For teachers, it’s totally normal to get nostalgic and a little sad during this time of the year, as the end is near. Our amazing school year that began back in 2018 is two weeks away from being over. Our remarkable and wonderful students have made so much progress and now it’s time for them to move on. I still remember the first day of school as if it were yesterday. It was about 95 degrees in my classroom and I had sweat through my shirt by 9:30 that morning. My students were nervous and excited. In fact, they made up a new word to describe just that very emotion. They call it “nerited.” My nerited little sponges were full of curiosity and wonder. Now that the close of another school year is within sight, I am feeling nerited. Did I prepare them effectively for their next steps? Are they truly ready to move on? I think the bigger question is, am I ready to let them move on? This being my first year at the Beech Hill School, I feel so very lucky to have had such a wonderful and amazing class of fifth graders. Each and every one of them are remarkable in numerous ways. I don’t want the fun to come to an end, but as Robert Frost wrote in one of his most famous poems, “Yet knowing how way leads on to way,” time stops for no one and my little fifth graders aren’t so little anymore. They are ready for their next journey, their next path. (Wiping away tears as I reflect on my wonderful year.) But hold on, while the end is indeed near, it’s not here yet, oh no. We still have two glorious, and what I’m sure will be, crazy weeks to go. Although it may be easy to look out onto the horizon and see June 14, my energy is focused on the present, the now.
To keep my students focused on the now, and to help them hold back any tears that may be welling up inside, this past week, I introduced the final, cumulative assignment to my class. It’s the project to end all projects. It’s the Big Kahuna of Kahunas. This is the project that will make all other projects seem like just another day in the dentist’s chair. We’re talking major project here. In fact, this isn’t simply another project. This is something far different. You see, this is a cross-curricular, integrated, behemoth, project of epic proportions. This, ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, is, wait for it… The BHS Betterment Project! That sound you hear is the thunderous applaud and screams of amazement. While I have utilized Project Based Learning in the past, this is the first large-scale project that I have ever created. This project has its tentacles reaching into our Language Arts curriculum, our Social Studies curriculum, our Science curriculum, and our Social-Emotional Learning curriculum. This is the big time now folks. I feel a bit like that person in the circus that steers the show, tells funny jokes, and explains all of the various acts. Yeah, I feel a bit like a circus clown.
Before I get too carried away with my silly antics, I should get back on track. So, the project involves the students creating some way to leave their mark on our wonderful little school. What could they do that would enrich the lives of our school’s community members? How could they make our campus and school even better than it currently is? Once they brainstorm their idea, they begin constructing it. Click here to learn more about this phenomenal project.
This week past week, I introduced the project to my class. Excitement was definitely in the air. They were pumped for this project. Immediately, almost every pair of students had an idea for their project. The first step was to flesh it out, bring it to life a bit more. I had them complete a project proposal via Google Forms to allow them time to really think about their idea. How will it benefit our tiny little school? What materials will be needed? Are we invested in this project enough to work outside of school if the need arises? I then met with each group to discuss their idea with them. I posed questions to each partnership to help them truly think through their idea. The positive energy was amazing. The students were so excited to jump into this project. They loved it. On the first day, I asked the students what allowed them to work so well and stay so focused during the various work periods we had for this project. Their response, “Because this project is awesome. It’s real. We are actually doing something that makes a difference. We’re changing our school for the better.” At hearing their responses, I almost jumped out of my skin and ran around the classroom jumping for joy. I felt like that guy from that movie about baseball. “If you create the right project, they will work and love it,” I believe one of the characters said at one point in the film.
Throughout the week, the students worked on their different projects, making the school and our community better. Each group is totally invested in their project and tasks. It’s amazing, and I get to observe it all. On Friday, I walked around the school in awe, watching my students work like busy little BHS Beavers working on their projects. I didn’t have to remind anyone to stay focused on the work at hand. I was able to bask in the glory of their hard work and awesomeness. It was amazing!
- One group is making a community garden in an area that at one time did have a garden on it, but has since turned into a grassy meadow. They spent much of this past week trying to cut down the grass and get to the dirt of the matter. As we have a landscaping company take care of mowing and trimming the grass, we don’t have many garden tools or lawn care items available to us at the school. However, this did not stop that group of dedicated young ladies. Oh no. On the second day they were outside and the grass became too long for them to simply pull out of the ground by hand, they asked for the mother of all grass cutting tools. “May we use the scissors to cut the grass,” they asked with authority. Holding back laughter, I replied, “Of course. Give them a try. That is one way to cut grass.” Later that same period I went outside to check on them. While I thought for sure that they would be complaining about how the scissors are useless and not really making a dent in cutting down the grass, they were hard at work on their hands and knees snipping the grass with the scissors. They seemed incredibly content cutting the grass with small little scissors. Their perseverance was phenomenal. Knowing that we had two weeks and not two months to complete this project though, I brought in a weed whacker for them to use the very next day. Although they liked that the weed whacker got the job done much more quickly than the scissors, they almost seemed to miss the quiet nature of cutting the grass with scissors.
- Another group decided to create and operate a school store. As our school is but seven young years old, we don’t have any sort of school store for the students to purchase things like snacks, pencils, or school swag. Two dedicated fifth grade boys want to change that. Their goal is to grow this store into something that will sell all sorts of fun things like that to the students on a daily basis. However, they do realize that they need to start small in order to become a giant like Amazon. They worked diligently to create a spreadsheet that will document their earnings and expenses, make posters advertising the new school store, and research and then select the few items they will start selling first. This past Friday marked their first day of business. They were so excited to open that they spent the entire work period prior to the Grand Opening, setting up the store, reorganizing the price tags, and making sure that everything was just right. It was so fifth grade. They raked in about $20 on day one, and were planning to buy new items this weekend so they could reopen again on Tuesday of next week.
- The third group wanted to find an easier and more student-friendly way to organize the books in our class library. While the students can use the 5-finger rule for finding a new book, these two students wanted to make it even easier for future fifth graders to find books on their reading level. So, they found a system for labeling the books that they liked and began re-shelving our class library this past week. They went with the Accelerated Reader system of classifying books. They used colored stickers on the spines of the books to denote their level. They created a key for the students to use as well. But, they didn’t stop there. No, they took it a level further. They then organized the books by genre. So, each genre shelf or section is organized by reading level as well. If you’re looking for a historical fiction book that is above the fifth grade reading level, they’ve got several for you to choose from. It’s so cool. I can’t wait to unveil this system for my new students in September.
- The final group wanted to do something that would help more than just our school community. They wanted to help our local town community too. As we spent a lot of time at the start of the school year learning about the town of Hopkinton and it’s rich history, the students seem to be more aware of things outside their immediate zone of proximity. This partnership decided to build a free community lending library that would be housed near the road, but on our property, for all to use. We will stock it with donated books first and see how the community takes to it. This week, they designed and started constructing the small library house. As our town has zoning laws that must be adhered to, I sent the students to Town Hall to find out what they might need to do in terms of fees or paperwork. It turns out that, as long as the structure is on the school’s property, no paperwork or fees are required. That was good news. This experience was a valuable one for the students to understand and realize that things don’t simply, magically happen, there is much procedural work that takes place behind the scenes. Being an adult is hard work.
While class projects are wonderful and fun for the students, the engagement factor usually fizzles out after a day or so. However, with this real-life project that has genuine outcomes for the school community and beyond, the students remain 100% invested and engaged because it isn’t just a fun thing to do, it’s the real-world. They are doing something that matters and will make a difference in our community. They are gardening, earning money, learning about zoning laws, and determining how to better help future students. They are doing adult things like adults do, and I think that is the piece that is engaging them and keeping them motivated. Project Based Learning allows for students to learn real-world skills as well as grade-appropriate skills in an engaging and fun manner. Most of the learning that happens in projects like the one my students are working on now is hidden from the students. The group running the school store doesn’t realize that they are practicing math skills as well as the economics of supply and demand while developing a store and selling snacks and drinks to their peers. PBL experiences weave the learning discretely into the project itself so that the students don’t fully comprehend how much learning and school work they are actually doing. It’s all about subterfuge, baby.
Instead of spending the last few weeks of school finishing chapters in our Math textbook or reviewing what was learned this year, I’m engaging the students in an exciting project that will help them give back to our school and greater community. I want my students leaving the fifth grade feeling like they made a difference, learned a lot, made life-long friends, and created memories that will stick with them for a lifetime. Before I start sobbing again, I’ll wrap up this week’s blog entry with a quote from one of my students, “They looked gross at first, but then I tried them and realized they were super soft and chewy.” Here’s the big question, was he referring to an actual food product or sticks he found outside during Forest Friday? Ponder that.