Student-Led Projects Tap Into Creativity, Allow Work to Shine

First-grader Tina Vo shares her report on serval cats

Third-grader Dion Idrizi has advice about caring for the planet that everyone should hear.

“It’s nice to recycle because if you don’t, the entire Earth will be dirty, like an entire trash pool,” he said, making a big circle with his arms. “I think we need a recycling bin at home so we can recycle and reuse paper.”

Many other Wyoming Public Schools Gladiola Elementary School third graders were equally passionate about the green projects they presented to parents and siblings at the school’s first Celebration of Learning event. They spent time learning everything they could about recycling and pollution, writing papers and creating posters. They turned school breakfast containers into artwork, and fashioned plastic bags into superhero capes.

Project-Based Learning Positives

  • Develops Deeper Understanding of Content
  • Includes Several Academic Subjects
  • Student-led, Teacher-facilitated
  • Connects with Real World Problems or Issues
  • Ties in with Common Core Standards

“If 6,000 pieces of paper are recycled, one tree is saved,” said third-grader Brady Flint.

Environmentalism wasn’t the night’s only theme. Around the school building, classrooms were transformed into miniature businesses run by student moguls peddling their wares. A barn was staffed with farmers/teachers, where kindergartners showed off the animals they’d learned all about, and first-graders displayed exotic animal habitats where they told visitors about zebras, jaguars and serval cats.

The student-led event merged all subjects into multidisciplinary projects, bringing lessons to life in exciting ways, said Principal Craig Hoekstra.

Teachers were challenged to facilitate projects using the Project-Based Learning approach, which involves students investigating topics, posing open-ended questions, working to find solutions, critiquing each other and presenting a final project to an audience.

“We wanted to create an experience that is real-world, purposeful and connects to the content kids are learning in their grades,” he said.

Students Javari Rodriguez and Dominic Diaz serve Wolf Juice
Students Javari Rodriguez and Dominic Diaz serve Wolf Juice

Making School Projects Their Own

Paper cows and cardboard roosters nestled on their bedding in the kindergarten barn, where students happily pointed out their farm animals. Kindergartner Daniel Reyes talked about roosters, the “boss” of the chickens.

“They have claws; they’re colorful; They have feathers… It’s a bird!” Daniel said.

Technology enhanced the experience. Third and fourth-graders in the after-school Gifted and Talented enrichment program created QR Codes. Parents scanned the codes and heard the voices of the children giving history lessons about the Underground Railroad.

As they listened, they looked at a paper timeline spread across the hallway depicting how slaves escaped to freedom,

“We wrote (the narratives for recording) in our own words,” Brady said. “That was the hardest part, to find the perfect words.”

Principal Craig Hoekstra wears a plastic-bag cape
Principal Craig Hoekstra wears a plastic-bag cape

Fourth-graders learned what it takes to turn profit as an entrepreneur. They sold bubbly “wolf juice” for 50 cents a cup, slimy goo, colorful bracelets and homemade K-Dough. One class made a profit of $121 to spend on classroom parties and a field trip. They had to plan the steps of the business, come up with a product, create it and have an advertising plan.

Fourth-grader Landon Reames said he learned running a business isn’t as easy as it looks.

“It would be really hard because you’d have to find your workers, know how much you have to charge for your product and figure out how to advertise,” Landon said

Fourth-grade teacher Deb Kooistra said students’ enthusiasm was contagious, and they really “get” the economic concepts of running a business.

“It was a real opportunity for some kids to show their leadership skills that maybe they didn’t know they had, or maybe I didn’t even know their full potential for,” she said.

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Project Based Learning

Erin Albanese
Erin Albanese has worked as a journalist in the Grand Rapids area since 2000. A graduate of Central Michigan University, she has written for The Grand Rapids Press, Advance Newspapers and On-the-Town Magazine. She has been covering the many exciting facets of K-12 public education for School News Network since 2013. Read Erin's full bio

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