Rearview Mirror: Reflections on a Preschool Car Project 

by Sallee Beneke
Catalog #220; Revised 1998; $10.00

Table of Contents

  • Foreword by Lilian G. Katz
  • Introduction
    • Chapter 1. Planning and Anticipating the Car Project
    • Chapter 2. Phase 1: Beginning the Project
    • Chapter 3. Phase 2: Building the Car
    • Chapter 4. Phase 3: Sharing and Celebrating Accomplishments
    • The ERIC System, ERIC/EECE, and Selected ERIC Digests
  • The Project Approach
    Lilian G. Katz (1994)
    English | Spanish | Chinese
  • Issues in Selecting Topics for Projects
    Lilian G. Katz and Sylvia C. Chard (1998)
  • The Contribution of Documentation to the Quality of Early Childhood Education
    Lilian G. Katz and Sylvia C. Chard (1996)
  • Performance Assessment in Early Childhood Education: The Work Sampling System
    Samuel J. Meisels (1995)

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This publication documents the work of a master preschool teacher, her co-teachers, student teachers, and very young children as they explored the automotive laboratory adjacent to their classroom at the Illinois Valley Community College in Oglesby, Illinois.

The history of the project and the experiences it provided for the adults and the children in the preschool, as well as for the supervisors and students in the automotive laboratory, are documented in sufficient detail to enable us to see the complexities of the events. We can appreciate how the master teacher confronts her own questions about helping student teachers learn the Project Approach, about when and how to guide the children, and about when to give help and when to withhold it. Ms. Beneke describes how particular children blossomed in the course of investigating the cars in the automotive laboratory.

We are able to enter into the teachers’ experience of taking pleasure, delight, and satisfaction in the children’s ingenuity, originality, and hard work; we see how their abilities and knowledge were given room to show and blossom; and we watch their evolution in the peer group during the project.

Ms. Beneke offers us the documentation of the children’s experiences in such a way that we can know not only what they did and what they learned, but we also can begin to understand what they felt. She shares with us her insights related to the potential pitfalls and benefits of project work to all the participating adults, as well as to the children. We learn also how the teachers overcame the special problems presented by the irregular attendance patterns of the children in the campus-based center and, in fact, found that project work helped provide continuity for the children’s relationships, even when they attended on alternate days or otherwise missed a day or two.

We are grateful to all those involved in this project for sharing their experiences and helping us grasp the potential benefits of well-documented project work.

Lilian G. Katz
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign


In August of 1996, I felt that I had a lot to share with other teachers. So many good experiences had come my way during the preceding 2 years, and I was looking for a way to pass the benefits on to others. I had been fortunate enough to serve for 2 years as the lead teacher at the Valeska-Hinton Center in Peoria, Illinois, where I had the privilege of taking a graduate course on the Project Approach from Dr. Lilian Katz of the University of Illinois. The book Windows on Learning: Documenting Young Children’s Work (Helm, Beneke, & Steinheimer, 1998) began as a paper Judy Helm and I wrote for that course. As the paper gradually grew into a book, I spent a lot of time thinking about the interactions of children and teachers as they engage in project work. Then, in July of 1996, I was able to take part in the first Summer Institute in Reggio Emilia, Italy. This was a wonderful experience. I was able to see my own ideas more clearly as I compared and contrasted them with what I observed and with the thoughts expressed by the Reggio staff.

When I returned from this trip, Diane Christianson, the director of the Early Childhood Education Center at Illinois Valley Community College (IVCC), invited me to join her program for early childhood teacher training. In this role, I would share what I had learned about project work and documentation with the teachers and student teachers in the laboratory school. I jumped at the chance. Lori Nall, the chairperson of the Social Sciences Division, was also very supportive of the idea, and together we successfully presented our proposal to the new president of the college, Jean Goodnow. For want of a better term, we decided that my title would be master teacher.

Illinois Valley Early Childhood Education Center

I was inspired by the joyful spirit and openness to the possibilities that I had recently experienced in the schools of Reggio Emilia, and I was determined to model those qualities in my role as master teacher at the Illinois Valley Early Childhood Education Center.

At the same time, unlike the beautiful schools of Reggio, I knew that the IVCC center was located in a classroom in the Automotive Mechanics Building, and approaching the building for the first time, I felt a mixture of curiosity, hope, and apprehension. I couldn’t imagine what an automotive building would be like, let alone a child care center housed within an automotive building! I wondered what possibilities for project work might wait within, what effect the influence of such a center might have, long-term, on the quality of early education experiences for children in the Illinois Valley, and what growth might take place in my own understandings and skills in the process of implementation. I held fast to the belief that creating a sense of community and honoring children’s inherent drive to make sense of their world were the two key components I needed. The aesthetics of our surroundings would be secondary.

Only 2 years earlier, the previous college president had announced that the center would be closed because of lack of use. Up until that time, the center had been operated by the student services department and had no linkage with the early childhood education department. Under protest from the student population and with a request from Diane Christianson that she be given the opportunity to convert it to a lab school, control of the center was transferred to the early childhood education department. Diane had apologetically explained to me that although the administra-tion, automotive faculty, and early childhood faculty agreed that the center should be moved to a more desirable location, no space as yet had become available.

I ultimately found many redeeming qualities in the location of our center, although it is not the most aesthetically pleasing or convenient setting. The site affords many opportunities to use real objects as topics for investigation, such as the automotive labs and the meadow and woods located behind the building. As they observed the automotive students gathered around cars on a daily basis, children had many opportunities to see adults working cooperatively. They could see adult students engaged in the "hands on" study of concrete things. Dan O’Connor and Art Koudelka, the automotive instructors with whom we share our building, are another important part of our environment. They are relaxed, friendly, and generous neighbors who are always willing to help out if they can. Kevin Borg was the student assistant in the automotive department that year. Demonstrations for the children were often assigned to Kevin, and he, too, was friendly and helpful.

The attitude of the automotive mechanics staff towards teamwork and apprenticeship fit nicely with the pattern of relationships I tried to model and develop among the adults and children in our classroom. As the children began to engage in project work, the advantages of our location became more apparent to me, as well as to the student teachers and parents.

The Challenge

My role at the center presented several interesting challenges. First, I had to find a way to demonstrate and discuss the process of implementing the Project Approach with six beginning practicum student teachers who worked in the classroom one or two days each week. Second, I had to effectively share this responsibility with a new classroom teacher, so that she could continue the process when my year as master teacher ended.

Third, I had to implement the Project Approach with children who attended on variable schedules. The parents of most of the children were students at the college, and their daily schedules varied. Consequently, the children attended on schedules that mirrored the class and lab schedules of their parents. For example, one child might attend only one day per week, another every day, while a third might attend on Monday mornings and Thursday afternoons.

This monograph tells the story of some aspects of the Car Project, which took place in the spring of 1997. The project was carried out in the context of the environment and challenges described here. As I’ve written about the project, I have tried to share reflections on teaching and learning. I hope that other teachers and student teachers can use this story and these reflections to compare and contrast with their own thoughts and experiences and therefore see their own path through project work more clearly.

Sallee Beneke
April 1998


Anderson, J. (1998, February 4). Author lets his books do talking. Chicago Tribune, Sec. 1, p. 7.

Helm, J. Harris, Beneke, S., & Steinheimer, K. (1998). Windows on learning: Documenting young children’s work. New York: Teachers College Press. (ERIC/EECE No. PS 026 639)

This publication was prepared with funding from the U.S. Department of Education. The opinions expressed in this publication do not necessarily reflect the positions or policies of the U.S. Department of Education.