As kindergartners strolled into Mary Hopper’s classroom March 14, they found themselves surrounded by tables with construction paper, cardboard, markers, crayons, felt, yarn, glue, scissors – items typically found in elementary schools.
However, she didn’t give the students of Woodmen Hills Elementary School a typical set of patterns and instructions. After putting them into small groups, she gave them a goal, and encouraged creative thinking and social skills to reach it.
“What’s the word we’ve been learning this year?” said Hopper, walking between the tables of students, each 5-6 years old. Together, the children said, “cooperating.”
Hopper, a project-based learning teacher, is part of the school’s specials rotations. Throughout each school year, students from kindergarten to fifth grade enter her classroom to progressively explore and lead hands-on, collaborative opportunities.
Ahead of St. Patrick’s Day, she divided kindergarten classes into three groups.
One group created a leprechaun, requiring individual attention on a hat, a face, a beard, a shirt, a buckle, pants and shoes. Students had to coordinate their efforts to ensure all the parts would fit together, logically and proportionally.
As a leprechaun formed, two other groups would focus on mushrooms and a rainbow. As Hopper toured tables, she asked students to explain what they’re working on, and why. She looked for understandings emerging from interactions.
“I thought Riley wanted hands on him?” said Hopper, mitigating disagreements and ensuring all student ideas are heard. Two students started tracing an outline of their hands, and then cut them out, as another collected scraps and stacked pencils.
“I really want the students to learn that strong collaboration definitely involves speaking — sharing input with others — but most importantly, listening to what other group members have to contribute,” said Hopper.
“The best ideas tend to come from shared decision-making,” she says.
As students identified problems and solved them, a diversity of personalities surfaced, from organizers to leaders. Hopper says kindergartners use collaborative projects to learn more about how they best relate and coordinate with others.
“Working together toward a common goal is a skill that's critical for students to practice early,” says Hopper. Many kindergartners initially choose to listen, and then they discover independence and self-advocacy, and comfort in asking for help.
“Sure, there are arguments and hurt feelings at times,” she says, “but disagreeing with one another is a normal part of life. Working through that develops leadership as well as the ability to compromise.”
By fifth grade, students in her project-based learning class are applying design thinking and launch cycles, while networking and mentoring in other classrooms.
The St. Patrick’s Day project was part of a makerspace curriculum, which follows an educational philosophy rooted in constructivist pedagogy. It applies a learning theory that suggests students are inspired by constructing things, and then reflecting on those experiences to find new ideas or connect existing ideas.
“It’s so important for me to step back at times, and let that process play out,” said Hopper about the kindergartners. “Five-year-olds can actually be quite efficient and creative in their problem-solving.”