In early 2013, Scholars Unlimited (then Summer Scholars) was awarded a grant from the Colorado Department of Education and the Colorado Education Initiative to provide Expanded Learning Opportunities (ELO) within our summer program.
Students at Oakland and Harrington elementary schools participated in the ELO program, which had a single thematic focus: The history and culture of the Pueblo Indians.
Each student’s day began with individualized literacy instruction, just as it did at the other 10 schools we served, but all of the reading materials explored the lives of the Pueblo Indians. After the literacy block, teachers and youth development instructors worked together to help students research, plan and present culminating projects.
This project-based learning model helped children master a variety of academic and life skills, according to Brent Turney, summer principal at Harrington. “The project leads the learning,” he said, “and it gives kids real purpose in learning.”
In order to plan their projects, students had to do extensive research. “They’re basically doing a research paper,” Turney said. He explained that students were required to record their research findings in a graphic organizer, noting key ideas, facts and sources for each topic they explored.
Because students did much of their research using computers, “they became tech savvy, and they even were practicing spelling skills when they typed key words into search engines,” Turney noted.
There were also many opportunities for hands-on learning: Field trips included a trip to Tocabe restaurant to learn about – and eat – Native American foods, and the Plains Conservation Center, where students practiced weaving yucca fibers and played Native American games.
As they explored Puebloan culture in general and their chosen topics in particular, students developed much broader academic vocabularies. Students also had to develop timelines, checklists and shopping lists for their projects, using planning skills that are essential for employment in the 21st century.
Turney predicts that these students will retain much of what they learned. “Project-based learning increases retention because it is about the depth of learning, not the breadth. This learning model really solidifies knowledge at a much deeper level.”
On young boy, telling a visitor about his project, illustrated Turney’s point. The student was planning to create a model of a Pueblo structure, and explained why Puebloans used adobe to build their homes, how they created adobe, and even how they decorated the inside of their homes. He compared and contrasted Pueblo domiciles with those of the Plains Indians, noting why the Plains Indians used mobile teepees rather than building permanent structures, and telling how teepees were erected and decorated.
Finally, the visitor remarked, “Wow! You really know a lot about the Native Americans. Did you know any of this before the summer program started?”
The boy smiled broadly and answered, “No, this is all new knowledge.”