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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

Five-Year-Olds Pilot Their Own Project-Based Learning

Student-driven class activities, enhanced by technology, launch kindergartners on a journey of lifelong learning. Read the article.

Narrator: Creating the school to serve nearly 500 three- to five-year-olds might seem like the recipe for disaster. Some days are chaotic here. Like when the Auburn University Pep Squad shows up. Or when a tornado touches down nearby.

Principal: Boys and girls, please move into your weather locations at this time. We will come around and check on everyone.

Narrator: But on a typical day, the students and staff at Alabama's Auburn Early Education Center are busily engaged in learning adventures, like sailing a cardboard cruise ship to Africa.

Teacher: Okay, Jordan and Dillon are going to pass your life vests out to you.

Narrator: Or flying a plastic plane to Brazil.

Teacher: You go ahead and give all your boarding pass.

Narrator: For them the lifelong learning exploration can't begin too soon.

Teacher: Bon voyage!

Narrator: Just about everything that goes on here involves long-term projects that students undertake as a class.

Sandy: Do you know where that is, what it's called?

Student: South America, Brazil.

Sandy: It is Brazil. And this is the place that you are you are studying about.

Student: That is a big place!

Sandy: It is a big, big place.

Narrator: The theme for each project evolves out of the natural curiosity of the kids.

Teacher: Here is some information about the camel, and it says, "The animal..."

Narrator: Once the students decide on a theme, teachers guide them to resources and books and on the Internet, to help focus their efforts.

Lilli: Let's say that the theme is Brazil. And they begin to study Brazil by going the Internet, they look up information. Then they decide if we want to go there. And the teachers pose to them, "Well, how can we get there?"

Student: And if they didn't have the map, they couldn't get there.

Sandy: They couldn't get there!

Lilli: Then they may decide, "Well, we're going by plane, we need to construct some type of model of plane. And the teachers get the Internet resources, the book resources. They take them on the field trip.

Sandy: Where did you get the information to know that?

Sandy: Well, we went to the Auburn Airport to see all the instruments. There was instruments inside planes to make it work.

Student: These make us how fast we're going, how slow. And these...

Lilli: The kids are very highly motivated to be involved, because they're doing it for a reason. It's not just an arbitrary "cutesy" activity that has no real meaning or value for them. So that's why teaching using thematic curriculum keeps the kids very engaged in the activities.

Teacher: You have to have your passport to get on the plane.

Student: This is your Captain speaking. We're flying to Brazil, and we don't expect a lot of turbulence.

Lilli: All of it involves developing the plan, carrying it through, writing about it, and cooperation, problem solving, critical thinking, are all pieces to getting that project complete.

Stayce: Remind everybody what we decided that we needed at our funeral.

Narrator: With a bit of skillful coaching, everyday events, like the death of the class pet praying mantis can trigger engaging projects.

Stacye: Can you share with them what you decided needed to go on the tombstone?

Student: Bugs' name.

Stacye: Bugs' name.

Narrator: After her students decided to give the deceased a funeral, teacher, Stacy Jones, found a way to fold all of their required curriculum into the project. Among other things, they practiced writing and drawing by designing invitations for the ceremony.

Stacye: I got in science. I got in social studies. I got in math, I got in writing. I got in everything all through an authentic purpose for learning. They were interested. And once you have been interested, they can't get enough information. They love school, because they're interested, because it's authentic.

Student: I went to the dentist for them to take pictures of my teeth. And I got...

Narrator: Since most kindergartners favorite subject is themselves, personal stories are at the center of the literacy curriculum mere.

Student: I forgot that I had a virus. And when I went home, I threw up on myself. Are there any questions?

Narrator: Each day, three students get a chance to tell their story, and answer questions about it.

Stayce: At the beginning of the year, every story is one sentence. "I went to the beach." "I went shopping." "I went to the mall." And as the children are asking these questions, they realize, "I need to be sure to say these details, because it's a pretty important part."

Student: I fell, and then I hit my head on my table. It was a round table, and it was a coffee one.

Stayce: Journal is great. Academically, they're writing, they're reading every day. But more importantly, they're going to be talking to people the rest of their life. So that's my big push for it is learning how to socialize and communicate with other people.

Stayce: All right, which story are you going to vote on? Are you going to vote on the teeth? Are you going to vote on the sick?

Narrator: The students consider each story and vote on which one to write about and illustrate that day.

Stayce: Hey, guys, I'm looking for those periods that go at the end of sentences.

Stayce: Now I hear another sound in "hi-s." "Hi-s."

Student: "C?"

Stayce: Mm hm.

Narrator: Early student writing rarely conforms to conventional spelling rules. But principal Lilli Land sees value in allowing creative alternatives.

Lilli: A five-year-old child should not be expected to spell every word conventionally correct. Many 35-year-olds may not spell every word conventionally correct, but use "spell check" when they're on the computer. But with a young child, you want to turn them onto the writing. "Man, I can write this! You know, I can be an author!"

Student: I'm having a good time.

Lilli: So you get those juices going, you get the kids interested. They write, and then the way that they write gives the teacher very useful information about where they are in their development in the stages of reading.

Coach: I would probably say you're exactly right. Most of the time we're going to see that "s," it's going to be an "s."

Stayce: Right.

Coach: And we're still looking at September so let's look at where he is now.

Stayce: All right.

Narrator: In addition to a dedicated reading coach, the Center has installed "Smart Boards" in every classroom to enhance their literacy effort.

Sandy: What's that letter?

Student: "b."

Sandy: "b." All right. Here's what I want you to do. I want you to pull this "b" on top of that "d." Pull it down. Now, are they the same? No.

Sandy: Before you could show it to them. But the fact that they can bring it over and put it on top of each other, and because they can manipulate it, makes it so much easier for them to learn, and it's so much fun for them to do. And they're actually in charge of it. they have the power. And therefore, it's more pertinent to them, I think.

Sandy: What's that letter?

Student: "n."

Sandy: What's that letter?

Student: "e."

Sandy: What's that letter?

Student: "n."

Sandy: Look how smart you are. You're so smart, I can't even take it! All right, what comes after...

Teacher: How do you like going on the big white boards, and going on the Internet?

Jared: You can just learn!

Lilli: Technology has really just taken us to another level.

Teacher: It says, "All the plants or plant life of a place."

Lilli: When kids have questions about things that they are learning, then it's just with a click of the mouse, and they're there. And not only can they just get information, but they can see all kinds of pictures. They can see video clips. So it just opens the door to their world of learning.

Sandy: Look! It's not anaconda. It's an otter! Why do you think the otter's coming up there?

Student: ’Cause he eats anacondas!

Sandy: He's probably saying, "Look! I have dinner. I'm going to eat me some anacondas," isn't he?

Sandy: These kids have a very authentic, real purpose for learning.

Teacher: Now, Jordan's going to stamp your passport.

Lilli: We're trying to teach them to be lifelong learners. What are resources? When you want to find something out, what do you do? You don't go to an adult, and just have them feed you all the information you know. You have to learn to be a problem solver. And you have to be resourceful. And we have to keep them excited about the process of learning.

Student: Don't go yet! Because there's lots of airplanes and birds covering the sky.

Student: Okay. I'm hanging up.

Narrator: For more information on what works in public education, go to edutopia.org.

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Video Credits

Produced, Written, and Directed by

  • Ken Ellis

Associate Producer:

  • Amy Erin Borovoy


  • Karen Sutherland

Camera Crew:

  • Patrick Gregory
  • Dale Gray
  • Amy Erin Borovoy
  • Ken Ellis


  • Michael Pritchard

Original Music:

  • Ed Bogas

Still Photographs Courtesy of

  • Auburn Early Education Center

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