Saturday, 12 May 2012 17:45

Project Time (Teaching Tip #70)

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When I first started teaching third grade many years ago, I wanted to create a regular time slot each Friday afternoon during which students would choose their own activities. I had high hopes for this “Choice Time.” In my mind I had visions of students playing chess, undertaking construction projects, conducting science investigations, researching topics, and pursuing activities and endeavors that they didn’t have a chance to pursue during a typical school day. In short, I wanted the activities to have “learning value.” I would also use this time to hold students accountable if they didn’t turn in a complete homework packet that morning.

Typically in classrooms, the teachers decide how the students will spend their time, and I wanted our “Choice Time” to provide children with opportunites to think and plan for themselves, develop better judgment and decision-making skills, and learn how to use unstructured time well.  For the most part I was pleased with how our Choice Time went over the first couple years, but there was something missing. I felt we could be using this time better, and I wanted the time to be spent on activities that were more academic than the ones many kids were choosing.

Choice Time eventually became “Enrichment Time,” and I presented this idea to students at the beginning of each year as a time to “follow your muse” and pursue your academic passions. I presented a list of possible activities and encouraged the kids to add their own ideas. The one condition I established at the outset was that any activity they did needed to have learning value. I explained, for example, that they could use instructional drawing books to improve their artistic skills, but they couldn’t sit at a desk chatting with their friends while coloring and writing notes to one another.

Enrichment Time served our class well for a few more years, but I once again felt that we could be getting a bigger bang out of our buck during this period. So, this past Friday, after much deliberation and planning, I unveiled “Project Time” and explained my goals for this change. I told my students that I would like them to work on projects that would excite and challenge them. The projects would proceed over a period of weeks. I really like this aspect of Project Time because during Choice and Enrichment Times the kids would often move from one activity to the next without investing that much time and energy, and I wanted them to commit to something more long-term.

After providing my kids with some time to brainstorm potential ideas and discuss these ideas in pairs, everyone enthusiastically decided what their projects would be, with whom they would work, and what type of final project they would be presenting to the class. I also told everyone that every time an individual or group completed a project, I would take a photo of them holding up their project and place the photo on a bulletin board that would grow over time. They liked this idea very much. On our Smartboard I recorded all the project information (names, topics, and final product) to increase their commitment to their projects and make it easy for us to open each weekly Project Time period with a brief check-in.

The students have chosen a variety of projects, ranging from writing plays and comic books, to constructing machines, to creating posters to increase awareness of the environment, to making information books about animals. I know it has been only one day, but the structure we have established and the enthusiasm the kids are already showing for their projects are building my confidence that Project Time may soon become something special for all of us.

New Teaching Tips appear every Sunday of the school year.