Inquiry-Based Projects and Exemplary Student Work

Recently, I spent two days with the faculty of La Scuola in Miami, FL.  We have enjoyed a professional development relationship for several years, linking their work with ours in St. Louis.  Barbie Perez, the founder (with her husband, Miguel) and director, is an exceptional leader and innovator.  She has explored many best practices, particularly the Reggio Approach.  She and her faculty continue to create an exemplary school for children 6 months to 5th grade. La Scuola is an independent school that serves a mostly Latino demographic, so most appropriately, Barbie has chosen to make it a bilingual environment.  Spanish is taught along side English and all of the faculty are bilingual.  This is not only deeply respectful of the families, it also creates complex and rich possibilities for the emergent, inquiry-based, long-term projects that comprise most of La Scuola's curricula.

The focus of my two days with Barbie and her faculty was the project focus for this year: an inquiry that can be summarized in one big question: What is food?

Over the years, the La Scuola faculty has developed a pattern of creating inquiry-based projects.  The relative sophistication of these projects is evident in their extensive practice of writing daily journals for their parents, and in their periodic documentation displayed on the walls that summarized the flow, content and academic outcomes of the projects.

Last year, one of the faculty took her class's investigation of BUGS a significant step further.  She and her class produced a stunning book together, A Field Guide to Insects at La Scuola.  The book is not only beautiful, it also serves a useful purpose: it informs the community about a significant aspect of their natural environment.  The content, learning and skills achieved during this project and the production of the field guide sustained the interest of the children for over six months.

This experience spurred the faculty to create a new initiative for 2012-13: a year long, school-wide investigation/project where each age group/classroom will design a piece that will contribute to the school community and to the community around the school.

Over the two days of my visit, we engaged in pedagogical discussions about inquiry-based projects and about excellent student work using Ron Berger as an inspiration. We also addressed practical planning using a mapping format adapted from the work of Grant Wiggins.  By the end of our time together, each teacher had a curriculum map for the beginning of the year.  The group also established a system for meeting and sharing their successes and challenges (including a protocol for their help keep them on track with balanced participation.)  And, finally, each teacher had a general map for the whole year, including a solid idea of what their group might produce as a contribution to the community.

La Scuola has set its sights high and they are prepared for a challenging and fruitful adventure this year.  It will be satisfying to follow their learning and to read their books and guides in 2013.  Read an excerpt from the first day and also a thank you for the work that we are privileged to engage in with schools.

I have been meaning to write to you since you left but as you saw for  yourself we had so much to prepare before the first day of school. I cannot put into words what takes place in our school after each one of your visits. You always leave us so inspired and full of excitement. The teachers worked really hard all week on their maps and setting up their classrooms and preparing their experiences. I cannot begin to tell you what an incredibly WONDERFUL first day of school we had!!! There were children exploring the garden, pulling out carrots which I, myself, wasn't even aware that we had growing, examining their snacks, etc. It was truly wonderful to see. I will send you some pictures soon!

THANK YOU for working with us Ashley!

Barbie Perez, Director, La Scuola