Today, as I drove to my parents home in my home town, I had to drive by the old elementary school where I spent the first eight years of my education. That building is now abandoned by progress and time, but seeing it always causes a flood of memories about the many, many days I spent walking its halls. This afternoon I thought of Ms. S- - - -‘s class, fourth grade and my earliest experience with what might today be called project-based learning.
Ms. S - - - -‘s fourth grade class was challenging for me that year. Suddenly, I had a teacher who expected her students to turn in lots of projects, and up to that year, I had not been asked to do much of that. I remember one particular project asked us to use our imagination and create some scene from a story we’d read. In this story, there was a fort, with soldiers and native Americans---all those things that could catch a young boy’s imagination. I decided I was going to create a complete panorama of the scene using a box and cut-outs.
A few days before it was due, I gathered together my box, scissors, glue, and crayons, and the afternoon before it was due, I settled in the middle of my bedroom and went to work. To make the ground look authentic, I gathered real leaves from the water oak in our back yard to glue on the stage of my panorama. I also gathered some small sticks to include as well. I laid all these things out on the floor and went to work. I used notebook paper and scissors to carefully cut out the silhouette of the stockade fort, then I carefully and meticulously colored each log. I then cut out silhouettes of soldiers and native Americans and added detail and color to them using the crayons. Once I had all of these things created, I began to carefully glue them into place in the box creating a 3-D scene of what I saw in the story. When I finally finished two and a half hours later, I looked upon my work with pride. I was excited about it, and could not wait to share it in class the next day.
The next morning, I arrived in class with my panorama box tucked under my arm. I couldn’t wait to share it with my classmates. I walked over to my table, and a pod of students were gathered pouring over another student’s creation. Everyone was excited. As I walked up, I saw this massive fort built out of popsicle sticks, and real toy soldiers and Indians were placed around it in frozen battle formation. The fort was awesome and I knew it. George, the student who brought it, said, “Check out my project. My Dad and I worked on it all night last night. We had to go to the hobby shop and get the popsicle sticks, then we went to the store and bought the soldiers and Indians. Ain’t it neat?” I muttered, “Sure.”
I suddenly didn’t feel so excited about my panorama. I turned it away, trying to prevent anyone from seeing it. I was too late. George said, “Let me see your’s.” Before I could stop him, he pulled my panorama away from my side and peered into it. He snickered and leaned over to Amy and said something, and they both laughed. By that time, Ms. Steen entered the room and asked us to place our projects on a table at the back of the room and sit down. I placed mine on the table, carefully turning it to the wall so no one could peer inside it.
A few days later, we received our grades on those projects. George got an A of course and made sure we all knew it. Me? I made a C. By the time we received the grades though, I know longer cared about it any more. I had gradually grown accustomed to the fact that many of my classmates were able to create better projects than mine, and the grades they received seemed perfectly fair. They had fathers who could help them with theirs. Mine had just been laid off from one job, and was having to work second shift on another. They also had parents who could go out and buy popsicle sticks and other resources for their projects. My parents struggled to make sure five kids were clothed and fed. Fourth graders know little about equity, and I knew very little then. I just accepted the fact that some people can build better projects than mine.