We educators are always seeking to engage our students in hands-on learning, because we know how motivating and effective such learning is. Hands-on learning is defined as “learning that is gained by actually doing something rather than learning about it from books, lectures, etc. : involving or allowing the use of your hands or touching with your hands; actively and personally involved in something.” We’ve done less of these types of activities than we’d like this year due to COVID-19 protocols, but we’ve worked very hard to keep this important mode of learning at the forefront, especially in our project-based learning work.
There are several components of a “gold standard” project in project based learning. Among those, “authenticity” and “a public product” are particularly important because they greatly increase student motivation, interest, and desire to do high-quality work. They can also be among the more challenging to accomplish; doing real-life work and processes with young children isn’t always an easy feat, especially so in our current COVID-19 classroom set-up. And while one can always “create” a public audience for a project, it’s always ideal when the final product truly is needed or wanted by the final recipients.
Our annual PNA Auction projects are just about as authentic and public as we can get. Each year our students become artists, creating an art project that is auctioned off to support the PNA mission. Parents and community members view the artworks and bid on them, often with great enthusiasm and generous donations. The creation of these projects usually takes place outside the regular classroom activities with a parent volunteer or guest artist, but this year, again due to COVID-19, the work was part of our regular classroom day. In fact, much of the work took place over the last two weeks, ironically juxtaposed against our standardized testing. Each day, after a morning of quiet, solitary testing, in which students worked on tests where they chose answers from a predetermined list of A, B, C, or D, we spent the afternoons figuring out how to create electrical circuits and working on our Auction projects. Tinkering, trying, testing, and talking took the forefront as students put forth their best efforts to create an artwork that auction-goers would want to purchase.
Since I am a quilter, that was the project I could best support. Divided into two convenient groups of 8 boys and 8 girls, students imagined a theme for their quilts; brainstormed and debated and defended ideas; came to consensus over a final decision; created prototype sketches and provided critical feedback to each other; and then got to work on their art. In several instances, students had to start over, try again, scrap an original idea. Once they began the sewing tasks, the majority of students learned to use a sewing machine for the first time. There were fingers poked with pins, seams that went awry and had to be unpicked and re-sewn, and the constant challenge of mastering a new process. When their squares were complete, they went up on the design board and students collaboratively decided on the best layout for the final quilt.
Throughout this process, students were focused, excited, engaged, and productive. They showed patience and persistence. They helped each other, pushed on each other’s thinking with respect and kindness, worked together on something tangible and beautiful. Their pride when the quilt top came together this Friday was a joy to behold. This was something they had created with their own hands, and they were so proud of it.
In school, writing an essay or reading a book or solving a math problem are all authentic tasks. They ARE hands-on and real-life tasks and they are important ones for our kids to learn. But it’s different kind of learning to take fabric and crayons and a sewing machine and creating a soft, vibrant blanket that will be auctioned to eager buyers. Students left Friday feeling accomplished and capable. More than one student went home this week and sewed on their home machine… bean bags and stuffies were made and proudly shown-off. Plans for quilts and other sewing projects are already being made. Students know they have the power to create things, to learn new things, to do hard things. That’s the power of hands-on, project based learning.
Oh, and the quilts? They are beautiful. I’ve provided some sneak peeks for you in the pictures below. But you’ll have to check out the PNA Auction to see the full view. We need that authentic, public audience, after all!!