What a mess! I thought, watching my three year old walk with a bucket of water sloshing and splashing to the far side of the garden. Giggling, he tossed the water on the dog and ran back, squealing with delight and ready for more. I have learned to catch myself with these negative thoughts, and redirect both my thoughts and my son when watching him play. In this case, we practiced watering the flowers and giving the dog a proper bath rather than tossing water everywhere (although that’s also fun!).
My son’s behavior usually indicates that he is discovering or testing something. As a teacher, I’ve learned this is true across the board: from preschoolers to high schoolers. “Following the child” as Maria Montessori so aptly puts it, is the teacher’s job. She meant that the teacher should follow the child’s interests and not the other way around. In project based learning, following the child is an important element that is sure to increase your student’s motivation and performance. Here’s how you can follow your students today:
Get to Know Them
Of course you get to know your students by speaking with them, having fun, asking them questions and through everyday interactions. But, you can also learn a lot by changing your perspective. Sometimes our students are learning, but for us it seems like they’re being annoying (like when my preschooler is testing gravity by spraying water all over the place!). This isn’t true all the time, but sometimes noticing behaviors as interests rather than irritations can be just the trick to help your students learn. Once you’ve noticed their interests, provide opportunities through projects for more appropriate ways to practice or investigate this interest. This can be a very effective strategy in meeting their needs and also continuing to support their education. So – your middle schooler’s love facebook and youtube? Make projects based around these principles: have them create a book review trailer or do statistics and graphing through facebook based questionnaires.
One of the easiest ways to follow your students is by giving choices or freedom to make suggestions when beginning a new project. Don’t assign one project to the whole class, offer a few, and then allow students to propose alternatives or modifications so that the project is just right for them.
Take Your Time
If you’re working on a specific topic with your students – say dinosaurs – about which you’ve planned a fantastic 2 week unit, and your students are really into it…why stop? Although sometimes it seems important to stick to your plan, couldn’t you also meet some of the upcoming objectives by continuing with their interest in dinosaurs for another week? Following your students means having some flexibility. In the same way, if they’re bored to tears and not enjoying your unit on dinosaurs…it might mean it’s time to move on, no matter how hard you worked on the plan.
Yikes! For some teachers out there, this suggestion might seem scary. For others it might sound like a great excuse to avoid ever opening their curriculum guides and lesson planners. In any case, by planning less, I don’t mean avoid planning. What I mean is, leave some room for students to pick topics, formats and even have some say in the skills area. You should focus your planning around skills that you’d like them to achieve, such as research, reading comprehension, analyzing numbers, critical thinking, organizing and communicating information, etc. Then allow your students to help pick some of the specifics – or, allow them to pick from several options, meaning each child will have an option that fits them better than if one is picked for all. For example, instead of picking the book you’d like to use for character studies with your 2nd graders, find out which books and topics they enjoy first.
Sometimes following your students can make you feel a bit out of control, and like there are some question marks in your planning, but that’s the point! The students should be more in control of their learning. That ownership will transfer into more creative projects, increased motivation and improved memory of the skills learned. So, let go a bit and look closer when your students do something irritating – they might just be communicating their next project’s topic and framework.