After the success of that project, I was eager to move forward and develop a larger project for Term 2. We decided to use the NSW HSIE syllabus as our starting point.
The unit we developed touched on outcomes in all four strands: Social Systems and Structures, Change and Continuity, Cultures and Environments, but had a particular emphasis on Environments. We decided to use our school playground as a focus and develop the idea of custodianship, with students developing plans to improve our grounds and make them more amenable for current and future students.
Our planned outcomes and indicators came from the Environments strand of the NSW HSIE syllabus.
- identify differences between natural and built features of the school playground
- categorise places in the school grounds: where people work, eat, play, are active or passive, animal habitats etc.
- express an awareness of how the school grounds exist within a broader context: e.g as a natural habitat and as a community facility.
- recognise Aboriginal people’s’ special relationship with the school grounds
- identify ways in which the school environment has changed and is continuing to change
- suggest ways of caring for the school environment and ways in which they can contribute
- identify an aspect of the school environment which can be easily improved, make a simple plan to improve it, and carry out that plan.
- Reflect on the effectiveness of the improvement projects and devise a strategy for long-term, sustained improvement.
However, as the project progressed, content from other Key Learning Areas was also included. My students were involved in measuring and drawing birds-eye view plans of areas of our playground and wrote expositions to support their proposals.
What we did:
Introducing the Project:
To begin, I took my class on a tour of the school grounds, they brought with them clipboards, paper and pencils and stopping in various areas made a mind map. The centre of each mind map contained the words “Our School” and branches growing out from the centre included prompts such as I see, I hear, I feel, I like, I don’t like.
We brought the mind maps back into the classroom, and using butchers paper and post it notes, created a class version that contained everyone’s ideas.
After compiling the mind map, I explained to the students that they would be spending the term learning about the school grounds and be put in charge of running some projects to make them even better.
As a reflection I asked students to think of up to 3 improvements they would like to make in the school playground and to briefly write about these.
Providing a context:
Before moving any further with the projects I wanted to develop some contextual knowledge for my students. We spent the next two weeks developing an understanding of our land’s heritage and the notion of custodianship.
Over a number of days, I shared the book ‘My Place‘ by Nadia Wheatley which was written to celebrate Australian’s bicentenary in 1988. Each page contains a story of children living in Sydney and it goes back in time, with a new story for each decade. The children live on the same land and often in the same house, so as the book moves back through time the history of Sydney is revealed. It takes us all the way back to the Aboriginal owners of the land.
Using the book as a stimulus, I asked my students to consider how our school land had changed over time what changes had they observed recently and what changes would have occurred over time all the way back to 1788?
We also considered who owns our land? We talked about the original owners and why it is important we acknowledge them, and we talked about what we have inherited from the lands original owners.
I then moved the discussion on to speculate about how our land might be used in the future and what changes, good or bad, might occur.
To introduce the notion of custodianship, I shared the book ‘Belonging’ by Jeannie Baker. It has a similar theme to ‘My Place’, but in this case, each page moves us forward through time. The book begins with a view through a window across a very desolate, urban landscape with pollution, graffiti and rubbish. As the book moves through time, you can see the environment being restored: trees are planted, a park is created, murals are painted on walls. By the end of the book, the view is of a thriving and cheerful urban community. It has an empowering message showing how people can make a difference to the world around them.
After discussing the book, we talked about our school land. I introduced the term ‘stakeholder; and we brainstormed the different community uses of our land. We also considered the different wildlife that make our school grounds their home.
I then introduced the word ‘custodians’ and we discussed how we could be good custodians of our land.
Planning the project
In week 4, we were ready to begin planning our project:
Defining amenity, I introduced the driving question: How can we improve the amenity of our playground?
In a shady corner of the grounds with some tall gum trees and a sandpit, students observed and explored, discussing what they liked, what worked well, and what might be improved.
Back in the classroom we discussed their ideas. With out exception, the students all decided that our sand pit was not working well at all, and needed an overhaul. (Isn’t it great when you get the results from the discussion you were hoping for!)
We decided to make improving the amenity of our sandpit our focus, and the students made various suggestions, some more realistic than others for how we might do that.
Over the following weeks we started to make our plan. We returned to the sandpit and tested it out.
A number of my students were actually repelled when I suggested they might play in it. They didn’t want to because the sand was dirty and full of leaves and twigs. Those who were brave enough to venture in started to dig, but after only a few centimetres, met hard ground. While they were exploring the sandpit, a group of students managed to excavate a little wooden bridge: it turned out we didn’t have one sandpit, but two divided by the bridge.
This experience made for a great discussion. It was obvious that we needed to do something about the shallow, dirty sand. Proposals included buying new sand, but other students worried that it would just wash out of the sand pit again in a down pour. Some suggested building a roof over the top of the sandpit to stop the twigs and leaves falling into it, others suggested cutting down the trees that surround it. A few observed that part of the problem was some of the sands stone rocks that formed an edge around the sandpit had been removed, or large gaps between them where children had dug tunnels. This was causing the sand to wash out.
Bringing in the expert
Not having any landscaping experience myself, it was time to bring in an expert. I recruited the help of a landscape architect, Paul, who used to have children at our school, and had been responsible for a lot of our grounds work in the past. He now works for us one day per week as a general assistant.
We needed to wait a couple of weeks before Paul was available to help us. In the meantime, my students drew plans of the sandpit area and wrote expositions giving reasons to support their various proposals for change.
When Paul was finally available, we were running out of time. There were only two weeks of term left. We returned to the sand pit with Paul and he put my students to work, using trundle wheels and tape measures to provide measurements that he put into an architectural plan for us. The students explained their suggestions and he advised on the viability of the various plans. In the end, we decided that we needed to redesign the sandpit to make it slightly larger and deeper. Paul advised that a wooden edge would be best, made out of recycled timber. He also recommended removal of a couple of smaller shrubs. We would need to buy new sand, get a sandpit cover, and, if money permitted, some sandpit toys to help make the area more fun.
Now that we had our plan, we needed to make it happen, and that was going to be the focus of our Term 3 PBL which would focus on how we could raise funds to pay for the work and supplies that were needed. My students were very excited by this proposition and started coming up with fundraising ideas such as lemonade stands in their front yards or making thousands of origami cranes to sell.
Abandoning the Project
Unfortunately none of the fundraising plans came to fruition. Our school principal went on leave in Term 3, so I spent most of the first half of term off class as relieving principal. I felt the project was really too big for the casual teacher who took over my class to take on, and I was so busy with principal work that I couldn’t continue it in the background.
Then, I had an intern take over my class for the second half of term. (I did very little teaching at all in Term 3). My intern had almost full-time responsibility for the class and some specific course requirements to complete. She wasn’t confident taking this on and I didn’t want to push her. PBL was my professional goal but it didn’t have to be hers, and she was working hard just coming to terms with day-to-day teaching and classroom management.
I also realised, that as much as I wanted to run a fundraiser with my class, there were already several fundraising events happening at my school during the term and the community was feeling quite fatigued by all the requests for money. I’d considered the idea of putting on a fair, similar to the one we ran in Term 1, however our Year 6 students were already planning a similar event to raise money for their farewell gift to the school.
And so, reluctantly, I abandoned that project. It just wasn’t feasible to pursue it in Term 4.
Even though we didn’t get to put our plans into action, I was still very pleased with the learning that occurred. My students were engaging in critical thinking and real life problem solving. They also developed a sense of social responsibility, considering the impact on all stakeholders when planning for change. They demonstrated the understandings I was targeting in the Environments strand of HSIE, looking at the relationships and interactions between people and the environment.
Their exposition writing was excellent. They were able to clearly articulate their reasons for improving the sandpit with great supporting arguments. And I loved seeing them have an authentic purpose for their mapping and measurement skills in maths.
I learned that it is possible to take on too much and that I need to plan far more carefully. I was so in love with the idea of this project that I didn’t consider all the logistical issues. With more planning, I think we could have pulled this off. I had always expected that we would need to fundraise for whatever improvement we decided to make, and I had mentioned that to my principal, however I really needed to discuss it with her in more depth and put the fundraiser into our calendar for Term 3. I think if I had done that, we would have been able to move forward.
But I haven’t given up on this project. If possible, I’d still like to follow up with the same group of students in 2014 and organise that fundraiser so we can see our sandpit come back to life.
This is the third in my series on Project Based Learning. For more,visit my Project Based Learning page or view the articles below.