Making Class Projects Schoolwide
At Symonds, projects aren't just confined to individual teachers and classrooms. Instead, they are schoolwide undertakings incorporating academics with enrichment in ways that make learning more likely to stick. This elementary school is committed to carrying out at least one schoolwide project each year, and often completes more than one. Previous projects have included everything from recording a school CD to putting on a schoolwide circus. Having everyone in the school involved in the same project builds community and a sense of shared culture for students at all levels.
The project for the 2014-2015 school year was centered on bookmaking. The idea originated in art teacher John Bass' classroom. "The bookmaking came about through an idea of starting sketchbooks in the art room," says Bass, "and then the excitement over bookmaking and getting the kids into books culminated into teachers saying, 'Well, it'd be nice if we could get the curriculum into these books, too.' And so the sketchbooks kind of got set aside . . . and it became a natural fit to integrate the classroom curriculum with the art curriculum."
However, the idea of schoolwide projects incorporating enrichment activities has a longer history at Symonds, according to first-grade teacher Sue Meehan. "We've been utilizing more of the schoolwide culture wrapping around using art, music, PE, librarian, in wraparound themes, probably historically at least 20 years, if not longer," reflects Meehan. "From the teacher perspective, it lightens our load quite a bit and it allows a lot more interesting ideas to come about, more brainstorming of different people coming in with different ideas . . . It also gives the children something that is really lasting . . . The memory is really cemented for them."
Leaning on Others
When it came to the styles of books and how to construct them, classroom teachers leaned on Bass and an outside resource, local artist Terry Reeves. Reeves is a part of the school's artist-in-residence program, which brings local community members in to share their talents with the students. However, an artist is not required for adapting the bookmaking project. "You do not have to have an artist in residence," says Bass. "The school art teacher could lead a project like this, especially if working collaboratively with classroom teachers and if everyone is willing to put in the time to meet, plan, and do the preparatory work necessary. I would recommend a school start on a small scale, a single grade level, to work out the process first."
Fifth-grade teacher Gretchen Hoefer agrees, saying that schools can also lean on their art teachers or other resources. "Art teachers . . . often have bookmaking experience through their own training. When I was in school working on my master's degree, I had the opportunity to take an introductory bookmaking class. There may be local classes offered about bookmaking that teachers can get involved in to learn some basic styles of books that are easy to make with children."
And if local classes or resources aren't an option, teachers can also find tutorials online, through craft websites such as Design Sponge.
Blending Art and Academics
Using their combined knowledge on bookmaking and teaching, Bass and Reeves worked with the teachers to determine what type of book each grade level would make (pop-up, accordion fold, etc.). Bass and the classroom teachers decided that the books' style and content would vary by grade level, so that construction could be tailored to the students' skill level and content could fit whatever curriculum unit the teachers felt could best adapt to the format. Once that was set, Bass and Reeves created a sample book for each grade level that teachers could take back to their classrooms. They also worked on book construction with the students during art class.
"From kindergarten on, we’re working on developing those fine motor skills,” says Bass about Symonds' art curriculum. "So with the bookmaking, we're going back and having them practice skills that they already know very well. It's a chance for them to put those skills into practice and see how important it is to pay attention to how you're using your hands, to the materials, and to how those materials that you're manipulating to create something can have worth outside of just a pretty picture. That gives a sort of responsibility and commitment to their work, so that now these books are really special to them. And now they're going to go back into the classroom, and this knowledge that they're learning has a really magical place to go."
Making Content Fun
Once the style of each grade's book was determined, teachers worked together by grade level to determine the content of the books. "The fourth-grade teachers at Symonds . . . were talking about doing pop-up books on energy, [because] we just completed a science unit on energy," says Susan Grover. "We were playing around with what kinds of pop-ups might the children include, and I think we weren't happy with that. So we kept thinking, and we started moving in the direction of figurative language -- and that’s where we landed on idioms."
While the books were under construction in the art room, the classroom teachers started laying the groundwork, through preteaching and research, for the content that would fill the pages. "I started out introducing idioms by reading them some books," says Grover. "We were using the discovery method, and we would use inferences to figure out what the idioms were meaning in the books. And then we looked at a list of the 50 most popular or common idioms, and from that they started to recognize other idioms that they were hearing outside of school and in school, and it was a lot of fun to be working in a math class, and then all of a sudden a hand pops up and someone says, 'Hey, that was an idiom.'"
Once her fourth-grade students had a good grasp of what an idiom was, Grover began leading them to find idioms to fill the pages of their books.
"They have a research packet,” says Grover, "and in their packet, they started to choose the idioms that they might like to illustrate. And that's when the excitement began, and they were beginning to take ownership of their idioms that they would be illustrating in their books. When I'm walking around the room when the children are making their books, you hear a lot of great conversation about . . . the figurative language part versus the literal part of the idiom."
Flexing to Fit Students' Skills
While many kids are creative and love to draw, every child might not be comfortable with the art aspect of the project. So teachers were mindful of that when working with their students. For some teachers, this meant allowing students to find their own way to create the content, whether drawing, using words on their maps, or cutting and pasting found images into their books.
"It is tricky, because some kids are really challenged or they're self-critical," observes Hoefer, "so they feel like, 'Oh, I can't do it. I can't make the drawing,' or, 'I'm not sure how to do that. I'm not a good drawer,' which is so hard to hear. But we'll come back with, 'There's no right or wrong way to draw a different thing to represent something on your map, so just give it your best shot and however it comes out.' . . . So we certainly have flexibility in how the maps and the books are executed."
Other teachers brought in examples and prompts to help their students find their inspiration. "I have pulled clip art off Google, and we display it on the screen," says Grover. For example, there was the idiom "a piece of cake." She recalls, "They had a lot of different pictures of slices of cake up on the screen to choose from. And all it took was that little piece to get them moving on their own to draw the piece of cake that they wanted to be on their popup."
Getting Teachers In on the Action
When their students faced challenges such as needing inspiration, the teachers could relate on a personal level, because they faced some of the same issues. Modeling is important at Symonds, so Reeves held a session where the teachers made books of their own. The idea was that, after having made their own books, they'd feel more comfortable with the project and possibly come up with other ways to use bookmaking throughout the year.
"And so during that whole session, we're talking with each other, we're working side by side as the kids do in tight spaces, sharing materials," says Bass. "It’s interesting to watch a group of teachers line up to get materials and it's very similar to how students do it, and so we have to constantly remember that we're working together just as the students are. It's a nice reminder of how difficult it is for students to work, but it also builds a lot of camaraderie, and it’s a fun way to spend an afternoon while also being able to take something and bring it back into your teaching."
Sharing and Celebrating the Results
Once the books were constructed and filled with content, they're ready for display to peers and parents on Literature Night.
As families or visitors enter the school on Literature Night, they're asked to draw two to three student names out of a hat. The finished books are all laid out on desks in each classroom, along with a piece of paper for comments. Visitors see their child's book first, and then review the books of the students whose names they drew when they arrived. At each stop, visitors write on the comment pages, telling the bookmakers what they liked or what surprised them about each book.
“After Literature Night, the comments sheet is on every child's desk," says Grover, "and if a child's page isn’t filled with comments, teachers and other staff members make sure that every child has many comments and compliments written on their page. So the children come in and the book is on their desk with a comment sheet, and their eyes light up. They're ecstatic that other people took the time to read their work and look at their artwork, and the comments that the other students and parents write are really invaluable."
When the end result is a special product that will be viewed by friends, family, and community members, students are much more excited about the content. And that, Symonds teachers say, is where real learning occurs.
"We learn in lots of different ways," says Bass. "It's great to hear something from a teacher. It's wonderful to see it put up on the board. It's great if we're able to then do it ourselves . . . We take that knowledge deeper into us. And then if we can actually take that information and create something that's relevant to us, we're doing more than just holding it."