Incorporating the Project Approach into a Traditional Curriculum

Judy Harris Helm
Peoria, Illinois

It is difficult to introduce the project approach in a school where the other teachers are using a more direct instructional approach. I believe, however, that all teachers have similar goals for children, even though their understanding of how to achieve these goals may be different.

The suggestions below were generated in a discussion with a first grade teacher in response to the frustrations she expressed about her attempts to implement the project approach in an environment with a tradition of an imposed, discrete, skills-oriented curriculum.

You will be in the position of showing your colleagues how children learn in the project approach. The other teachers are likely to be watching to see what you do and how much your children are learning. Accept that role. You will be doing two jobs the first year. This means much extra work, but it will be worth it.
Examine the curriculum requirements that are given to you. What exactly does the school (and the district) want children to learn and to know? Make a list of the answers to this question. The goals and specific objectives may be found in the curriculum guide, report cards, standardized tests, or a developmental checklist.
Assure your principal and others that you will be addressing this list of goals and objectives, although you may do so in a different way from your colleagues. If necessary, request permission to vary the time schedule for the introduction of the topics and skills. Be sure to make clear that you are requesting flexibility of the time schedule, and not of the content and skills to be covered.
Choose, as a first project, a topic which is clearly consistent with the educational objectives of your school and district. For example, if living and non-living things are part of your science curriculum, select possible project topics out of this general concept. In other words, stay with project topics that coincide with the curriculum, especially during the first year.
Make a web with children regarding their experiences and knowledge of the topic. Revisit and revise the web with the children throughout the project. Each time you revisit and add to the web, make a copy of it and keep it, always keeping a copy prior to the revisions. The series of webs will show the growth in the knowledge and understanding of your students. Display these webs prominently inside and outside your room.
To begin, focus on the project approach in one part of your day. Some teachers set aside a special project time each day when all children focus on some part of the project. Several groups of children may be doing in depth exploration in different aspects of the project; one or two children may be working solo. Other teachers already have a time block called "work time" or "center time" in which children choose the locations in the room to work where materials and equipment have been set up for specific activities. Some of these centers can focus on project work. Other centers may focus on other aspects of the curriculum to be covered. It is best to have an extended time period for project work. Setting aside a block of time like 45 - 60 minutes during which children work at centers, some required and some project focused, can give you that time and still enable work to move ahead on required curriculum materials. Joy of Learning, by Bobbi Fisher, explains how to manage this type of center time.
Project work which coincides with content guidelines can also be scheduled for specific times with the whole class. For example, measuring how far different balls roll in a project on balls can be the math activity when charting and graphing is involved. Writing what is observed on a field trip can be the journal writing activity of the day.

Encourage children to do as much writing and drawing as possible about what they are observing and learning in the project. Have them revisit, redraw, and rewrite. This helps children solidify knowledge, become aware of their own learning, and demonstrate to others how extensive the learning actually is during projects. Display these items, showing first attempts (or sketches) and final copies prominently. This documentation can be very powerful.
If you have required workbooks or textbooks, are the pages designated? You may be able to choose pages. You can do the minimum needed for children to be successful. Specific pages can be set up as part of a required center activity, or as Bobbi Fisher calls them "I Cares." Work pages, if required, can be done several at a time, or individually, and sent home together or as each one is completed.
At the end of each project, go back to your list of required content. Make a copy of it and highlight all those content objectives covered in the project work. Display this list prominently with other project documentation.
These ideas can get you through the first year. When others see the documentation of learning, they will understand the power of projects. Be patient, don't push, be consistent, and document. Good luck!

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