Section 2:Learning How to Guide Projects

The Teachers' Journeys 

Implementing the Project Approach: What Teachers Say

Judy Harris Helm
National-Louis University, Wheeling, Illinois

Presenters for the NAEYC Project Night are selected to present the projects completed in their classrooms by the leaders of the Project Night. Their documentation has been viewed by the leaders of Project Night, and in many cases, their classrooms have also been visited. These teachers are successful implementers of the Project Approach. Their years of experi­ence in doing project work have yielded valuable insight into not only the process of how projects evolve in their classrooms but also into how they learned to facilitate project work.

To capture teacher thoughts about projects and to provide a more complete view of how projects take place in classrooms, surveys were sent via electronic mail to teachers who were selected to display projects at the NAEYC project night. Twelve surveys were received from the participants. Six of these teachers are in classrooms primarily with 3-year-olds, or 4-year-olds, or multiage classrooms of 3- and 4-year-olds. Four kindergarten teachers and two primary (first and second grade) teachers returned the survey. The teachers were asked to indicate the type of programs in which they teach. Seven of the teachers responded that they were in public schools. One teacher listed her program as a laboratory school. Two teachers described their programs as laboratory schools that were also child care centers. One teacher indicated that the program was a child care facility, and one a private preschool program.

The teachers who responded to the survey indicated that they had been doing projects from 2 to 10 years, with the majority of the teachers (8) using the Project Approach in their classroom for 2 or 3 years. The results of the survey were analyzed and are summarized in the following two sections: Part 1: How the Project Approach Is Implemented in Classrooms, and Part 2: How Teachers Learned How to Guide Projects.

Part 1: How the Project Approach Is Implemented in Classrooms

How often have projects been occurring in the classroom?

Many teachers first learning about projects imagine that when a teacher uses the Project Approach, there is always a project going on in the classroom. The teachers reported in the surveys that this impression is not true, and that there are periods of time within the school year when projects are not occurring at all. Eight of the 12 teachers indicated that generally only two projects occur in their classroom during one school year. Two of the programs that were in session during the summer indicated that they often had an additional project that occurred during the summer session. The teacher with the most experience guiding projects (10 years) was the only teacher who reported doing projects four or more times a year.

How do teachers allocate time for projects in their daily schedules?

Teachers who are first learning how to do projects often ask how projects fit into the daily schedule. All 12 of the teachers surveyed indicated that they set aside specific time for project work. Eleven of these teachers indicated that they also integrated project activities into regularly scheduled activities. It appears that there are special times when only project activities are occurring but other times when project activities are part of other work in the classroom. One teacher described projects in her schedule this way:

We usually use the first 40 minutes of the class to work on projects. Not all children are involved everyday. Some of the large-group time may be used for discussion and planning. Extra class meetings may be held with all the children during other parts of the class or with some of the children during the first hour. If interest is high or important work is happening, we are flexible with the schedule.

When specific time was allocated for project work, it varied from 30 to 90 minutes, with the majority of teachers allocating 60 to 75 minutes. Specific time set aside for project work appears to take place in the morning. Only one teacher reported that a specific time for project work takes place in the afternoon, although teachers indicated that project activities were sometimes integrated with other scheduled activities that occurred throughout the day. Several teachers indicated that project work occurs in a block of time in which children are able to choose what they want to do-called "center time" by some teachers and "choice time" by others.

Teachers appear to be flexible about how projects fit into their daily schedule from project to project and from day to day. One pre-kindergarten teacher commented:

There are times that all of the class have been involved in a project. On those occasions, project time is a separate time in the daily schedule; the project overtakes the curriculum for a period of time.

How are curriculum goals or performance standards integrated into projects?

Eight of the 12 teachers were in programs that required curriculum goals or performance standards. All four of the teachers who indicated that they had no curriculum requirements were teaching 3- and 4-year-olds. All kindergarten and primary teachers indicated that they had requirements. Although many teachers who are first learning to do projects express concern about covering curriculum, these veteran teachers of the Project Approach did not report this concern. When asked what was the most difficult thing to learn or the greatest challenge for them today in doing projects, no one listed incorporating curriculum requirements or meeting performance standards. 

Several of the teachers indicated that the project process itself incorporated many required objectives during the three phases of the project work:

The children use scientific processes, describing, comparing, predicting, testing, etc., throughout research and construction phases. As they sketch and work on construction, we see development in art abilities and mathematical thinking. Language skills, social skills, and social studies knowledge improve during work as children discuss problems and negotiate with each other, learn new terms and ideas, describe their learning for documentation, and use new knowledge about nature, the community, work people do, and how things work in enriched dramatic play.

Through cooperative group interaction, I feel that I am achieving standards for language arts: speaking, reading, writing for social interaction; math: graphing, counting, classifying; and social studies: our community and the student's role in it.

One teacher listed the variety of curriculum activities that occurs in most projects:

  • Writing of signs and labels
  • Number work through cash registers, use of money, counting, and data gathering
  • Oral reading particularly of expository texts
  • Speaking and listening among the children to make plans
  • Decision making, working on shared ideas
  • Group writing related to the topic (with specific mini-lessons that illustrate specific words, spaces between words, and sound spelling with initial and final sounds)

Other teachers indicated that the topics of projects made a difference and that many of the project topics coincided with curriculum goals or objectives. One teacher reported that she was able to integrate many of the standards and goals of both the state and the local school district through the topic being studied. This teacher found that language arts and math standards were the easiest to integrate into the projects. She also tried to select topics for projects that helped her meet social studies and science standards. Several teachers reported that they incorporate the required goals naturally during the three phases of project work. Those goals that are not incorporated are taught during systematic instruction. One teacher describes the process this way:

I use the relationship between the project topic and the curriculum goals to develop and meet the goals that naturally fit with the project. When a curriculum goal does not fit at all into a project (e.g., there was not much science in the museum project), I use another activity in another part of the day to meet those curriculum goals.

A number of teachers described using an instructional web, curriculum web, or a planning web. These webs are completed at the beginning of a project by the teacher (without the children's help) and provide a way for the teacher to think about the directions that a topic might go. Curriculum goals are usually incorporated into the web. Several teachers also suggested that documentation of the achievement of curriculum goals was important. One teacher also indicated that the projects aided the assessment process, "We learn more about the children from the project work and through the documentation process than when we organize subjects around a theme."

What criteria are used for selection of project topics?

The selection of a topic for a project is an important part of the Project Approach process. Several teachers reported topic selection to be the most challenging part of guiding projects with children. No teacher listed selecting a topic as the favorite part of the project process. It appears that most teachers completing the survey go through considerable thought and debate with others before deciding on a project. The majority of teachers in the survey responded by describing a process of selection similar to the one described by this teacher:

We watch and listen to the children to see what they might be interested in. We evaluate the various themes that seem to appear to see if the children have prior knowledge or experience with the topic, if the topic will provide opportunities for hands-on experiences, if we can easily get visitors to come in or set up field site visits, and if we feel the topic has value for our children and is related to their life and experiences.

Another teacher described a series of questions:

  • Do they have prior knowledge to build on?
  • Does this topic offer broad opportunities for creative representation, for example, observational drawing, clay, woodworking?
  • Will the topic offer a range of opportunities for early literacy and numeracy skills?
  • Does this topic lend itself to block play, dramatic play, or cooperative play?
  • Are there good resources available (e.g., field sites, visiting experts, children's books)?
  • Are the teachers enthusiastic about the topic?

Most of the teachers described starting with children's interest or starting by introducing a variety of topics and then watching to see which topics interested children. The primary and kindergarten teachers reported using curriculum requirements as a major consideration in selection of a topic. Teachers of 3- and 4-year-olds indicated that the opportunities for representation (building, drawing, creating) were important. Logistical considerations such as location of field sites, availability of experts, and the availability of books and resources on the topic were also important.

Several of the teachers mentioned the worthiness of the topic. The term worth was used to indicate the value of the time spent on the topic compared with the benefits that the children might gain from studying a topic in-depth.

What project topics were most successful?

Teachers listed a variety of topics of projects, with many teachers naming the same topic. Topics have been grouped into categories:

  • Projects about living things
    Butterflies, insects, dogs, cats, squirrels, fish, trees, pets,plants, birds, tadpoles and frogs, animals
  • Projects about the outdoors
    gardens, butterfly garden, water, food, soil, weather, rocks
  • Objects
    Camera, plumbing
  • Places
    Our school, play yards or playgrounds, offices, kitchen, hospital, grocery store, restaurant (a variety of types were named), tree house, supermarket, post office, real estate office, museum
  • People
    Custodian, veterinarian
  • Vehicles
    Fire truck, school bus
  • Miscellaneous
    Recycling, hair styling, cooking

The most frequently mentioned topic was butterflies, which was named by three teachers. The school and parts of the school, such as the office, were also frequently mentioned. Most of the topics listed meet the guidelines that teachers indicated in the selection processes that they described. These topics are also in the immediate environment of children and can be studied firsthand. It is also interesting to note that these topics are included in many curriculum guides. 

How are parents involved in projects?

One of the suggested benefits of the Project Approach is the involvement of parents. The survey indicated overwhelmingly that parents do become involved in project work. All of the teachers completing the survey reported that parents had been involved in projects in their classrooms through each of these activities: serving as experts in the classroom, assisting with field trips, providing materials for construction, helping out in the classroom during project activities, attending culminating activities, and viewing documentation. Six teachers, 50%, reported that parents assisted with documentation (photographing, videotaping, etc.). Specific additional examples of parent involvement that were described included answering surveys by children, researching and following activities at home, and other family members (grandparents and older siblings) serving as visiting experts. One program had once-a-month parent/teacher group meetings where documentation was shared and projects were discussed.

Part 2: How Teachers Learned How to Guide Projects

Learning how to do projects is often described as a journey, an ongoing process. The 12 teachers who completed the survey confirmed that concept as they described their challenges and goals for their teaching.

How were these teachers teaching before they learned about the Project Approach?

When the teachers were asked how they were teaching before they learned about the Project Approach, most of them (10 teachers) reported that they had been providing teacher-planned experiences of inquiry and investigation. Implementing the Project Approach for them was a matter of learning how to relinquish some of the decision making to the children. The challenge of giving children more control over their learning was also listed by many of the teachers in answering the question about the most difficult thing they had to learn. Although these teachers were previously using inquiry methods and believed in the importance of stimulating intellectual development in children, it was difficult for them to move into the more child-initiated learning experiences that the Project Approach requires. This struggle can be seen in these teachers' answers to the question "What was the most difficult thing for you to learn when you began to do projects?":

  • To stand back and LISTEN to the children and let them take the initiative.
  • To let things flow-drop preconceived notions of what should be accomplished in one particular day or time period.
  • It was hard to give up the control and direction of the topic and the project to the children.
  • I have always followed the interests of the children and taken advantage of "teachable moments," but I am a planner so being able to let the children guide our daily activities was a struggle at first.
  • I think I always was headed in the direction of this and worked toward these types of responses and interactions, but with project work, I became more aware and spent more time really trying to get better at doing these things.
  • How not to give children all the answers but to be patient and serve as a guide, resource, and co-questioner with the children. I worked at asking better questions and getting better at responding in such a way that it encouraged children to talk more, think more, and problem solve more.

However, when asked about their greatest challenges today in doing projects with children, none of the teachers indicated that following children's lead or providing for child initiation in learning was still a problem.

How did they learn how to guide projects in their classrooms?

Ten of the 12 teachers attended conferences or workshops such as the Allerton Institute to learn how to do projects. All of the teachers but one reported reading books about projects. Nine of the teachers reported also learning how to do projects from other teachers. Only two teachers had any training in their teacher education program on the Project Approach.

Did they receive administrative support for implementation of the Project Approach?

When the survey results were analyzed, it was clear that the teachers who were successful in implementing projects had received support from many different areas. All the teachers responding to the survey reported that they had administrative support for implementation. All 12 teachers reported that administrators provided encouragement and interest in what they were doing. Ten of the teachers stated that administrators had been involved in provided training experiences for them. Administrative support went beyond providing access to training. Eight of the teachers were given additional funds for project materials and equipment, and five received additional funds for field trips. Administrators served as resources for coordinating curriculum with the project for three of the teachers, and five teachers said their administrator relaxed time requirements to enable project work to happen. Only one administrator secured additional space for project work.

Did colleagues support their implementation of the Project Approach?

Eleven of the 12 teachers reported that colleagues were supportive of their project work. That support took the form of encouragement and interest. Nine of the teachers reported that colleagues viewed their documentation and discussed alternative strategies and problem solving with them. Six of the teachers received assistance from other teachers in doing project activities. Eight teachers actually teamed with colleagues on projects.

What are the biggest challenges today for these teachers implementing the Project Approach?

Time was the biggest challenge for teachers. They expressed the need for time for documentation and reflection. Their desire to do documentation that was meaningful and productive, not just to make a history of events, was prominent in many of their comments throughout the survey. One teacher expressed her desire to change by:

Using documentation for more than just a record of the project. Really working to find the time to study our documentation to learn more about the children, their thought processes, etc., so the documentation can serve to guide us in our project as well as our planning and interactions with children.

Time for preparation was also a problem. Teachers expressed the need for time to do paperwork related to the project, secure materials for construction, contact field site personnel, and to work with parents. In the words of one teacher:

Good projects, really good projects (the ones that you'll want to document well) take lots of teacher time, and it's hard balancing everything else you have to do in the classroom with the project. Many of these things can intertwine with project stuff, but the teacher usually has lots of paperwork at the end of each day. Still, the outcome far outweighs any negatives, and this wouldn't deter me at all from engaging my children in projects.

Several teachers also mentioned the challenge of incorporating children who are not there on a daily basis and the challenges of working in teaming situations.

What advice do teachers have for those just beginning project work in their classrooms?

The teachers surveyed were generous and gentle with their advice, calling on teachers to go slow, to set reasonable expectations, and to not forget to step back and enjoy watching and participating in the learning experience. Some of their thoughts follow:

  • Keep it up, support others who do project work, talk with others who do project work.
  • Go out and visit programs that are implementing the Project Approach.
  • Join a support group so that you can talk to colleagues about your work.
  • Join the Listserv where you will get ideas, advice, and info.
  • Find a mentor who will visit your classroom and give you constructive criticism.
  • Attend conferences that offer presentations on project work.
  • Work on becoming skilled at documentation, which will help educate parents and colleagues about the benefits of project work.
  • Don't be timid about beginning. Sure it's important to go to training and to read about the Project Approach, but if that's all you ever do, what is gained? I always tell teachers wanting to try it to jump in with both feet and stop hovering over the fringes of the Project Approach. After all, we're just like the children, we learn best by exploring and investigating!
  • Take your time and realize that it is also a learning process for you as well as the children. Project work becomes easier with each project; you learn new and better ways to stimulate learning each time.
  • It is okay to do phase one work a few times before doing a complete project.
  • Expect high-quality work as an end result, but allow for mistakes in the process.
  • Keep a journal/diary of daily/weekly progress.
  • Invite children to comment, give suggestions, and encourage each other.
  • When other teachers see how interesting project work is in your classroom, they get interested and want to try it. The enthusiasm generated by your class's successful work and completion of a project stimulates other teachers.

The following comments of Barb Gallick, one of the survey respondents, summarize the thoughts of many of the teachers:

I think it's important that teachers give themselves permission to change and just jump in at whatever level of understanding they have and try. I think just trying a project provides such a rich source of learning for both the children and the teachers. . . . I think teachers are afraid to take the leap and try a project for fear they don't get it or don't understand how to do it. But my experience has been that I have learned so much and become more comfortable with project work with each new project. I feel I have learned so much from "making mistakes." Each new project progresses in a different way with each new group of children, but all that I have learned and ex­perienced from past projects serves to make me more comfortable, more confident, and more interested in learning more. If I had never been willing to try just once, I may never have gained the level of understanding I feel I have now. I still feel that I am learning and growing along with the children in my care. I don't think I will ever feel that this learning and growing will end. Part of what I feel is so valuable about project work is that it is a continually evolving process based on the children in my care, the topic, and the point I am at in my life as a teacher. Project work opens the door for tremendous growth on the part of the children as well as the teacher.

Supporting Teachers in Project Work: The Administrator's Role

Cathy Wiggers
Valeska Hinton Early Childhood Education Center, Peoria, Illinois

Many administrators understand the importance of using the Project Approach and are encouraging and supporting teachers in learning the process. Project work can bring about high-quality learning in which children become engaged in their work and aspire to do things well. Through this process, children have the opportunity to become decision makers and take responsibility for their accomplishments. Through project work, children can also develop their literacy skills as they use reading and writing for many purposes.

Learning to do projects with young children is a challenge. Teachers sometimes have difficulty making the transition from their instructional plan to truly following the children's lead and letting them determine the direction the study will go. Recognizing children's interests and going with them in that direction can be challenging. Teachers must learn to be supporters, to scaffold children's learning by knowing when to step in and support and when to remain an observer. Children reveal what they can do without the help of the teacher and also show what kind of help they need. It is up to the teacher to provide a supportive environment where all children can move forward in their learning.

To be successful in using the Project Approach, teachers need the support of administrators. Administrators can support teachers in their learning by providing on-site professional development courses and workshops on the Project Approach, by providing mentor teachers for those teachers new to projects, and by encouraging small groups of teachers to meet for sharing ideas and experiences. It is very helpful for teachers when principals and center directors participate in Project Approach training with their staff so they can more fully understand the strategies and the benefits for the children. Understanding key areas for implementing project work makes it possible for administrators to:

  • Support a problem-solving classroom, allowing the teacher to alter the environment and provide resources and materials appropriate for engaging in an in-depth study.
  • Give the learners in the classroom, both teachers and children, the autonomy to work together through projects and topics of study that excite and challenge children in appropriate ways. Adequate space will be needed for large-group, small-group, and individual work with many artifacts, real materials, and resources available for children to use.
  • Allow flexibility in scheduling to provide extended work times for in-depth study of the topic. Teachers often need to schedule long blocks of work time without interruptions during which content areas are integrated through the project work based on interests of the children. Recognize that some days the schedule may need to be altered according to heightened interest, needs of the children, and where they are on the project.
  • Provide team-planning time for developing projects, making the curriculum come alive. Schedule time for teachers to come together for a 1- to 2-hour block of time each week for developing projects and planning curriculum. At Valeska Hinton Early Childhood Center, teachers in rooms that are located near each other meet once a week after school.
  • Give teachers and children access to up-to-date equipment, including a computer with printer and scanner, camera and film, video camera, and an overhead projector, for representation and documentation throughout the project. Include preschool children or classes in the school or district technology plan. Over a 1- to 3-year period add equipment and software to the classrooms. Availability of a computer and printer for young children to use is necessary during work time. If classes need to share, use child-size rolling computer tables that can be easily moved from one classroom to another until one or more computer stations can be provided within each classroom.
  • Have systems in place that allow teachers to obtain supplies quickly as the project evolves. Teachers will be able to help children carry out their project work with many donated materials that are easy to find. However, on those occasions when something does need to be purchased with funds from the classroom/program/school budget, it is helpful for teachers to be able to get approval and purchase the items in a timely manner. The process can be expedited by reimbursing the teacher for the purchases or having a charge account at a store such as Wal-Mart.
  • Allow field trips to be planned and taken when needed for investigation at key times to further learning and progress in the study. For learning to be encouraged and not hindered, the timing of fieldwork during a project can be crucial. Approval of field trips within a few days is helpful. The teacher will need to visit the site ahead of time to work out the logistics of group work at the site and to prepare the experts at the site for their role in teaching/sharing with the children. It works best for field trips to be scheduled as needed rather than have a preset schedule one time per month or once each quarter of the school year.
  • Encourage parents to be present in the school and the classrooms as observers and volunteers. Everyone in the school should welcome parents when they enter the school. Parents can sign in at the office and pick up a volunteer badge to wear while they are working at the school or accompanying the children on a field experience. Parents who come on a regular basis could receive a T-shirt to wear when volunteering. This gift gives parents recognition for their efforts and helps others recognize their connection with the school.
  • Insure time for teachers to share project experiences with each other to support one another and experience more of the excitement of learning. At Valeska Hinton, "project sharing" groups meet over coffee in the morning or during lunch on a Friday. The groups meet every few weeks to talk about the projects their classes are working on. Informal discussions allow for progress to be shared or problem solving to take place as needed. Teachers can help one another determine the best places to go for a particular field experience or where to find an expert to visit the classroom or how to support children in a certain way to carry out their work.
  • Plan training time for all teachers on staff to become grounded in using this strategy and for administrators to participate alongside them. Training can take place in a variety of ways; however, it takes approximately two to three days of training to feel confident enough to embark upon and complete a project for the first time. Two full days of training with a follow-up day one month later is an ideal way to help teachers beginning project work. If this schedule is not possible, five evenings over the course of two months' time may be adequate. Follow-up training is advisable.
  • Allow for central, visible display areas within the school for drawings, photographs, murals, and three-dimensional representations for children to share their learning with others. In hallways, 3-inch by 12-foot tack strips placed horizontally about 24 inches apart make ideal display areas for project documentation displays. Three-dimensional items can be displayed on the floor or on low tables lining the hallway walls. Other central areas such as an entry foyer, a corner of the cafeteria, or an all-purpose room, used as display areas, call attention to the work accomplished and the learning that is taking place through project work.
  • Encourage teachers to share their knowledge and experiences with the broader community to influence others and broaden their own knowledge base. Teachers can share at local, state, and national conferences. Local museums, banks, or other places of business will sometimes allow schools to display the work of the children for a period of time. Sometimes the place children visited on their field experience makes a good display site. Valeska Hinton is planning a project sharing night for the spring. Other programs or schools in the local tri-county area will be invited to come together to display projects and talk with one another about their work.

Many directors and principals make a point of visiting classrooms during work time to see the progress of the projects and listen to children talk about their work. They see adults becoming partners learning with children. Children are assuming responsibility for their own work. It is impossible not to enjoy visiting a classroom where a project is in process and learners are engaged in what matters to them. Through project work, we see how children learn by letting them show us what they are doing and thinking. We watch them make connections building on what they have learned in order to continue learning.

Taking the time to support teachers and projects has many beneficial results. When teachers learn to do projects, they do more of an in-depth analysis of the learning that is taking place in their classroom than they might otherwise. When they see the higher level thinking their children are doing, they raise their expectations for their children. I have seen more sharing and discussion with colleagues as teachers engage in problem solving and study together how to reach higher levels of learning in their classrooms. This experience affects their teaching in a positive way. Teachers ponder more deeply how they support children and their learning. They are likely to have a greater passion for how children learn. Learning to do the Project Approach affects all areas of teaching, not just project work.

Learning from Teachers: Lessons from the Illinois Project Group

Sallee Beneke
Illinois Valley Community College, Oglesby, Illinois

Educators become interested in the Project Approach in a variety of ways and begin implementing it with varying levels of training and support. For example, some teachers may have received ongoing training from an authority in the field, such as Lilian Katz, Sylvia Chard, or Judy Helm, while others may have read about the approach in a book or magazine, attended introductory or advanced workshops, and decided to give it a try. When they hit a difficult stage in the development of the project, they often feel "stuck" and unsure about how to proceed. The flexible nature of the Project Approach allows teachers to respond to the interests and abilities of the children in their classrooms with individuality and creativity. However, when teachers attempt implementation without the support of administrators, or without a community of colleagues who are also trying to implement the approach, they are often hungry for advice from others on how to proceed and for feedback about the quality of their work. They find it beneficial to get together with teachers from other programs to compare notes. Experienced teachers, administrators, and curriculum developers also enjoy the opportunity to share their experiences with implementation. This sharing process has been enhanced by the recent emphasis on documentation (Helm, Beneke, & Steinheimer, 1998).

For these reasons, in March of 1998, a group of educators from around the state gathered at Illinois State University in Normal, Illinois, to hold the first meeting of the Illinois Project Group. Approximately 50 people with varying roles in the field of early childhood education attended that first meeting. By the spring of 2000, when the group met for the third time at Illinois Valley Community College in Oglesby, Illinois, attendance had more than doubled. The following practices and principles developed in these meetings may prove helpful to teachers in other states who would like to form similar groups.

Sharing Ownership

Although the group has grown, we have managed to maintain an informal, collegial organizational relationship. At the first meeting, we decided that we would take turns meeting at a different site each year, so that the meeting would not be the province of any one organization or group. The only requirements are a space to set up displays of project work, the room to discuss project issues in small groups, and a place for the entire group to gather as a whole. Each year, someone new has stepped forward to host the meeting.

Sharing Responsibility

The Project Group meeting is a "teacher-to-teacher" day. Workshops and inservices play an important role in the professional development of teachers, but the Illinois Project Group Meeting works in a different way. There are no paid speakers, no materials to purchase, no large registration fees. Participants with varying levels of expertise and credentials come to the meeting, and everybody has the opportunity to share and reflect on their experience and to learn from others through viewing and discussing documentation.

Organizing Discussions around Children's Work and the Interests of the Group Members

The format for meetings of the Illinois Project Group has been simple and successful. Based on our experience, the following tips are offered for those who would like to hold similar meetings:

  • Form a leadership team, a core group of people who are willing to get things rolling.
  • Meet on a Saturday-many early childhood programs have limited funds for professional development and cannot afford substitutes. By meeting on a Saturday, a group of staff members can attend as a team.
  • Begin to announce registration for the meeting several months in advance. Ask members of the leadership team to distribute flyers.
  • Create a brochure for registration. Gather electronic mail as well as street addresses through the registration process. Use this information for ongoing communication and networking about the meeting.
  • Make it clear in the brochure that novices as well as teachers who are experienced in project work are encouraged to attend.
  • Indicate in the brochure the type of tables or other display area that will be available for project documentation. Decide whether you will provide a cloth to drape the table or whether presenters should consider bringing their own.
  • Welcome documentation of projects that are "in process" as well as documentation that has been prepared for formal display.
  • Wait to begin the meeting until 10 a.m., so that educators from around the state can attend without the expense of lodging. End your meeting early, so that participants have plenty of time to get home. The Illinois group ends at 2 p.m.
  • Allow time and space before the meeting for teachers to set up displays of their project work for display. We have found it helpful to ask teachers in advance how many tables they will need for their displays. Allow plenty of room between the tables to encourage groups of teachers to gather informally for discussion. For example, 20 projects were displayed at our most recent meeting, so a long well-lit hallway was used for the project-viewing area.
  • Begin with a brief gathering of all participants to explain the schedule for the day and important locations. Include a challenge from a group member who is a leader in the field. In Illinois, we have been fortunate to count Lilian Katz as a member of our group, and she has been kind enough to raise questions in an introductory challenge that have helped deepen our understanding as we viewed project work throughout the day.
  • Take suggestions from the group for topics to be discussed at lunch. Post these topics, and let people sign up for their lunch discussion group as they leave the opening gathering. Lunch discussion topics suggested by the group at our most recent meeting included topic selection, project work with toddlers and 2-year-olds, getting started in project work, project work in part-time programs, and fieldwork.
  • Provide at least one hour for viewing of the projects. An hour may seem like a long time, but participants in our spring 2000 meeting suggested that in the future we allow at least 1-1/2 hours for this viewing. We've found that teachers who bring projects for display often feel compelled to stay with their work and answer questions. To help these teachers take advantage of the project viewing, we've assigned each presenter with a time when she or he is free to view documentation of other projects and a time when he or she is expected to remain with his or her own work and answer questions.
  • Provide a simple lunch that participants can take to their lunch discussion table.
  • This year, we divided up for discussions after lunch, based on the ages of the children we work with. In advance of the meeting, members of our leadership team had volunteered to lead these discussion groups. Members were invited to take a chair from a rack of folding chairs and join the group that interested them most. Groups at the most recent meeting discussed project work with toddlers and 2-year-olds, preschoolers, and school-aged children.
  • Gather the group at the end to generate suggestions for improvement for the following year.
  • Invite participants to join in the leadership and growth of the group.
  • Develop a notebook to pass on to the host of the next meeting. Include samples of past flyers and brochures, a time line for preparation, names and addresses of past attendees, and other information that you think might help future meetings run smoothly.

Bringing Together a Diverse Group

 The meetings of the Illinois Project Group have continued to grow because they have provided an opportunity for educators from a broad continuum of knowledge and experience to enhance their understanding and skills by sharing. For example, Amanda, a student in our 2-year college program, was amazed to see real project work. She said, "I've learned about project work and documentation in class, but I just didn't believe that so many people really do it. It was cool to see the displays. It made it all seem real to me."

College Instructor Donna Banas brought a group of students from Morraine Valley for the spring 2000 meeting. She found that

the project meeting was well worth the time. I wasn't sure if I was asking too much of my students to spend an entire Saturday on project work. My entire class participated. Discussions as well as the quality of work improved after the meeting. I was also recharged after viewing the projects and participating in the discussion groups. It would be valuable to host periodic meetings locally as well.

Kindergarten teacher Candy Ganzel travels a long distance to attend the Project Group meetings. She states,

I come from Indiana to go to the Project Group meetings because very few teachers are doing projects in Indiana. I always feel I get many great ideas on topics and documentation. I also see how others display their work. I feel very welcome and a part of the group. Everyone is so willing to share. I always come home motivated and ready to try something new!

Preschool teacher Scott Brouette believes

the most important and informative part of the day is looking at the different projects and talking to the participants about their projects. Finding out what worked and what didn't and seeing the different topics was very interesting. Also the group discussions by topic were very helpful. It is nice to hear what others are doing and how they have overcome obstacles, and which way a topic went from beginning to end.

Likewise, Pam Scranton, part-day preschool teacher, believes that the best thing she gets out of those meetings

is the chance to talk with other teachers encountering the same kinds of problems/successes that I do in my daily teaching and project work. Although I love talking theory, brain research, documentation, etc., I love talking with teachers who are engaged in the same activities/project work that I am. It's hard "talking shop" with other people who have no idea what I mean! Also, I love studying the project displays and getting ideas from my peers. Lastly, those small discussion groups are great, because it lets us talk about specific challenges and get other teacher's ideas/opinions.

From her perspective as a Head Teacher in a campus child care center, Barb Gallick believes it is

the sharing of ideas that works so well at the Project Group Meeting. Everyone is very accepting of everyone else's ideas and willing to brainstorm to help when someone has a question. I think this comes from the common interest in project work. The feeling is always present that everyone there values what you do. I believe that some of the teachers who come to the Project Group Meeting might not feel that in their own school where they may be considered the different one. So the Project Group Meeting really serves as a stimulation to continue with project work.

On a personal level she enjoys

seeing all the different interpretations of project work. It helps me validate my feelings that existing in a learning mode is okay. I feel that I learn more with each project we do and seeing how others work through a project and document a project helps me evaluate my own growth as a teacher striving to understand and use the Project Approach.

Getting Started

Educators who would like to start a Project Group in their own state may benefit from considering some of the aspects of the Illinois Project Group meetings that were particularly valued by participants. They may be able to adapt the meeting format that has proven so successful for us and begin to meet with others from around their state who share an interest in project work.


Helm, Judy Harris; Beneke, Sallee; & Steinheimer, Kathy. (1998). Documenting young children's work: Windows on learning. New York: Teachers College Press. (ERIC Document No. ED 421 217)

Guiding Teachers Step by Step: Inservice Training Experiences

Judy Harris Helm
National-Louis University, Wheeling, Illinois

Brenda Smith
Child Care Connection

One of the ways teachers can learn how to guide projects is through training experiences brought into their early childhood center or school. These experiences differ from other ways of learning to guide projects in that they are part of an institutional initiative and thus are sanctioned by administrators and decision makers in their organizations. This sanctioning encourages teachers to implement what they are learning. The administrator often provides additional support in obtaining materials, arranging for funding for field site visits, and providing on-site encouragement. This approach to learning how to guide projects results in a high number of teachers continuing implementation the following year. An example of this method is the Rockford Schools Early Childhood Program where teachers were provided inservice training over a period of 3 months for the purpose of learning to implement the Project Approach. 

A variation of this approach to training is having an organization such as a resource or referral organization, or a large school system, provide a series of workshops spaced out over a period of 2 to 3 months. These training workshops also provide guidance throughout implementation of a first project. Teachers in these programs often select the Project Approach training as an option for professional development. For example, Child Care Connection, a resource and referral office in Peoria, Illinois, provided several series of classes on the Project Approach in which teachers of pre-kindergarten through third grade studied the Project Approach.

Facilitators and Participants

Facilitators for experiences such as those described above are often educational consultants who have guided projects with children and have participated in Project Approach training. Teachers who are successfully doing projects in their classrooms are also often able to facilitate this type of experience, especially if they use written materials for reading and discussion. Videos are also available that can help teachers understand the Project Approach process. The availability of a committed and supported teaching team and an enthusiastic teacher-facilitator on site can often make up for lack of advanced experiences and expertise regarding implementation and documentation.

Participants benefit from hearing other participants share their challenges and solutions as they participate in the class and guide projects in their classrooms. Other participants provide support and encouragement as well as participate in generating solutions to problems and discussing issues.  Sometimes these experiences are provided for a group of teachers within a narrow age range such as pre-kindergarten teachers. However, these on-site sessions are just as likely to include the staff of a whole school, which results in an age range of 6 or 7 years. Although this arrangement may at first appear to make it more difficult to share and discuss experiences, the Project Approach process is easily adapted to a wide range of children's abilities and skill levels. The discussions of teachers who teach a wide variety of age levels of children can enrich understanding of the other participants.

An advantage of having Project Approach training on site is that teachers communicate easily with each other between inservice sessions. This support is especially helpful when a consultant providing the training is only available at the time the inservice training experience occurs. Group support can keep enthusiasm going.

Scheduling Training

An effective schedule for on-site inservice training on the Project Approach follows the probable progression of projects in the classroom for the teacher who is just beginning to do projects. A sample schedule shows the spacing of the sessions and the focus of these sessions:

Week One       Meeting One

Follow-up in classroom

Introduction of the Project Approach and phases.

Participants observe children in their classes to get ideas for possible topics.

Week Three     Meeting Two

Follow-up in classroom

Participants share observations.
Introduction to topic selection and webbing.

Participants observe children and select a topic.
If a topic emerges, begin phase one.

Week Six         Meeting Three

Follow-up in classroom

Participants share where they are in their projects.
Introduction of investigation techniques, use of experts, and field sites.

Participants who are ready move into phase two; some participants may continue phase one.

Week Nine       Meeting Four

Follow-up in classroom

Participants share where they are in their projects.
Introduction of phase three, culmination.

Participants move into phase three, if ready.

Week Twelve   Meeting Five

Follow-up in classroom

Participants share documentation of their projects (not all projects will have reached culmination).
Discussion and reflection on project process.

Culmination and documentation of all projects.

Because project direction and the length of the phases of the project are determined by children's interests, timing of projects is difficult to predict. By providing written materials on the project and then spacing Project Approach training over 12 weeks, most teachers will be able to benefit from support and instruction as they guide their first project. 

It is important to schedule these training sessions with an understanding of the flow of the school year. Teachers often begin the school year with mini-projects or do project-like activities to teach some project skills. Projects often begin to emerge near the end of the first month of school, so a fall series of inservice training sessions works well if projects also begin about that time. This timing also enables many projects to reach culmination before a winter break. During the spring, it is important to begin the series early enough so that all projects can culminate before the end of the school year. Of course, in year-round schools, these considerations are less relevant.

Follow-up Support

Teachers who participate in the inservice training usually develop a sense of camaraderie and shared adventure. The groups that emerge from these inservice training experiences should be encouraged to continue to support each other through the project process. One technique is to have a fall group reconvene in the spring to share the results of a second project. Some schools also develop monthly project sharing sessions where documentation can be discussed and problems can be addressed.

Celebrating Accomplishments

Having a project night where projects are displayed is a very practical follow-up activity for project groups located in one school. Parents can come and view documentation for all the projects, not just the projects in which their children participated. This activity provides a purpose for finalizing project documentation for display. It also provides an opportunity to celebrate the success of not only the students but also of teachers who have worked hard to learn how to implement the Project Approach.

Helping Teachers Learn: College and University Experiences

Eileen Borgia, Sylvia C. Chard, and Tom Drummond[1]


Helping teachers and student teachers to implement the Project Approach as part of their own teaching presents many challenges. Because the Project Approach is not a tightly scripted set of techniques, it cannot be learned from a cookbook-style resource or a "kit." Rather, it requires the kind of insight and understanding most likely to be gained by teachers and student teachers undertaking project work themselves. In this chapter, we discuss some of the strategies we have used with adults. On the basis of simulations in which participants proceed through the three phases and five structural features of project work (Katz & Chard, 1989), they can begin to understand its potential value and acquire strategies for implementation with their own students.

Principles and Strategies

Our extensive experience of working with students and teachers suggests that simulation of the Project Approach is one of two effective ways to learn to use it. Another effective learning strategy is to have a mentor who works alongside the teacher during the time project work is being implemented in the classroom.

In both cases, we usually begin with an introduction of key principles and visual examples of actual projects and then get the teachers and students launched on phase one. In phase one, we help participants to select a topic that they can investigate in some depth at their own level, within the time frame of the course. We employ the three-phase structure whether the training is provided in a workshop or in a course lasting several weeks or months. Course participants review their own personal knowledge of the topic and experiences related to it and then compile lists of questions their investigations will try to answer. Next, they represent their collective ideas in a topic web, make preliminary plans for fieldwork, and compile the lists of questions they will use during their investigations in phase two. For many participants, the Project Approach course might be their first experience of planned collaborative learning. We provide an opportunity for them to step back from their usual leadership role and follow, collaborate, negotiate, and sometimes lead.

In the second phase of project work, opportunities are provided for the fieldwork. In semester-long courses, the fieldwork is usually conducted between scheduled course meetings. The activities included in phase two usually include site visits, interviews of relevant experts, experiments, and other strategies by which to find answers to the questions compiled during phase one. As the participants become involved in their project work, they begin the processes of conveying what they are learning by using a variety of media as a means of representation.

For the third phase of their projects, the culmination phase, the participants prepare and present displays documenting what they have learned during the project. During a concluding discussion, participants also share reflections on their experiences in the course as well as their plans for beginning their first project with children.

College and University Approaches

The goal of the course on Kindergarten and Primary Education, offered in Everett, Washington, is to synthesize both an understanding of how the Project Approach can be used to engage all children in inquiry-based curriculum and how to meet or exceed all of the external competency attainment guidelines imposed on a lower elementary program. In addition to enrollment in this course, all the class members were enrolled in a 2-credit Literacy Practicum in local elementary schools. In that practicum, each class member was assigned two children selected by classroom teachers as most likely to benefit from extra help with reading. The preservice students met once a week with these children, assessed their reading competence, and designed learning experiences based upon the children's needs. Class members also used this experience for their first attempts at implementing the Project Approach with children.

Throughout the class, the participants were provided with a visual and written record of their own experiences. The class especially explored two ideas often thought to be in conflict: (1) the detailed, public assessment of children's basic competence at academic skills, and (2) the natural unfolding of inquiry-based learning through the Project Approach. Preservice students discovered the children's excitement about the projects as they developed literacy and numeracy skills in the pursuit of their own interests and expressed what was personally significant to them. In the display at the 2000 NAEYC conference, documentation showed the class members' discovery of how naturally the Project Approach integrated their own dreams while still addressing the formal academic demands of a public school classroom.

All the course features described here were integrated in one 3-credit course that met for seven 4.5 hour sessions. The class members used Chard's Practical Guides to the Project Approach (1998) as required course texts. The students' own interest in what they ate for their daily snack became the topic for a project. They already had considerable knowledge of "snack food," but studying the topic in depth in class demonstrated how the Project Approach worked for them at the adult level by enabling them to learn more about the food they ate.

Another kind of university experience is a 2-week, 3-credit-hour summer course for practicing teachers at Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville. The participants were deeply involved in investigating, seeking information from experts, experimenting, drawing, interviewing colleagues, and so forth. Displays and other aspects of the culminating event were prepared with enthusiasm and careful attention to aesthetics, refreshments, and invitations. The participants dressed professionally and invited fellow students to view the displays.

During one such culmination, a graduate class studying curriculum issues attended the culmination. The participants in the Project Approach class described their projects and interspersed comments reflecting their understanding of the philosophy underlying project work. A lively discussion followed as the members of the two classes exchanged views about the underlying principles and their related philosophies. Afterward, the professor of the visiting class commented that the culmination and discussion were precisely what he had been trying to convey to the students in his class. The event proved to be an intellectually stimulating seminar as well as a fruitful culmination for both classes.

In this course,the teachers' competence and vision, naturally being more advanced than those of the children, frequently resulted in quite sophisticated documentation. For example, for a project on a wetlands reserve, one first-grade teacher sketched a map of the wetlands that her group had investigated. She re-created a map of the pathways and geological features of the wetlands reserve by sewing fabric scraps together. Another group used fishing line to suspend a series of photographs on a mobile that depicted a time line of the development of the reserve. Another group videotaped an interview with an expert on gardening. Taking responsibilities for different kinds of representation at their own level in the context of the course helps teachers understand how various media can help children represent what they have learned.

At the University of Alberta, a semester-long graduate course is offered for inservice teachers on the Project Approach in Early Childhood and Elementary Education. With a full semester available, the teachers are introduced to various supplementary readings to be completed alongside the practical work. In addition, the teachers undertake planning and evaluation on a weekly basis and give each other moral and practical support as they implement their first projects. Help is also offered in class with learning the processes of documentation. At the close of the course, the students share their experience they had of implementing projects in their own classes by presenting display boards with photographs, captions, samples of children's work, and narrative descriptions of the project work. The reflections of the teacher, parents, and children on their learning experiences are represented in the documentation. Others who have been part of the project work-the school principals and visiting experts-are invited to the class for the final presentations during phase three-culmination. Where possible, course participants are encouraged to feature their projects on school or center Web sites.

Summer Institute

Another university-sponsored training experience is the 5-day Project Approach Summer Institute titled "Engaging Children's Minds," at the University of Illinois's Allerton Park. This institute is an annual residential seminar during which the participants experience intensive immersion in all aspects of project work. Some participants elect to earn graduate credit for the participation by preparing detailed reports of projects they conduct in their own classrooms upon return to their schools. These reports have revealed some interesting and moving stories of successful project work that the teachers attempted in their classrooms by implementing what they had learned at the Institute.

Online Course

This year, the University of Alberta launched an online certificate course on the Project Approach from the Project Approach Web site ( The participants in this course complete readings both online and from texts and complete and report on a project conducted in their classrooms.


The Project Approach can be easily integrated into preservice and graduate coursework in colleges and universities. Whether a training session lasts for one day or a semester or whether participants simulate a project as adults or experiment within their own classroom, project work must be done well. Course leaders will recall the cautions of Lilian Katz, who frequently reminds us that projects can only serve the needs of teachers and learners if they are well done.


Chard, S. C. (1998). The Project Approach: A practical guide 1. New York: Scholastic.

Chard. S. C. (1998). The Project Approach: A practical guide 2. New York: Scholastic.

Katz, L. C., & Chard, S. C. (1989). Engaging children's minds: The Project Approach. Norwood, NJ: Ablex.

[1]Sylvia Chard is Professor of Early Childhood Education at the University of Alberta, Canada. She teaches a graduate course and a Certificate Course on the Project Approach online. With Lilian Katz of the University of Illinois, Professor Chard co-directs the residential Summer Institute, "'Engaging Children's Minds: The Project Approach" at the University of Illinois's Allerton Park Conference Center.

Dr. Eileen Borgia teaches at Illinois State University, Normal, Illinois. She created a 2-week 3-credit-hour summer course on the Project Approach for teachers. She also built an early childhood curriculum course around the Project Approach and has offered many 1- and 2-day Project Approach workshops around the country and introduced Dot Schuler to the Project Approach during a summer course.

Tom Drummond is an instructor in Early Childhood Education at North Seattle Community College and an Adjunct Professor at Western Washington University in Bellingham, Washington. He offers courses on Kindergarten and Primary Education at the Everett Extension Campus, Everett, Washington, in the elementary education certification program at Western Washington University.