A conversation between Paule Myers, PreK Head Teacher, and Amanda DiMeo, 2-year-old Head Teacher.
Project Work is an essential element of a Northside Education. But what is it, exactly?
At the Preschool and continuing into Prekindergarten, Project Work topics are “emergent,” meaning they are chosen based on teachers’ observations of children, their knowledge of child development, and their learning objectives. Topics can be very concrete (i.e babies, subways, fire trucks, etc) or more open (i.e. a study of water, light, measurement, etc). Skills (motor, language, social/emotional and cognitive) are woven into these investigations according to state and national standards. The “project” is considered to be a vehicle by which the children construct knowledge and gain a sense of ownership over their own learning.
I sat down with Paule Myers, PreK Head Teacher at the Lower School, and Amanda DiMeo, 2-year-old Head Teacher at the Preschool, to hear some of their experiences with this approach.
JL: How does project work emerge in your classrooms? Where do these ideas come from?
PM: In our PreK classroom this fall, project work began when one student brought a plastic container in with a bunch of rubber bands. She shared it during assembly and everybody was very attentive. They all wanted to try it, and they were all playing it like a guitar. That was the first idea, the seed idea, and from there we noticed from going through our routines that what was really bringing everybody together was music. Music is something that’s around us all the time, we listen to songs together, sing songs together, they love movement, I just saw infinite potential to bring the class together in a happy and joyful way.
AD: Initially, our project work is always getting to know each other and our classroom. A lot of what we do in preschool is social/emotional learning, getting them to work together and interact with each other – it’s innate but it’s not easy. Then we see what interests them from there. With this group, the bus project emerged very naturally during choice time. Bridget and Leigh gifted us these beautiful wooden school buses that say Williamsburg Northside on them – and we only have one, plus the six wooden people that fit inside and can be moved around the bus, and so it was a challenge in the beginning of the year to share it. Then one day they were just all taking turns moving the bus around, and then it turned into everybody was using a car as a bus, following each other around and singing The Wheels On The Bus. And I was like, “Okay, I think we’ve got something here!”
JL: Do you have a favorite project?
PM: Last year, we did project work on pizza that was really exciting – we were able to explore fractions, learn about yeast, use math to buy things sat the grocery store, time how long the bread rose for and compare size – a parent even came in and we made fresh mozzarella! With that level of excitement, they’re completely engaged – they’re not necessarily aware of the intentional academic experiences that I’ve planned within the project. We can look back as a class and reflect on what we’ve learned after the fact, and celebrate those accomplishments. If we think back to when learning was the most fun, it’s when it was hands-on, mysterious, discover-based and of course, exciting – that’s what we remember, and that’s what I want them to remember.
AD: I remember a project at the very end of my first year here. This room gets fantastic light, and we can tell when the clouds pass in front of the sun. The children noticed this and investigated. Once we figured out what was causing the change, we found other ways to make shadows. Then the children started telling stories about the shadows they were seeing, and we turned it into a shadow puppet theatre. We read Native American folk stories about how the sun and the moon came to be – stories about to animals that slept, and didn’t want light. So we explored nocturnal vs. diurnal animals, and they were captivated by this idea. They started talking about it to each other, using the puppets. By the end of the project, we had recorded these collaborative shadow puppet performances, and because we had it on video, we could celebrate the process AND the product – funny little things that happened at each individual performance.
JL: How do you work developmental and academic skills into a project?
AD: Parents ask all the time, how are we working on cognitive skills with their children? This project took a great turn into signs, the bus stop signs, so they made signs. To do that, they had to master shape recognition and color recognition. It’s a perfect example how children can learn these skills within the context of project work, in a natural and engaging way.
PM: For example, in our music project, we look at the shapes of different instruments. What shapes are they seeing in the instruments and how can they represent that? We’ll classify instruments – sorting and comparing. We build numeracy and mathematical skills through patterns and rhythms. We’ll look at how instruments are made and make our own out of recycled materials, which will take us into the realms of science and engineering.
AD: We also assess mastery of social-emotional skills. Towards the end of the year, they’ve figured out how to actively listen and share ideas and build on each other’s ideas. And they’re building grit, perseverance – After the first time that they’ve done a project, they recognize what they’ve done. They recognize that it took some patience and was a little frustrating, but look what we did – now we have these signs that we can play with.
PM: Whole group experiences are very different at the beginning and the end of the year. In the beginning of the year, they’re figuring out where they fit and what their role will be and how they will individually approach challenges. Looking back at the end of the year, we help them to remember what we did, and how hard it was – but we kept trying and we did it! Those are the times they really come together as a group. They are building resiliency and also a sense of collaboration and collective achievement.
JL: What would you like parents to know about project work?
A – That the process is as important as the product! Last year, we did this incredible bridge project that resulted in a model bridge made out of recycled materials. And I had so much feedback about this project from parents! They were so proud, and I think it was because there was this tangible product. I struggled with that a little bit, because it’s not just about the product – they learn so much in the process. So I remember trying to highlight in my blogs which skills were developed at each stage.
P – I think that’s the best way to get them excited about it, if you are illustrating the interesting experiences that are bringing out their children’s abilities, they’re going to notice those important details that show just how much their four-year-old is able to understand and able to do.
AD: I also wish parents knew that project work is reflective of that little community of their child’s classroom, so it’s going to look different, feel different, sound different, it’s even going to happen at different times in different classrooms, and the quicker you embrace that the more you’ll enjoy being a part of it. We always welcome parent participation!
PM: Yes, and parents don’t need to wait for an invitation! We’ll reach out of course, but it’s also okay to contact us to come in and participate as they feel inspired, that’s part of the process!
Jennifer Lees, MSEd
Assistant Head of Lower School & Science/STEAM Coordinator