When I began teaching 8 years ago, I would prepare a lesson/project almost as a scripted piece of art. I wanted to be sure that every student had the same exact directions, the same materials to start the exploration and the same set of worksheets and questions to fill in when it was all over. I thought it was great because it was hands on learning. Students were engaged because of the nature of the experiment, but usually as they worked they became noisy, bored and restless. They weren’t interested in filling in the answers on the papers, they often missed steps in the directions and things felt messy. It felt like “play time” more than making actual discoveries, and it was hard for me to manage. I struggled time and time again, using this same method while searching for a way to get them to stay engaged.
So on the first day of school three years ago, I thought I’d try something completely different. It started with a problem: design a model/prototype of a vehicle that is powered by wind. (This eventually evolved into a longer project!) The materials they could use sat in a pile on a table: paper, scissors, straws, tape, lifesavers and paperclips. I set a fan on the floor and explained that they could use this fan to test out their prototype as they worked. I told them that I would not give them any other directions. I asked them to begin when they were ready.
The results of this method were astounding. Once they got over the shock that their teacher was not going to tell them what to do, they got serious. There were a few questions about how much of the material they could use, but then they set off to work. For a few minutes, the room was almost completely silent as they picked up their materials. Their little third grade brains were thinking, planning and wondering. I couldn’t believe the different types of things they were trying. There were 3 wheel bicycle models, sails going up, huge cars, small cars, students drawing sketches and then cutting, students testing and re-testing and testing even more. All of the talk in the room was centered around their designs. Even a few students took their materials and headed to a corner so that no one else could see their prototype. The floor by the fan became a busy place and students were giving one another suggestions to make their models better. Phrases like “It’s too heavy!” or “My sail is too small, it’s not catching the wind.” were followed by an excited run back to their work space to try it again. Mistakes were made and corrected.
The most amazing part to me, was that it was my first day of school. There were no procedures in place, no expectations laid out for how we should work on these types of activities. They were excited to learn, eager to try and left the room at the end of the day still talking about it. The next morning we wrote about the activity and they were eager to share their discoveries. As I’ve embraced projects more in recent years, I’ve found ways to structure the learning that still gives them free choice. I use a variety of formative assessments to be sure their learning is on track, and there is always accountability!
The best part is that learning finally felt right, authentic and exciting. It was a great way to start our school year.