the work using the same rubric.
A rubric gives students a clear understanding of the criteria each project should include. They can monitor their work throughout the project and decide if they have met, not met or exceeded the expectations. This process is equally important in college or the workplace. When people know what is expected, they have the ability to measure their effort and make improvements before their teacher or boss ‘grades’ them.
At the end of a unit detailing the parts of a plant and each part’s function, students worked at home to create an example of a plant at home. They used whatever they had available—paper, cardboard, foam, plastic, metal, etc. Once complete, they labeled each plant part.
The teachers did not ask students to duplicate a specific plant like corn or a petunia. Instead, Students synthesized the knowledge they gained throughout the process to designed their own plants.
In the past, a teacher might have given students a paper test with a diagram of a plant, asking them to identify each part. It might have been fill-in-the-blank, multiple-choice or even included a word wall. Making certain that the model has all of the appropriate parts demonstrates that students fully understand plant anatomy and function. In addition, it gave every student the chance to have fun and be creative.
The teachers described the ingenuity in their creations as impressive.
That same self-direction and creativity repeated itself when students chose and researched a famous person. Rather than simply writing a book report about a famous person, students first read examples of well-written and age-appropriate biographies from the Time Life Biographies for Kids. With that as a guide, they answered questions about the life of the person they were investigating and tackled one of two projects. One choice was to create a biography in a bottle—a three-dimensional figure using a soda bottle as the foundation. The other choice was to draw the subject’s body on a piece of foam board or poster board then cut a hole where the head would be. The hole needed to be big enough for the student to insert his or her head. Students presented their projects to classmates, assuming the character of their subjects.
Students also studied the American Revolution, the Erie Canal and Ellis Island through web quests or cyber hunts. The lessons combined New York State history with writing and art. As a final immigration project, they wrote a postcard from perspective of an immigrant, newly arrived in New York Harbor. They also drew a picture using watercolors to capture sights they might have seen. Visit Mrs. Biltucci’ website for more information on some of the amazing projects the classes have worked on at https://sites.google.com/site/galleryimagination/home.
This has been a busy year for Barringer fourth grade students and their teachers. The students spent a great deal of time investigating, clearly showing their talents phenomenal researchers and artisans.
Looking differently at education
Some parents may wonder why schools focus so heavily on projects.
Assistant Superintendent for Curriculum Cindy Stocker explained that the change is designed to give students the tools they need to be successful in school and later in life.
“Children learn best when they are actively engaged and involved in learning. The Common Core State Standards and 21st Century Skills initiatives encourage educators to incorporate cooperative groups, critical thinking and project-based curricula into student learning,” said Ms. Stocker.
“The fourth grade teachers at Barringer Road took that challenge seriously and are impressed with students’ results.”