Not long ago, I was listening to a podcast on optimism. One of the researchers stated that teachers were some of the most optimistic people around. Since learning this, I’ve reflected on my own optimism, and I agree that there is a connection between positive thinking and teaching.
I am fortunate to spend my days teaching at Duke School, in Durham, NC, a Project Approach School* where students engage in several inquiry-based projects each year. Here students explore real-world topics, conduct research, formulate questions, and share their findings with others. We hope, of course, that they will use the skills they develop to create positive change in the world. The work that they do everyday gives me reason to be optimistic.
One recent project in particular made me feel that they are on the right track. Here’s how it unfolded—and how you can try something similar with your students, too.
Identifying the problem
You never can predict what will spark the interest of an eight-year-old. Late last fall my teaching partner, Tery Gunter, and I recognized the growing pains familiar to any classroom teacher: our students were a little too loud and the classroom was a bit too messy. When this happens, our response is to sit down and have a conversation with the group, and come up with solutions. It’s important to add context here. We had just finished a unit on opinion writing and a study of biographies. The informal mantra throughout this work had been “people can change the world.” During our classroom discussion, one of the problems identified was the misuse of materials, specifically “a book problem.”
We’re fortunate to have an abundance of books in our classroom, including duplicate copies and volumes that had been long abandoned by second grade readers. We agreed that we had more books than one class needed and acknowledged that other students suffered a different sort of problem—that of having too few books or none at all. The question that followed was: How do we, as a group, get our surplus titles to kids who need them? Our school community had a long-standing relationship with Book Harvest, a local nonprofit, and the proceeds of our annual book drive were donated to this organization. We had found a place to start.
As the students became more engaged with the idea of donating the surplus books, the project took on new dimensions. We invited Book Harvest’s community partnerships manager, Daniele Berman, to the school to tell us more about the organization and to suggest ways that we could help. She inspired us with the story of how the nonprofit started: small, in the founder’s garage, with a few hundred titles. Berman added that just that year Book Harvest had collected their 500,000th volume. “Small changes can make a big difference,” she told our students.
So, we started small. We began collecting books from the classroom and from our homes. Before long, we were helping to collect, count, and sort books at the annual school book drive. We made a visit to the Book Harvest office, where we did the same with the thousands of volumes stored there.
Thinking Like a Business Executive
Our students’ enthusiasm for sharing books and stories was the perfect launching pad for our next project. Each year, second graders learn to run a business. Grade-level benchmarks spanning the content areas—literacy, speaking and listening, math, and social studies—are incorporated. In the past, we have managed restaurants and theaters, with the profits going to a local charity. Because this year’s group was excited about books and stories, it was clear that we needed to channel those passions. We would run a theater where students would perform some of their favorite stories. In addition to the experience of dramatizing and sharing a great tale, the profits would be donated to Book Harvest.
Questioning, wondering, and sharing
We began this project the way we do every project, by exploring what students already know and what they wondered about. They shared their theater stories–a memorable trip to a movie theater, a recital performance, or working up the nerve to dance on stage. Using these stories, we created a web of common knowledge and wonderings. This web would become a touchstone, revisited again and again, helping guide us during the research phase.
Seeking: Guest experts
The ins and outs of the business world, including marketing, event planning, and finance, became the focus of our research. Lacking sufficient print resources on a second grade reading level, we recruited speakers from our school community to share their expertise. We quickly found a mom who was a marketing professor. Locating an event planner was more difficult, but our lower school director, who confessed to aspiring to be one “in her next career,” stepped in to fill that role. In addition to gathering business tips and techniques, these visits offered perfect opportunities to teach and guide students in note-taking and interviewing, and to address speaking and listening benchmarks.
Field work is another authentic way for students to learn, so we set out for the university’s theater. Field work differs from a traditional field trip in that it focuses on students’ interests and questions and desired learning outcomes. Getting students to notice the importance of teamwork, communication, and organization at the theater was an important goal on our end, so before going on the trip, Tery and I helped our students prepare notebooks to focus on these areas.
Working in committees gives students the greatest opportunity to learn and exercise abilities they’ll need when they enter the workforce. Unfortunately, though, teaching those skills is sometimes pushed to the side when educators become overwhelmed with addressing standards and curriculum.
Once students chose their committee–event planning, marketing, or finance–they decided how they will share the work and hold each other accountable. How will they communicate with one another? How will they present their work to the other groups?
The committees met every day. Math committee members analyzed survey results to make recommendations on food, and pricing, and more. Event planners designed the layout of the theater, created the tickets, and made checklists, while the marketing committee ran focus groups, developed a logo, and designed our website.
Committee work by eight-year-olds doesn’t always go smoothly or happen organically. As a group, we spent time creating and revisiting anchor charts titled “How To Compromise” and “How To Agree and Disagree.” There were moments when students were frustrated and disappointed, but this was expected, and part of the learning process.
After six weeks of wondering, researching, and creating, the Green Globe Dragon Theater was ready to raise its curtains. Students proudly performed four of their favorite stories for 70 adults. They sold tickets, coffee, and snacks, raising over $400. After paying back the “loan” we secured to start the theater, we were able to make a $200 donation to Book Harvest.
The community action continued for months afterward. That summer, Jack Dunzo, a Green Globe Dragon Theater finance committee member, and his mom, Elise Dunzo, worked with Book Harvest to make a promotional video celebrating the distribution of their 500,000th book.
Seeing a group of children come together and successfully entertain a crowd is a proud moment. There is something so satisfying about watching a child transform while working on a project, then confidently presenting that hard work for all to see. One of my former students put it well in her theater program bio when she wrote “Kaeli was nervous about being Binti because it was not her first choice. Now she is excited! She would love to be a professional actress when she grows up, if being a bug scientist doesn’t work out.”
Regardless of whether we teachers are born optimists or develop into them, one thing is clear: the reason we remain optimistic is because these collaborative, compassionate children are our world changers. Whether they become actors, entrepreneurs, or bug scientists, I am confident they will lead us down amazing paths.
Amy Lau has been an educator for 14 years in public and independent schools. She loves spending her days working with second graders at Duke School in Durham, NC. To learn more about Duke School projects visit https://www.dukeschool.org/page/learn/project-work .
*Katz, L, Chard, S. & Kogan, Y. (2014). Engaging Children’s Minds: The Project Approach, 3rd Edition. Praeger.
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