Shelly Praria taught my daughter, Sophie, in the first and third grades at Northside Elementary in Woodford County, Kentucky.  Moving my daughter from her Montessori kindergarten to public school was a difficult transition for both of us, and I am grateful to Shelly for her patience and kindness.  She helped my daughter develop habits of mind that she refers to frequently, even as she enters middle school this year.  The joy and thoughtfulness Shelly brings to her classroom is evident when she speaks about her students and her practice.  Read her blog here about project-based learning and why she feels every child deserves something more than a worksheet.  You will see why I feel so fortunate that she’s had a hand in raising my kid. – Lauren Hill

“I Remember That Worksheet!” Said No One…Ever!

By Shelly Praria

“Mom, what did you learn in school that you remember most?”

As my son stood there, waiting for an answer, images began to flood my mind.  Dressing up as a Greek Goddess and creating a skit, building a medieval castle to battle my classmates, constructing a toothpick bridge to test its weight capacity…on and on the memories came flooding back.  That’s when I realized the profound impact that projects had on my education.  Every lasting memory that I recounted to my son was that of a project that I created.

The truth is that I struggled in the classroom a primary student.  I had wonderful teachers who cared about me very much, but I was a day dreamer, the unengaged.  That was until I qualified for the gifted program.  That opportunity to experience a different style of teaching changed my life.  The teachers challenged me with projects and expected me to take ownership of my own learning experience through the creation of projects.   My daydreaming and creativity became an asset in a project-based environment. I became an engaged and eager student, making the honor roll for the first time ever.

When I began teaching, I knew I wanted to make project-based learning available to students at all levels. I was blessed to participate in such an amazing program and knew from personal experience that project-based learning had the potential to change lives. As I entered the classroom, I noticed that this type of learning seemed offered only to our highest achieving students.  Those who struggled received skills worksheets, scripted programs, and deemed “not ready” for such high level creative tasks. I disagreed! This is good practice for all students, at all levels.

Project-based learning creates experiences that are deep and connected. Learning is hands on and engaging.  Our students who are struggling need this.  Many lack exposure to experiences and vocabulary resulting in difficulty understanding the abstract terms used in academic language. Students see, hear and experience concepts, rather than just read about them.

There is no better way than project-based learning to prepare our students for the challenges they will face. As I teach Science to my third graders, I use project-based learning with students of all academic levels. As we discuss environmental concerns that they will inherit, I’m always amazed as students take ownership of their learning.   They generate questions to guide their research and learn far more than I could have taught in a lesson because they discovered it.

Students are empowered as they become experts who communicate and share their ideas with an audience.  They are inventors and artists creating products for the future and dreaming of endless possibilities.

The work is meaningful because there is an authentic purpose with real world applications beyond the walls of the classroom. They are eager to change the world!

Is it messy?  You bet!  There have been many times I’ve found myself knee deep in clay pantheons and watery hurricane models wondering what I was thinking.   Is it scary?  Yes. I’m never sure what they will come up with when I step back and allow students to lead.   I’m a passenger trying to navigate this runaway learning adventure.  Is it worth it?  Without a doubt! Students explore with excitement while fueled by a sense of purpose. Their eyes light up as they realize their own potential. They are no longer just kids, they are scientist, authors, and mathematicians.

If you were to ask me about what I remember most about teaching students, it is those moments when I stand amidst a bustling classroom and watch children become passionate about their learning.  Every student deserves this opportunity. I want to be that teacher who changes lives.  That is why I’m passionate about using project-based learning with students at all levels, especially those who struggle.

What did you learn in school that you remember most? I am pretty sure it had nothing to do with a worksheet.


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