"My teaching partner and I believe that allowing students some degree of choice about what and how they learn is a great motivator. We like to set a tone that encourages kids to develop the skills and confidence to access resource people, find information, and take action," reports Prescott, AZ, teacher Katie Baird.
Katie and her colleague, Sue Dykeman, developed a middle school landscape class as part of an enrichment initiative. "Students began the class by touring our campus and identifying potential problems or areas that could use improvement." Back in the classroom, the students brainstormed potential solutions for many of the problems they'd identified. Ideas that emerged included building a pond to provide a natural habitat, learning to prune old fruit trees, building cold frames, constructing indoor worm bins, creating a vegetable and flower garden, researching drought-tolerant perennials, and composting campus waste.
From some 50 projects identified, each student chose one or two that were of particular interest and formed a small group with other like-minded peers to develop long-term action plans. Students were asked to consider, among other things, the materials and technical know-how they might need and where they might go for information and support, reports Katie.
"Although the teachers and parent volunteers helped student teams locate some outside resource people, we also spent valuable time helping students role-play to gain the skills and confidence they needed to request input or support for the project on their own. Before long, they were on the phone and Internet, linking with backhoe operators, landscape architects, and Master Gardener volunteers." Some students, she adds, used the AOL computer network, where they looked under life science projects in LabNet in the Electronic Schoolhouse. There they found project ideas and linked with other classrooms doing worm investigations, gardens, and more. One group wrote a generic letter to community members soliciting assistance for the projects. Another group created a short video and slide tape presentation highlighting the class projects and shared these with a variety of community organizations to raise funds and in-kind support.
"It was a tough class to manage," reports Katie. "It's a challenge as a teacher to ask guiding questions that redirect student groups rather than telling kids how to get where they're going. But the gains in student motivation, confidence, and information-gathering and collaborative skills from this type of project can be tremendous. Kids also learned a lot about real-world problem solving -- for instance, how to deal with unanticipated snags when our bean plants were attacked, or when the pond liner was vandalized. They developed approaches to problem solving that will last a lifetime."