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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

Cathy Huemer: Project-Based Learning for Primary Students

Cathy Huemer, a kindergarten and first-grade teacher at Newsome Park Elementary School, describes her approach to project-based learning.
Related Tags: Project-Based Learning

1. Describe your approach to project-based learning.

I think it's fantastic for the kids. Their energy level is something that you just don't see when the main focus of the day is direct instruction. In a direct-instruction classroom, the teacher's up there delivering it all to them. You've got the kids who are always going to listen and always going to pay attention and might have the home background that's provided that they're going to be successful in school no matter what type of delivery system the teacher uses.

But I find that I can engage all children -- and I mean all children in my classroom -- through project-based learning because there is something there for all of them. Whether it is the art work that needs to be done. If it's the actual lab experimentation. If it's taking care of something that involves the project. There's something that hooks all of them. And so I find that the level of engagement rises. Therefore, the level of learning rises, too.

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2. How does project work help students while meeting Virginia's Standards of Learning (SOLs)?

It's extremely valuable for the children because they get to learn about something in depth. Typically, the state standards of learning (SOL) just kind of hit things. They hit the surface of things for children, and there's a lot of it. But by actually incorporating those SOLs into a project, they actually get depth and breadth, and they become experts in whatever it is they happen to be studying and they actually learn some SOLs along the way.

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3. What is the first step in undertaking a new project?

We use the work of Sylvia Chard, and we base the projects on three phases. So the first thing we do with kids is the planning. And part of that planning is actually determining what the project is going to be. Now with the young children, they have lots of ideas, and they're usually very broad. So part of what I have to do then is help them narrow that down. And then it's my job, too, to make sure I know the state standards of learning. So that if they come up with a project idea, that I know that there's some responsible learning that's going to take place along with the project.

For example, with this last project, they wanted to do animals in general and I said to them, "That's a great idea. Let's do animals. But we need to get more specific. What is it that you want to know about animals?" So that's how they narrowed it down to worms. And that was kind of the first part of the project -- then, "Okay, what do we know about worms? What do we need to find out about worms?"

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4. What do the second and third phases of the project look like?

The field work is necessary to then answer those questions that they raised in Phase 1. And so that's a lot of what you would see on the next part of the project board is the actual work that they're doing -- whether it's field trips, lab work, experiments, math problems, daily observations. All those things took place during the worm project and the house project to answer the questions that they raised in the first phase.

The third phase then becomes the celebration of the learning. You know, how are we going to share with the broader community everything that we learned during Phase 2? And then we make some decisions as a class what the best way is to share that knowledge with the community.

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5. How do you assess projects?

I teach kindergarten and first grade so assessment might look different in the primary grades than it would look in the upper elementary grades because I'm basically looking at -- I'm assessing -- their engagement level in the project. I'm assessing math, science, social studies, writing. All those things are integrated throughout a project so some of the things that we do are set targets or "look-fors" that I set with the children before we might start, say, an art project.

We did an art project on the worms, and the children had certain targets they had to hit. For example, they had to have a predator. They had to have a habitat. They had to have food. All those things had to be represented through art, and then they got stars based on how many of those targets they hit. And then that translates into -- not a grade in kindergarten or first grade -- it translates into a report card grade of an S for Successful or P for Making Progress.

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6. What role do the students play in critiquing one another’s work?

Because they're kindergartners and first graders, we're actually learning how to learn. We're learning how to critique as much as we are just critiquing for the sake of critiquing. They're learning how to offer positive comments to another child. For example, if I go back to that art project we did with the worms, it was up to the children to take their project to somebody else and say, "This is what I think I have. Can you look at it with me? And let's see how many of these targets I hit" -- before they could bring it to any of the teachers in the room for that final evaluation. So, that's kind of how the critiquing starts.

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