Posted by: jwhiff | April 8, 2011

Supporting Student Projects

Just before Spring Break, I encouraged my students to select topics that they would be interested in investigating on their own or in small groups.  I really wanted to get to the individual project phase of this study, because all along I have been driving the study.  My students have really enjoyed coming along for the ride, but I wanted to give them a chance to take charge of their own learning.

I was very nervous beginning this process.  I had this nebulous sense of what I was hoping the projects would be.  I wasn’t sure what I wanted the projects to look like in the end, but I knew that I wanted to give the kids a chance to explore their topics for real.  I just wasn’t sure how I was going to communicate expectations and support my students when I couldn’t really articulate what, exactly, I was expecting!

After a lot of thinking, I decided that what I really want is for my students to “tell the story” of investigating their topic of choice.  Their projects are going to largely chronicle what they discover along the way.  This will include questions that come naturally from their observations and how they attempt to answer them.

So!  How do you get 30 students “out there” to begin their adventures so that they actually have something to write about?  Well, you just jump in when you can.  Today I did just that.

I took 5 of my students out to the Inlet and was lucky enough to have Ruth join us.  We were hoping to see American dippers, great blue herons, pileated woodpeckers, mud, and factory ruins.  One of my students wasn’t sure of her topic, so was coming along with an open mind, hoping for one to inspire her.

What I like about the story-telling, journalling style of project is that there is always something report and think about.  For example, one of my students heard a woodpecker knocking repeatedly on a tree in the distance, although never saw the bird responsible.  Why was it doing that?  Plus he saw and took pictures of several “wildlife trees” that woodpeckers had obviously been working on.  What makes them special?

The American dipper never made an appearance.  Why?  What are they up to at this time of year?  We know we saw them a couple of months ago.  Is this a part of the bird’s natural pattern?

We saw herons…two of them…down at the water’s edge, standing as still as stone.  Why were they doing that?  It is the first time we have seen them there.  Every other time, they have been up in the trees, resting on one foot.  What are they doing up there and why only on one foot?  Again, the questions come naturally from taking in what we can observe with our senses.

The factory ruins and mud were certainly present and full of all kinds of interesting mysteries.  I’m glad that one of my students is taking the mud topic on.  It will help bring closure to the question that got me interested in this whole study in the first place.  Ruth suggested that we observe mud from different locations to see if it is different.  It’s a great idea and we’ll do that next.

My student who came with no topic and an open mind is now keen on hummingbirds.  We heard them constantly, saw them on 4 occasions (rufous hummingbirds), and took pictures of the flowers they seemed to be pursuing.

In all it was a great start.  Now for the other 25!  Luckily, many of my students are keen enough to start on their own and have made several visits or yard-based observations already.  I’ll be out again on Thursday after school and Friday afternoon (as usual).  I’ll keep plugging away at this.  It is definitely worth while!

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