I work with 8 year olds. They are ambitious, creative, determined, and real. They want to be heard and take action to make a difference. And they can.
On Monday I started a rather scary (for me) project with my students using the Finnish approach to PBL – Phenomenon Based Learning. In essence we started with a phenomenon – in our case book deserts in our community – and dove deep into the study, interconnecting subject areas and relying on both teacher expertise and student constructed learning. There was only so much I could prepare before Monday since I didn’t know what my students would need. That’s what made it scary. Would we have enough to do each day? What if I couldn’t give them what they needed? What if they didn’t care about book deserts as much as I thought they would? What if they got bored?
I kept in mind a line from one of the few English translated pieces on Phenomenon Based Learning – the teacher initiates the learning while the process of learning is negotiated by both the student and the teacher.
Hesitant to step completely out of my comfort zone at first, Monday and Tuesday consisted of much teacher initiation – questioning, writing, collecting data, reading and reflecting.
By Wednesday we had enough momentum that I didn’t even put a schedule on the board aside from the designated “project times”. The students were perplexed. What are we going to do all day? With a list of student generated questions (we used the QFT approach) and ideas they created to collect, analyze and examine data to understand book deserts, they negotiated the work. I was there to support, guide and occasionally assign. I was there to push, offer advice and organize. I was there as the overseer of all the parts and the glue that held them together. At the end of that day (one that flew by for us all) students shared their learning and made connections to others’ work. 8 year olds discovered:
- The average amount of books we have at home is 315.
- Our school has over 37,000 books.
- No one in our class lives in a book desert.
- The amount of books in a book desert is equal to each child in our school getting to take one book home for one day in the year.
- Books teach us knowledge but also teach us to love reading.
- More girls in the world can’t read than boys.
- No one should grow up in a book desert.
Let me just restate, 8 year olds discovered this. I did not tell them this information, nor did I explicitly show them how to find it. I initiated the inquiry, but they negotiated the learning space to make these revelations.
I was scared to take this leap. I surrendered control in my own classroom. I had to think on the fly, teach multiplication, averages, literary analysis and more without a lesson plan. But my students trusted me and I trusted them. Together, we are creating something more than parts to a whole.
Along the way, students began prototyping ideas of how we could help with this problem. We love books, we don’t live in a book desert, and we want to help. After daydreaming, wishing and brainstorming, the children settled the idea of creating a class company to make and sell books, generating revenue to donate to a local book charity. And that is our work for next week in school.