We have been working with La Scuola in Miami, Florida and the school’s intrepid director, Barbie Perez, for a decade. Most recently, at the end of July, Ashley traveled to La Scuola to lead two days of professional development focused on mapping plans for the coming year. Two years before, in a similar format, the faculty decided to focus on ONE BIG QUESTION for their project work, a new and challenging path. They experienced great success with the question: What Is Food? Last year they dove into: What Is Water? Ashley had piqued their interest in this path by showing them the work of The St. Michael School of Clayton, Missouri (SMSOC). Over a 16 year period of developing inquiry-based project work, SMSOC evolved from pursuing as many as four projects in a school year, to a more refined and deeper focus on one big question that unified the experiences, research and discoveries at every grade level (from 3-year-olds to eighth graders).
Among the advantages that both SMSOC and La Scuola have found in this approach are:
- increased collaboration among students and teachers, both within and between classes
- increased excitement of both students and teachers to generate new questions from their research and discoveries, questions that deepen their understanding
- increased sense of adventure in the whole process
- increased connections made with the resources readily available in the immediate community
- increased participation of parents in the process
- increased willingness of the students to work hard on their research and compositions
- more authentic connections between students' research and their understanding that leads to more authentic expressions of their understanding…expressions in forms that make more significant contributions to their immediate and extended community
In July, La Scuola faculty decided the coming year’s focus would be: What Is An Ecosystem? Barbie just sent me their most recent newsletter where she and her teachers give brief descriptions of their project work so far. It’s simply amazing…in just the first month of school! As Barbie told me on the phone yesterday, The first day of school didn’t even feel like the first day of school. Everyone already had an exciting experience to embark on. The students became immediately engaged.
In their summaries you read about babies in water experiencing the water cycle, one-year-olds exploring and observing a worm bin, and two-year-olds discovering the interconnectedness of living and nonliving things in their raised bed vegetable garden. Other two-year-olds are collaborating with first graders to create a school composting system and three-year-olds are researching a mangrove near the school. Other young students are exploring rivers and going on a kayak adventure on the Oleta River (each with an adult paddler!), and others are “diving into” the ecosystem of a nearby pond. Kindergarteners are exploring the ecosystem of nearby Hobie Beach and first graders are researching the Pine Rocklands (this week, because of their keen observations on one of their field trips, they received an unprecedented invitation from the reserve officials to witness the annual “burn”). Second graders are discovering the producers, consumers and decomposer of Biscayne Bay, third/fourth graders are discovering (and literally experiencing) a connection between the Gumbo Limbo trees and mosquitoes, and the fifth/sixth graders are uncovering the role of water and plants in different sections of the Everglades.
This is multi-disciplinary, integrated, inquiry-based, long term research project work at its best. Hats off to Barbie and her inspired and inspiring faculty and parents!
P.S. I’ll bet if you want to know more about the evolution of their work at La Scuola, Barbie would be happy to talk with you. One caveat, represented by my new nickname for Barbie, “3B”…for Busy Busy Barbie.