Project Based Learning at Thetford Elementary School
A More Student-Centered Approach to Teaching
This may not come as a surprise: many students are bored in school. Rather than blame the student, many teachers understand that students need to be personally invested in their own learning, and this is, in part, a design challenge for teachers, not a question of student effort.
One approach to remedy the problem of boredom is Project Based Learning (PBL). What is PBL? According to the Buck Institute for Education, a non-profit committed to expanding the implementation of PBL, and the organization contracted to work with Thetford Elementary School teachers this year, PBL “is a teaching method in which students gain knowledge and skills by working for an extended period of time to investigate and respond to an authentic, engaging and complex question, problem, or challenge.”
And research suggests PBL is effective.
Among the many PBL units to be designed or refined this year at Thetford Elementary School, the first grade farm stand project presented students with a genuine problem: how can we best utilize the corn, beans and squash harvested from the Three Sisters Garden?
This project was built on a rich foundational resource already available to students and teachers: the school garden, TES’s partnership with Cedar Circle Farm, and Cat Buxton, who comes to the school at the beginning of every year. The school garden provides students with many rich learning opportunities, and the K-1 students a focus on plant life cycles and interdependence.
K-1 teacher, Jaquelyn Porter, who is in her fourth year at TES, noted that after the harvest in the fall, the kids’ inquiry was more or less over. “We’d harvest all this stuff, we’d make popcorn and send pumpkins home with kids.” Porter wanted to extend students’ experience (and not end up with rotting pumpkins), and turned to Cat Buxton for ideas. They began talking about how to help kids better understand the food cycle.
In 2015, after adding oats and a pumpkin patch to the garden, she launched the farm stand project with her first graders, asking the kids, “What can we do with all of this food?” They read Donald Hall’s Ox Cart Man and several read alouds about markets. The kids agreed that they wanted to sell their food, “like the Ox Cart Man.”
Students went on the annual trip to Cedar Circle farm, but this time with a focus, not on plant life cycles, but on figuring out how they run the farm stand. The kids came armed with clipboards and questions, interviewed the employees, and went back to TES to design their farm stand. They made pumpkin muffins, roasted pumpkins seeds and popcorn. They charged a nominal fee for their goods (pennies and dimes-- so students could count by tens and ones), and made some money. Porter told her students they’d donate the money to the Thetford Food Shelf.
This year Betty Nunez and Sue Roger’s classes also participated, bringing two more farmstands to the school, “like a little farmer’s market, ” said Porter. Her students, however, leaned towards a different focus. As good teachers know, you have to follow the students’ interests. The kids started a similar process, but when Porter told the kids they’d have their store and give the money to charity, they were curious. Porter was surprised and interested to hear that they wanted to know, well, what’s charity? “We had this huge, amazing conversation.”
That turned into another project that continued through December. “They’re not a group of kids who are going to say Oh, you’re telling us we’re going to do this and we’re doing it? They always have a question.”
In conjunction with Inspiring Kids, Porter helped her students better understand philanthropy. The students heard from four different philanthropic organizations in the Upper Valley: The Haven, David’s House, The Upper Valley Humane Society, and Thetford’s food shelf.
The kids decided to use the farmstand profits-- $150 in dimes-- to make cookies for each organization, and donated the remaining money. “We’ve since gotten thank you notes."
Next year? Porter says that she will reconnect with Inspiring Kids to see if her students can participate in a more active service. “They’ve done something with their talent through the cookies and with their treasure with the donated money, now we’re going to talk about giving time.”
One thing is clear: students won't have time to be bored.