Bringing Project Work to a Community College 

Sallee Beneke
Illinois Valley Community College, Oglesby, Illinois

Interest in project work has grown as educators have come to understand the contribution of active, engaged, meaningful learning to the early childhood curriculum. In response to this interest, Illinois Valley Community College has incorporated project work as a requirement in their two-year teacher training program. The Project Approach as part of this community college program is currently in its third year. Several practices to support student learning have proven helpful.

A course was added to the curriculum in which students are introduced to both the theory and practice of the Project Approach and documentation. Small groups of students conduct an in-depth project as part of the course and then prepare a panel to document the story of their project and their own growth. This personal experience helps form their notion of what constitutes a project and to develop an appreciation for teamwork and collaboration. Many students have preconceived definitions for the word "project." They often think of a project as a defined task. Conducting their own project helps them to construct a new meaning for the word "project" and to get a feel for curriculum which follows the student's interest. In these first experiences it is helpful to teach webbing and listing as described by Sylvia Chard in her practical guides. A general topic for these adult projects is selected by the instructor and then each group follows the steps for webbing suggested by Chard. Students find the webbing process very useful and ultimately come up with a narrow topic that suits the interests of the members of the small group. For example, "Clothes" was chosen as the general topic for one class. However, after webbing and discussing their interests, these small groups investigated aspects of the topic that were very different from one another. One of these groups studied "Designer Labels" while another investigated "Dry Cleaning." Teaching them to periodically produce a series of webs helps them to reflect on the growth in their own knowledge through project work. It helps them see the value of collaboration. As one student said, "You come to realize that everyone's opinion does count. Everyone has different ways of thinking and different approaches. You can gain so much from another's ideas, and you can even expand from that."

Project work was also introduced to the curriculum in our small lab school. Students who are learning about project work in the Project Approach/Documentation course can observe at the lab school and see examples of children's projects developing. Samples illustrating the three phases of project work can be introduced into the lecture portion of the course as they develop. Following and discussing the evolution of a current project is a good way to help students begin to think about documenting children's work.

The experience of teaching at the lab school and taking part in developing a project with children also assists in understanding. We support them by offering half-hour weekly conferences with a Master Teacher and weekly staff meetings that include all teachers, student teachers, the Master Teacher, and the early childhood coordinator. Time is set aside to discuss the progress of the children and the developing curriculum. The first half of the semester focuses on other approaches, but in the last half of the semester, only project work is discussed.

Many of the students will be hired by employers who are looking for teachers who know how to implement thematic teaching. There is dissonance between the kind of teacher-initiated lesson planning that goes with thematic teaching and the child-responsive planning that comes with project work. We have handled this dissonance and our sense of responsibility to our students by requiring two different types of lesson plans in our program: teacher-initiated plans and child-initiated plans. In the beginning of the semester the student teachers are required to plan a variety of assigned and prescheduled lesson plans. Then, toward the middle of the semester, as they complete the requirements for the teacher-initiated plans, they begin to fulfill the requirement for the child-initiated plans. The child-initiated plans are required in the same domains of learning as the teacher-initiated plans, but they may be implemented at any time during the last half of the semester in response to the interest of a child or group of children. A teacher-initiated plan taught in the beginning of the semester might be a science activity to introduce the concept of animal camouflage to children. The student teacher might select it because she thinks it is a good thing for children to know. But in the last half of the semester, this same student teacher might hear a child ask, "I wonder what ants like to eat?" and then plan an experiment with ants and various foods. An insight into project teaching comes from this type of planning. It has been interesting to see that often, the overall topic chosen for the thematic teacher-initiated plans blends into a Phase 1 for the project work in the second half of the semester. Although this is not the type of naturally flowing project work that takes place in an individual teacher's classroom, at this point it seems the best solution to the difficult issue of providing our students with training that is high-quality and meets the requirements of employers in our area.

Students are introduced to the expertise and resources available in other areas of our community college. For example, in a project on cars, children were able to make daily visits to the automotive lab at the college to conduct ongoing field work and to question experts. Similar project resources abound in other departments. Consider the potential for project research in the dental, nursing, and biology departments!

Representing understanding in a variety of media is an important aspect of project work. However, many students new to project work find a lack of experience with a variety of art media and methods problematic. This is particularly true when the art education in the student teacher's own elementary and high school background has been limited. We have found it helpful to collaborate with the faculty in the art department to assist these students. Art students can earn extra credit for making presentations at our staff meetings. In these presentations they demonstrate basic principles, methods, and techniques for working with materials unfamiliar to student teachers, such as pottery clay. We have found this expertise very valuable.

Another helpful practice has been the development of a Resource Room where students can meet and work on documentation. Tools and materials for preparing documentation are available, including large work tables, foam core boards, cutting mats and instruments, a computer with desktop publishing software, an external hard drive for disks containing scanned copies of children's work, and a color printer. Students in our program are required to prepare a documentation panel as part of their teaching experience in the lab school. The panels prepared by the student teachers feature a "Window on a Child," "Window on a Learning Experience," and "Window for Teacher Self-Reflection." Cameras, film, and developing are available to the students when they are working in the lab school, and students are encouraged to use photographs in their documentation. This room and its materials support student teachers in fulfilling this requirement in a highly professional way.

An additional practice that supports students in learning the Project Approach is the development of small courses taught on-site at child care centers and preschools in our area. Credit for this course combined with credit for two other small courses can be used to satisfy the requirement for the Project Approach/Documentation course. It is our theory that students who are out in the field hesitate to enroll in a course for a variety of reasons: transportation, time, anxiety about their ability to handle a college course, fears about being among strangers. We have found that offering these smaller courses on-site attracts a diverse and interesting group to the Project Approach training. Students in a current course include teachers with graduate degrees, graduate students, and non-degreed teachers from local child care and preschools. They offer one another diverse insights and a shared sense of professionalism. Another phenomenon that has developed in response to this practice is a tendency for entire staffs of public school early childhood education programs, child care centers, or preschools to explore project work together. These groups have been able to collaborate and offer one another support between classes, as well as share insights and observations in class.


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