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Glenwood Springs school moving toward project-based learning

Sections: News Published

By Debbie Bruell
Sopris Sun Correspondent

(This article is the
second of a two-part series on the transformation process at Glenwood Springs
Elementary School).

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While the Re-1 school district’s visioning process has encouraged
community members to begin dreaming about possible changes in our schools,
Glenwood Springs Elementary School has already embarked on a path of
significant change.

GSES is being transformed into an Expeditionary Learning (EL)
school — a model of education that aims to incorporate many of the ideals that
were given the highest priorities at Carbondale’s visioning meetings, including
character development, critical thinking skills, collaboration skills and
project-based learning.

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Last week’s article in The Sopris Sun looked at the initial
changes being implemented at GSES. So far staff members have focused on
developing the school’s culture and climate. They have worked on developing a
sense of belonging, shared purpose and teamwork among students and staff. The
next phase of the GSES transformation will delve into learning “expeditions” or

According to the initial draft of the report from the
district’s visioning process, parents and community members in Carbondale and
Basalt expressed particularly strong support for “hands-on, project-based,
experiential learning.”

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Project-based learning

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Although GSES Principal Audrey Hazleton has never worked in an
EL school before, she arrived at GSES this year with extensive experience in
project-based learning. She and her husband, Chris Hazleton, founded a
project-based charter high school in Duluth, Minnesota in 2000. She also helped
develop and taught at the Olander School for Project-Based Learning in Fort
Collins from 2008-2013.

Hazleton explained that project-based learning connects
students to the local community and real community issues, and provides
students with authentic audiences for their work. Rather than working to please
a teacher or get a good grade, students are motivated by the fact that their
writing, for example, will be printed in the local newspaper or they will be
presenting their report in public. 

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One of the reasons project-based learning is so effective,
Hazleton told The Sun, is that kids take an active role in terms of defining
problems and developing solutions. “We all learn more when we’re actively
doing,” Hazleton said.

In an interview with The Sun last June, Re-1’s Director of
Curriculum, Instruction and Assessment, Rick Holt, said that project-based
learning is widely accepted as a “best practice” in education. Because kids are
working with their peers on issues and ideas that they truly care about,
projects tend to be highly engaging and full of purpose, Holt told The Sun.

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Hazleton also noted that project-based learning is very
effective when there are a wide range of abilities in one classroom. While
working on the same overall project, kids are able to engage at different
levels and take on different challenges. She also noted that in her experience,
projects can be “so highly engaging that you see kids doing things you never
thought they would be capable of doing.”

Another benefit of such highly engaging work, according to
Holt, is that there is generally much less of a focus on enforcing rules. “When
kids are engaged in a project with a real purpose,” Holt said, “you hardly even
need rules.”

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In the EL framework, Holt explained, projects always include
three essential elements: academic rigor, character development and
contribution to community. Projects can vary in length from less than a month
to one year, but they must incorporate a planning process and revising process.
Beyond that, Holt said, projects can be “anything you could imagine.”

The EL website displays countless examples of actual student
projects, including a student-created manual on the art and science of keeping
chickens and a book on the Great Depression based on interviews, photographs
and drawings of community elders.

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Holt explained that there’s a common misperception that
project-based learning stands in opposition to direct instruction. According to
Holt, effective instruction includes time for exploration and developing
students’ sense of empathy and teamwork, as well as time for explicit
instruction. “You can have five minutes of structured, direct instruction,”
Holt said, “and then an hour of exploration.”

Holt said that if a school or our district as a whole decided
to move toward project-based learning, we could develop our own unique
project-based learning framework or we could hook into an existing
project-based learning network, such as Expeditionary Learning.


First steps

While the shift to project-based learning at GSES will be
initiated later this year, some teachers are already beginning to incorporate
some of the practices.

Kindergartners who would have been reading books or watching
videos last year are now holding chicks in their hands after watching them peck
out of their shells, and measuring worms that are squirming around on their
desks. Kindergarten teacher Cathy Spence told The Sun that when they do these
kinds of activities her Spanish-speaking students have been incredibly motivated
to learn the English vocabulary.

Spence said that in previous years teachers felt that there was
little time for these kinds of hands-on experiences. Now these kinds of
experiences are being encouraged and recognized as powerful learning opportunities.

Hazleton noted that many teachers this year and in past years
have done projects with their kids. However, when a whole school is centered
around project-based learning, Hazleton said, the impact is much more dramatic.

While GSES is making changes in its approach to education, it
is not being exempted from any of the district- or state-mandated assessments.

Holt told The Sun that no matter what approach a school uses,
we need to continuously evaluate its effectiveness through assessment; we need
to be able to “benchmark” students’ progress in relation to other students in
the state and the nation. Holt said that there is extensive research
demonstrating that EL schools “rock those assessments.”


(To read both
installments of this two-part series, please visit The Sopris Sun website
archives at