by Sharon SchwartzTeaching our youngest students is both an art and a labor of love. Early childhood educators set the foundation for a child’s future success in school and in life. Things have changed radically in the field of early childhood education. Schools describe their early childhood programs using terms like Reggio-Inspired, Montessori, The Project Approach, Thematic Curriculum. What happened to good old preschool where children colored in outlined parsha pictures and made snowmen from identical cotton balls with an orange construction paper carrot nose? Actually, a good deal has changed based on current research of how young children learn. More and more schools are introducing early childhood programs that reflect emergent curriculum: curriculum that emerges from the interests of the child. Where did this come from? In years past, educators believed that learning consisted of digesting information. The more information digested, the more learning occurred. However, brain research gives us a clearer understanding of how the brain develops and how it absorbs and stores information. Based on brain scans, we know that babies are born with billions of brain cells waiting to be connected. Some are connected at birth, but most are formed by messages the brain receives from the outside world. When a young child experiences something of interest, the brain fires off a message and neurons connect. The connections strengthen based on repeated, interesting experiences. Unused or weak synapses are shed as the child gets older. In brief, when learning is relevant and meaningful, the brain makes connections and constructs knowledge. Similarly, the brain resists meaningless patterns imposed on it. Isolated bits of information (shapes, colors, letter of the day taught in isolation) are brain incompatible. It is amazing that modern brain research reinforces what Jean Piaget figured out a century ago based solely on observation of children. Children learn through active exploration of their environment. It is crucial that content and values be transmitted with meaningful real-life activities and experiences. This explains the trend toward emergent curriculum. Educators now know that children learn best when they are interested in what they are learning and when they have some personal choice and control over what they are learning and how they are learning. This is a radical shift for a teacher who is used to being the one and only commander-in-chief of the classroom who so benevolently bestows information and knowledge to his or her young subjects. Instead, the teacher becomes more of a facilitator, guiding and questioning, providing materials and experiences. The teacher follows the interests of the children, helping them find the answers to their questions while ensuring that all important curriculum areas and standards are being met. It is easy to integrate Kodesh and Chol subjects, since the curriculum emerges from the children and reflects their own lives and interests. Executed correctly, this model does not diminish the respect shown to a teacher nor does it eliminate a safe and decorous classroom structure. Instead, it results in a classroom filled with children eager and excited about learning, and equally engaged teachers who can’t even imagine experiencing burnout, often enjoying learning new things alongside their young charges.
The Project Approach
The Project Approach was developed by the venerated early childhood leader Dr. Lilian Katz along with Drs. Judith Harris Helm and Sylvia Chard. It has a three-tiered structure which provides a framework that is very reassuring for teachers who have never tried emergent curriculum. Phase I: Teacher and students choose what they will investigate, connect the topic to prior knowledge (usually in web form,) list questions to be investigated, and make predictions as to what the answers will be. Phase II: This phase begins with a site visit that includes interviewing an expert, sketching items and places of interest, and counting items and recording using tally marks.
Back in the classroom, children construct models, create diagrams, drawings, graphs, and surveys, and invite visiting experts (from families and the community) to further expand their knowledge.
Phase III: This is the culmination of the project where children prepare to share their new knowledge with others. They decide how they want to share their knowledge and work together to make it happen. They may create a museum, a play, a video, or a book and invite other classes, administrators or parents to attend.The Project Approach generates a high level of excitement
in learning from the beginning to end. The results are astounding. Gains can be seen in every developmental area. Learners are highly motivated to investigate and learn more about the topic of their choice and can often perform academic tasks that are way above their typical zone of proximal development. For example, five year olds who have difficulty counting can be seen figuring out the height, width, and depth of the cabinet they want to build using a yardstick to measure and recording large numbers. These same children will write a long letter using invented spelling independently to describe their specific needs to the person who is giving them the wood needed for the cabinet. Social and emotional development are manifest as young, egocentric children can suddenly problem solve, negotiate and compromise daily as they work in small “committees” and learn to listen carefully to each other’s ideas and appreciate differing perspectives. As the project progresses, impulsive children begin to slow down and plan and
discuss ideas. Coddled children develop resilience when their plans fail and they learn to pick themselves up to try again and again without falling apart. It is amazing to see how much young children can reach past their usual limitations when they are self -motivated and take ownership of their learning.There are even more benefits. Extended project work increases the ability to focus, as children sustain interest and work on their projects for long periods of time over the course of many weeks. Learning becomes exciting, to the point where children have been known to call in to school when they are absent to have a phone meeting with their committee so that they don’t miss out. Children can talk articulately about what they have learned and what they are working on. The growth in curricular areas as well as the vital “soft skills” is clearly apparent when children engage in project work.It is important to realize that project work is not for every teacher. There are many wonderful teachers who are just not comfortable relinquishing partial control to the students. Although they may attempt this type of curriculum, they often end up (unintentionally) hijacking the learning from the students by solving problems for the children (instead of giving them the time, space and support to figure it out on their own). Some teachers also tend to make the process too rigid and therefore not enjoyable, or steer the topic in areas that are not of high interest to the children. Administrators need to be aware that teachers who are usually successful in the project approach have certain qualities. They need to be comfortable teaching a theme-based curriculum that provides children with the ability to make choices and to problem solve. Art work is produced by children and reflects children’s creativity, not the teacher’s. Curriculum areas are integrated around a theme, as opposed to being taught in isolation. Project Approach teachers have to be enthusiastic learners and not afraid to say “I don’t know, but let’s think about where we can find the answer. They have to be willing to abandon their planned lesson and seize the teachable moment. Most of all, they need to be creative and flexible and see opportunity everywhere.In order to undertake the Project Approach, teachers need full support from the administration. School leaders need to create an environment where teachers are comfortable taking risks and thinking out of the box to try something new for their students’ benefit. Appropriate training must be given to teachers before they attempt to implement project based learning. It is understood that lesson plans and plan books will no longer look the same, and will often have to be filled in during or after the fact. Children will be seen holding clipboards and surveying students and teachers in the hallway and on the playground. Bulletin boards will fill with documentation of learning and children’s unique work. Teachers will need someone to bounce ideas off of as well as someone to keep them grounded and ensuring that all standards are being met (and usually exceeded). An enthusiastic school leader can make the difference between a successful project and an unsuccessful one.In conclusion, the academic, social and emotional benefits of project-based learning are substantial. However, a shift in thinking about how children learn and how teachers teach is required to maximize these benefits. Administrators and school leaders need to provide training and create a positive environment where teachers will be willing to take risks and attempt something new. If teachers feel they have the full backing and support of the administration, they will be able to guide their classes on a journey that is full of learning and joy.
The Flower Project
The Flower Project took place from February through June 2016 at Bais Yaakov of Queens Early Childhood Center. A class of 5 and 6 year old girls spent approximately an hour a day fully immersed in their research project. It all began when one of the children proudly brought in a lettuce core resting in a cup of water that she had “planted” with her grandmother. The children were fascinated and noticed that it changed daily. Then, while on a winter nature walk the children found a pussy willow branch. They decided to bring it inside and put it in water next to the lettuce. They were thrilled when it began to grow roots and “flowers” catkins. They were clearly interested in how things grow in general, and flowers in particular. The teacher webbed the topic of flowers for
herself and realized that this topic was quite rich and could easily integrate all of the curriculum areas. She decided to test the waters to see if it would be a good topic for an extended Project Approach study. She gave the children the opportunity to tell and write flower stories and sent a note home asking families to share real life flower stories with their children. After a few days of discussing flowers the children’s excitement and interest continued to increase.Thus was born The Flower Project.
Phase I: The Flower Web
The children and teacher created a web with the word
“Flowers” in the center. The children were able to access prior knowledge and helped guide the teacher in organizing the web and placing each idea in its proper spot on the web. As the web was being written, questions began to arise. Children wanted to know more about flowers. They asked if cut flowers can still grow and how flowers get their shape. They wanted to know if it would hurt their pussy willow branch to plant it in soil and what about their lettuce? They had many questions and decided the best way to get answers would be to visit a “flower growing store” and ask an expert.
Phase II: Research and Discovery
Fortunately, a nearby garden center was thrilled to host the children. Clipboards in hand, the children eagerly set out to find answers to their questions. After a fascinating tour of the garden center and hot house, the children were given the opportunity to ask their questions. They spent a pleasurable half hour going through the hot house sketching and counting what they saw. Then they decided to purchase some sunflower seeds to plant at school. The patient proprietors allowed the children to go behind the counter and see the cash register in action.Back in school, the children wrote down the answers to their questions, tallied up their counting sheets and created “Time I” drawings from their sketches. They decided they wanted to turn their dramatic play area into a garden center and brainstormed what they would need to make and how they would make it from found materials. They divided into committees and planned out what they were going to do and the materials they would need. They wrote out committee meeting notes, voted, tallied, measured, wrote letters requesting information and materials, and recorded results. For the next few months, committees met daily to work on their constructions. They created a cash register, a wide variety of flowers to “sell”, a fish pond and a three tier paper mâché garden fountain. They worked hard to construct a “walk-in” fridge to hold cut flowers, wind chimes, and a sign welcoming everyone to the garden center.While this was happening, the class hosted steady stream of visiting experts from the children’s families as well as the community at large. The children tended their sunflower plant lovingly (planted in a milk crate lined with a garbage bag) and when it became too large for the classroom they transplanted it outside. They helped create a children’s
garden in the playground and busily tilled the soil and pulled weeds. A profusion of informational books about flowers and growth lined the shelves of the classroom library, and the children’s art-work included increasingly realistic depictions of flower gardens and still-life drawings and paintings of flowers brought in by the children.The young scientists had an insatiable appetite for more and more information. They were thrilled to go on a trip to the local botanical garden and appreciate even more of the amazing world that Hashem gave us. At the gardens they were surrounded by more flowers than they had ever dreamed of! After touring the gardens, each child chose a favorite flower and examined it from stem to petals. She measured it, sketched it, counted petals, and identified pistols and stamens. They also had the opportunity to view real bee hives and learn about the important role of bees in flower growth.The arrival of the holiday of Pesach gave the children an opportunity to explore even more things that grow. They were interested in what makes things Chometz and realized that the common denominator is flour. Flour, of course comes from wheat, and the children were given the chance to examine real wheat stalks and extract the wheat kernels from inside. They watched a video about the process of baking bread, beginning from the wheat growing in the field until fresh loaves of bread are taken steaming from the oven. They proudly used the flour that they ground, to produce matza. Of course, Shavuos had special meaning for the class that year as each child brought home a carefully tended flower that they grew from seed.
Phase III: Culmination
As the school year began to wind down, the children began to think about what they had learned over the course of the
project. They were amazed with their vast store of knowledge and were eager to share it with parents and grandparents. They invited their families to visit their “flower museum” where the children served as tour-guides and showed off all of their constructions and plants. A video documenting their learning was also produced for them to enjoy at home during the long summer break.
Burnett, S. M. (2010). Substantiating Constructivism from a Brainbased Perspective. The International Journal of Interdisciplinary Social Sciences: Annual Review, 5(4), 145–154. doi: 10.18848/1833-1882/cgp/v05i04/51660 Chard, Sylvia C. The Project Approach: Making Curriculum Come Alive: Practical Guide 1. Scholastic Inc., 1998. Chard, Sylvia C. The Project Approach: Managing Successful Projects. Scholastic, 1998. Darling-Hammond, L., Flook, L., Cook-Harvey, C., Barron, B., & Osher, D. (2019). Implications for educational practice of the science of learning and development. Applied Developmental Science, 1–44. doi: 10.1080/10888691.2018.1537791 Helm, J. H., & Katz, L. G. 1. (2011). Young investigators: the project approach in the early years. 2nd ed. New York : Washington, D.C.: Teachers College Press. Katz, Lilian G, and Sylvia C Chard. Engaging Children's Minds: The Project Approach. 3rd ed., Greenwood Publishing Group, 2000. Willis, J. (2008). Building a Bridge from Neuroscience to the Classroom. Phi Delta Kappan, 89(6), 424–427. doi: 10.1177/003172170808900608Sharon Schwartz is Curriculum Coordinator at Shulamith School ECC and Pre 1-A Curriculum Coordinator at Bais Yaakov of Queens ECC. She teaches prospective early childhood teachers and special educators at Sarah Schenirer/ College of Mount Saint Vincent and presents workshops across the tri-state area to help Jewish early childhood teachers reach and teach their young charges. Previously, Sharon spent nearly 30 years as an early childhood classroom teacher giving her wonderful hands- on opportunities to research and implement Developmentally Appropriate Practice for young children. Contact Mrs. Schwartz at firstname.lastname@example.org.