Teaching Project Skills with a Mini-Project

Dot Schuler
Grafton Elementary School, Grafton, Illinois

As the children shared their finished investigations at our group meeting today, they were extremely proud of their accomplishments in just two weeks! Our mini-project was now complete and ready for parents to see the following evening. I remember how apprehensive I had been about beginning a project this year. Many of the children in my class of second-graders this year have social, emotional, and/or academic problems. The first few weeks of school, I had debated about whether to work on social skills and classroom procedures longer than usual, or simply to jump in and begin a project. My friend and colleague, Anne-Marie Clark, sent me some appreciated advice via e-mail: "Sometimes I think it helps to think of them as having minds that are still asleep. They haven't had the opportunity to experience the exhilaration of learning something interesting yet."

Having been engaged in project work with my second-graders for three years now, I was confident that the children would respond with avid interest and participation once a project got underway. However, instead of engaging in a full-fledged project, as I usually do, I decided to begin with a "mini-project," in which the children could learn about and practice the main components of a project, and practice their social skills and classroom procedures, as well.

The children and I had a class meeting in which we discussed the "mini-project" topic: "Our School Playground." They understood my reasoning behind first doing a "mini-project," and they appreciated my frankness in explaining that I wanted each cooperative learning team to learn one or two forms of representation so that they could teach their peers about it.

We began with a brainstorming session, with children thinking and recording things that came to mind about the playground. We grouped these things into categories to create our class web. Next, each cooperative learning team listened enthusiastically as, one at a time, the children shared personal stories about their experiences on the playground. Finally, after answering several open-ended questions about the playground and documenting our ideas on charts, we were ready for our first field experience.

After we discussed the expectations and purposes of sketching and note-taking, we set out for the playground with our clipboards and pencils. For about 45 minutes, we sketched items of interest and took notes about various things: the shed, tree, tether ball pole, and so forth. The teacher's aide and I, also equipped with clipboards, circulated and modeled observation skills for the children. Upon our return to the classroom, we shared our work. Each child, one at a time, contributed an item from his or her notes as I recorded it on a class chart. We continued in this fashion until all notes were documented. Then we shared our sketches and talked about them with each other. Most of the notes were simple, unobservant notes, such as walls, trees, and windows. Many of the sketches lacked detail.

The following day, we had another class meeting. This time, we discussed how to use the five senses to become better observers. We talked about our rulers and how we might use them to collect data. We returned to the playground and spent more time on sketching and note-taking. Some of the children chose to add more details onto their previous sketch; other children decided to start over. The children used their rulers to measure items in feet. When we documented our notes on the class chart again, we added more interesting items, such as: wall was about 9 feet, fence has 16 poles, yellow ribbons around air conditioner, 8 stairs to climb. Although our notes and sketches definitely had room for improvement, at least the children were developing an awareness of the expectations of using observational skills and the importance of recording items of interest. Our sharing time was invaluable as the children learned from each other:

  • Labeling the sketch of the tether ball pole with the colors of the pole, ball, and boundary lines on the blacktop helps when publishing a sketch in color.
  • Numbering your notes adds organization.
  • Being observant means including interesting details in notes and sketches.
  • Using complete sentences is one way to record notes; using words or phrases is another.

I decided to think of a question for each cooperative learning team to investigate, explaining that when they began their first major project, they would formulate their own questions. These were the questions I proposed, one to each team:

    1. How can children stay safe on the playground?
    2. What are the favorite things to do on the playground?
    3. What would you want our playground to look like if you could change it?
    4. How do most children get injured on the playground?

Discussions were held with each team, asking them how they might find answers to their question. They could easily see that books would not help; they decided they would need to ask other people. I then talked with each team about their investigation and which forms of representation they should use. Team 1 used a small web on which to make a first draft of ways to stay safe on the playground. Team 2 began writing the first draft of a questionnaire that would be handed out to three students in each classroom in the school, asking children how they had been injured. Team 3 began the first draft of a Venn diagram, labeled "Playground Now" on one side and "Playground Later" on the other. Team 4 prepared the first draft of a questionnaire, asking children their favorite thing to do on the playground. The teacher's aide and I helped the children as they enthusiastically began to work on these new skills. Very few social problems occurred each morning during project work. The children understood that they were to work with their team, and that they could look forward to choosing friends to work with on their first real project. They were involved in their work and anxious for their peers to see the results. Because project work encourages group interaction and choice, children become aware that their input is important, and the resulting ownership in their work builds confidence in their ability to make a positive contribution to the topic of study. Facilitating them in their work, listening to their comments and suggestions for each other, hearing their problem-solving, documenting their progress, and realizing that they were being intellectually challenged, reminded me of the lack of confidence I had had in their abilities to carry out a project.

Team 1, after finishing the first draft of their web, which I proofread for them, used a large sheet of poster board to publish the web. They looked around the room for a circular object to trace for the parts of the web, printed their safety rules neatly in pencil first, then traced with markers. After completing the web, they decided to make posters to display in the building. They made circular posters, gluing red construction paper strips diagonally across each poster, in order to show what actions would cause accidents.

Team 2 published and distributed their questionnaires and began constructing a bar graph on which to represent the results. Then, they decided to make a mural picturing the different types of injuries on the playground. One of the children suggested placing one or more star stickers underneath each picture to show how many interviewed children had been injured in that manner.

Team 3 wanted to publish their Venn diagram on a large poster, so they found a large circular object (the trash can) to trace and, using pencil first, created a Venn diagram which was traced in colorful letters. Next, they decided to make a mural. They placed it horizontally, drawing a line from end to end down the center. On one side, two of the children drew the "Playground Now"; on the other half, two children drew the "Playground Later." They labeled the items on each playground so that everyone would be able to identify them.

Team 4, after publishing and distributing their questionnaires, began making a pictograph to show the results. They discovered that the top three favorite things to do on the playground were basketball, soccer, and tether ball. They decided to make a mobile to represent these top three favorites. The mobile was titled: "Favorite Things to Do on the Playground."They cut out each representative sports ball from construction paper, adding details with markers to make them look realistic, and hung them from the title with string.

During learning centers throughout the mini project, several children published their sketches on drawing paper, using crayons, colored pencils, and markers. Published sketches were displayed in the room and in the hall. Learning centers were also used to teach and practice curricular skills:

  • In the spelling center, children searched for words with "sh," "ch," and "ck." They then dictated a sentence about the playground to the teacher, using one or more of the words. At our group meeting, we shared the sentences and then displayed the chart in our room.
  • In the reading center, each child thought of a noun on the playground and dictated a complete sentence about the playground, using the noun as the naming part of the sentence. After sharing the sentences at our group meeting, we displayed the chart.
  • At the writing center, the teacher prepared a paragraph about our experiences on the playground, and the children proofread one sentence per day, copying it correctly. The mistakes included punctuation errors and misspelled spelling words. At the end of the week, they turned in their completed and corrected paragraph for assessment.
  • At the math center, children wrote first drafts of story problems, either addition or subtraction, about the playground. The problems were published and illustrated, then solved by their classmates. After the problems were solved, they were compiled in a book.

At culmination, the parents and children watched a brief movie of a project completed by the second-grade class from the past year. Then the children enthusiastically presented the displays from our mini-project. Even though this project had been more teacher-directed than a true project should be, I could see that the children were now ready for a full-fledged project. This time, they will be entrusted with more choices of their own. Those choices will create the enthusiasm for learning that occurs during project work. Curricular skills grow when the children are engaged in an in-depth study of their immediate environment. Social skills and positive dispositions for learning grow naturally in an atmosphere of togetherness in learning. The children feel the challenge to use and share their intellectual skills. As we initiate our first real project on "Animals," I am finally beginning to feel the awakening in our classroom!

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