I used to think being a teacher would enable me to replicate some of the best project-based experiences of my childhood as a student. That was before I realized that testing dominated the field of education and there was practically no time for projects.
No worries, someday the tests will go away – or at least the mania that surrounds them – and I’ll be able to bring to my students versions of what I did when I was their age. Some of the most memorable:
Jewelry Making – One Mother’s Day, we made earrings out of thick red string. My mom used to wear them proudly…until they started to come apart. (What kind of quality can you expect from a 7-year old?)
City in a Suitcase – In third grade, we had to choose an international city and fill a suitcase (or, hey, a clothes box) from the city. I chose Jerusalem and included post cards, pictures, and more. Everyone presented their cities to the class – I can still remember one pair pulling out creme brulee for Paris and one girl pulling out Indian food for New Delhi.
Animal Books – Also in third grade, we picked an animal we wanted to study and had to write a book about it. I chose zebras (and have loved them ever since). My dad typed my book on an Apple IIGS and I remember binding it in black and white contact paper.
Biography Breakfast – In fifth grade, everyone chose a biography to read. We had to dress as our subject and give a speech about the person. Parents came in for bagels one morning and we all presented. I wore a Yankees hat and old time jersey as Babe Ruth. (We actually did do this grade-wide the two years I taught 5th grade, and it was a big hit).
Inventions – Sometime in middle school, one of our teachers challenged every group to invent something. I forget the parameters, but my friend and I created the BackBrella. It was designed so that people could keep their hands free in the rain (say, for carrying packages or babies) but still benefit from the protection of an umbrella. I remember developing the prototype and creating the ad campaign. This was one of my favorite projects because it forced a lot of creative thinking and the finished product was something to really be proud of.
Videos – Often, I had lots of choice in the product of my projects, and I always loved making videos.
In elementary school, my dad filmed me doing a promotional video for Florida. I still remember sitting on the living room carpet flying a toy plane from NY south and narrating, “Let’s go to sunny Florida!” I still remember my dad rigging the video camera to the TV so I could see myself as he recorded. I still remember my sister standing on a chair behind my dad holding cue cards for my make-believe Tropicana orange juice commercial. (Back then, my sister and I laughed uproariously at the outtakes – at this point, I’d probably cringe).
In middle school, two friends and I wrote a script for a debate between Bill Clinton and Bob Dole. I spray painted my hair silver. When I was in 8th grade, my dad and I made a silent movie – using my grandparents’ player piano and filming in black and white – about Al Jolson. I lip-synched “Swanee” at the end despite not knowing any of the words.
**If any of these tapes ever see the light of day again, I’ll be forced to retire from society.
I often think that students today, if they knew what school used to be like, might think twice about coming. It’s a real shame that we have inhibited students’ creative outlets. I learned so much through my projects – both practical and factual. In many cases, I retain the information today (like the fact that the Quagga zebra went extinct in the 1800s). Some day, I hope to be sitting in the back of the room like my teachers did, watching students present their creative projects with pride, all of us knowing that meaningful learning is really taking place.