Friday, November 15, 2013

Project Time

In August, I found myself, finally, in a classroom of my own. There I was, two days before students, sitting alone in the room, faced with the task of development. In a public school, everything is thrust upon you--scope and sequence of curriculum already created and, in some cases, scripted. But not here. I had next to nothing to go on. All I had was a list of 15 names, some desks, a few shelves of reading books, a cupboard of junk left over from last year's teacher, and some text books I could use as curriculum. There was no foundation upon which to build--I had to develop it. It was perfect. Everything I could ever hope for. Mine to create anything I liked with. A block of freshly cut clay waiting to be molded by my hands.

My only hindrance was the knowledge that last year's teacher's contract hadn't been renewed because she let the children have too much freedom. 

Wow, that's... well, that's... interesting knowledge to have. Because I chose to work at a private school, I knew I wouldn't have the same troubles I had seen in the district with administrators micromanaging what I taught, but this left me with an entirely different problem--how was I, as a first year teacher, going to maintain enough classroom management to not follow in that teacher's footsteps and yet still create a classroom that allowed children to thrive?

The fearful first year teacher side of me won, I'm sorry to say, and I veered on the side of caution. I moved all the desks into traditional rows, three of five, all facing the white board. I started diagramming a curriculum map based on the textbooks provided. I created a short list of classroom rules, rather than having the students generate their own. I set everything up nice and neat like a good little school teacher. I prepped my stern voice. No one was going to tell me that I had no classroom management. I can learn from others' mistakes.

There was one thing I couldn't resist putting a tiny twist on. When I wrote up my schedule (which I was amazed to find that I could actually do. That's when I knew I was in a private school), I left a period towards the end of the day open for "Project Work." I think I may have done it subconsciously. I definitely wasn't sure what it meant at the time. I just wrote it down without understanding why.

The first few weeks of school was chaotic, anyway, what with both my students' acclimation to change as well as my own. We didn't follow the schedule until nearly September. But all the while, the kids kept asking, "When are we going to do a project?" The way they said it made it sound like an important work. Apparently their second grade teacher had done a lot of hands on projects and science experiments with them, and they were craving that type of work again. But I was caught up in the stress of a new job at that time and couldn't think that far ahead. All I could tell them was, "Soon."

When my mentor came in to observe me, she noted that I didn't do any sort of intervention. "Yeah, that's not really my style," I hinted as politely as possible. I hadn't seen any beneficial results from my experience with intervention in the district. I knew that maybe I just hadn't seen the right methods, but again, I was still trying to figure out how to do the basic functions of my job and couldn't handle that much on my plate yet. Still, there were those students that I had been meaning to work one-on-one with. To pull some students aside, though, I'd need an extended period of time in which the rest of the class could be working independently. Then somehow it just clicked. If I gave the class some time to work on anything they were curious or passionate about, I could pull those students that needed extra help. The Montessorian in me grew giddy. I couldn't wait to begin.

I don't really do much with my intervention time now that I have it, to be fair. Even though I made a big show about how it's a privilege to come to intervention because you get the chance to practice something you're struggling with and learn more, the students are still resistant to coming. And I hate to force them. They're not receptive learners when they're frustrated or upset. They just dislike missing project work, so for the most part, I leave them to it. Sometimes I pull students one at a time to check for comprehension or fluency or the like, or sometimes I pull students that I know didn't understand a lesson, but most of them get a minimally-interrupted 40 minutes of project time a day.

My only rule for Project Time is that all projects must be written down in the form of a proposal and approved by me before they can be begun. There are expectations, like "You must work quietly enough that the students I'm working with can focus," but they weren't really stated in the form of a rule. (Perhaps they should have been. Occasionally when that expectation isn't met, everywhere except for my group becomes a No Talking Zone, in which all communication must be carried out non-verbally. We switch back to whispering after a few minutes, but I still have to go through with the process every other day or so. They get so excited for project time. But that's to be expected, I suppose. We just have to have rules because classmates are distract-able. But I digress.) No rules about what types of projects are available, grades for projects, or even that one must do a project were ever stated. We spent a day or so working on proposal writing, and then I just set them free.

And they've completed some pretty cool projects, only two months in. I'll take this opportunity to throw in some pictures. All thumbnails open into full-sized images.

First, an example of a proposal. Most don't go into as much detail as this one, unfortunately. These girls went all out with the proposal, spent nearly two months working, and just recently gave a presentation on their accomplishments.

Working hard. The girls in front are working on the solar system project. The ones in the back are working on a wildlife diorama. The boy in the back is, of his own initiative, grabbing some wipes to clean up a mess he made.

Unfortunately, the only computer I have available during project time is the one the school provided for me. I can't send students to work in the computer lab unsupervised, and I can't ask everyone to come to the computer lab every time someone needs to use the computer, so I just let the students use mine. This student is typing a story he wrote to publish on the class website.

Finished wildlife diorama featuring plastic figurines and easter grass. They decided against gluing anything down so that they could scrap the cardboard when they were done and use the figurines for something else.

An exploded baking soda and vinegar volcano. One of the many. This one features a clay model that took three days to create and lava rocks recycled from another presentation.

Elephant's toothpaste (hydrogen peroxide and yeast). This student painstakingly copied down the instructions from a YouTube video in order to do this. Word for word. It took three days of writing and a lot of patient listening.

Finished solar system diorama. They had trouble connecting the styrofoam balls to the yarn. It was difficult first to make a hole in the ball (which they did using scissors), and then to get the string successfully through the hole. The latter took a lot of trial and error, but they finally realized that they could tie the string around a pencil, push the pencil through, and grab the string on the other side.

Borax-and-glue slime, illuminated with glowsticks. A big hit for all of the boys. He even shared some of the final product with anyone that wanted to take some home.

And now for some observations.

-First, this group of students seems to gravitate towards science experiments. Since they had experience with it last year, it's safe ground. We had a long run of volcanoes and baking-soda-vinegar-based projects, probably five or six presentations. Currently we're having a run of sensory projects--slime and silly putty.

-The students often inspire each other. The volcano thing started with a project from one boy at the beginning of September, and after that, the rest of the boys wanted to do their own. I'd like to encourage them to make minor changes to projects when they do similar projects and record the differences, but for now, I know they just like having the experience of doing the work for themselves.

-I do have a few students that can rarely ever "think of anything to do." At first, I told them to sit and plan something, but after a while, the started getting up, wandering around the room, watching, and occasionally helping others. Now I have a few students that regularly spend all project time assisting others.

-And I do have some students that occasionally prefer to read at this time or use it to do their homework, like a study hall.

-When doing a project, though, especially an involved one, the students rarely like to work on their own. I specifically didn't set a limit on group size, so occasionally on longer projects, there are normally three to five students working together, though participants can come and go. If participation in a project drops to one sole member, it is usually abandoned.

-Sometimes students have several simultaneous projects occurring at once, spreading across multiple groups. The one they choose to work on each day varies.

-Occasionally if I assign a longer assignment during the day, or one that the students get deep into, they will choose to continue the assignment during project time.

-And watching the natural leadership roles play out is certainly very interesting.

A couple weeks ago, this Edutopia article, titled Just Ask: Harnessing the Power of Student Curiosity, came across my radar. Turns out that my Project Time is already a thing. Employees of Google are given the opportunity to use 20% of their time working on personal creative ideas. This has led to many innovative programs, such as Gmail and Google News. The initiative has spread to education, becoming known as Genius Hour or 20% Time, and some books have been written on the subject, including Passion-Driven Classroom by Angela Maiers and Amy Sandvold, which is now on my To Read List.

This is all well and good, and I'm happy for these people, but honestly, I'm already looking towards my next big venture: a Montessori-inspired modern classroom. I think Project Time was necessary only as a transitional stage until I can get the ball rolling on my Menu-based Modern Montessori-inspired classroom.