Tailoring the Emergent Project approach for middle school

Emergent Project approach works wonders in middle school

emergent project approachAn unexpected highlight of my days at the 2015 AMLE Conference in Columbus, Ohio was hearing from young Ohio teacher Noah Waspe. He and his advisors, Sue Griebling and Patti Bills at Northern Kentucky University presented their preliminary research findings about the use of a project approach investigation in his sixth grade classroom.

What is the Emergent Project Approach?

Waspe and Griebling shared the two year development of a emergent project approach in a middle school classroom. Their model is based on the three-phased project approach of Katz and Chard (1989).  This project approach is typically implemented in early childhood education settings, but Waspe and Griebling made some accommodations for it to work in the middle grades.

Here’s what it looks like for early childhood learners.

Adjusting the Approach for middle school

Griebling and Waspe adjusted the early childhood approach to suit adolescent learners.

  • Phase I: Emerging Ideas from Authentic Inquiry
  • Phase II: The Investigation
  • Phase III: Preparing Final Artifacts

You can see how the approach is easily suitable to the developmental needs of young adolescents. Curriculum in this approach is challenging, exploratory, integrative, and relevant.

These sixth graders explored a range of topics, all stemming from field sites for the students to visit in their Ohio town. One student, Kevin, was particularly taken with a trip to the old county jail. When he returned, Kevin immediately became fascinated with folks who may have inhabited a cell in this jail — so he decided to research the history of crime in Lebanon, Ohio.

It wasn’t easy to research. Kevin began to move on to the history of crime in Ohio.  In this topic, he became interested in the Ohio Penitentiary — especially in the 1930 fire. Eventually, after nearly giving up the local part of his inquiry, Kevin and his teacher discovered one of the most important resources to any project or investigations: a field expert.
Kevin developed many skills during this investigation process. He conducted standard web research, but also interviewed a town historian and researched an online historical archive. After writing a paper about the investigative experience, the students and teacher started to speculate about how to publish their research.
Kevin and others became excited to create dioramas which would most closely resemble some of the recreations one might see in a museum. Interestingly, when it came time to create the diorama, Kevin became interested in doing a bit more research to help him flesh out the presentation.
In the end, Kevin learned about a local murder case, a historical state penitentiary, the importance of using a field expert interview when researching…and so much more. His research, writing and design culminated in the project “Crime and Punishment in Ohio”.

Both this process and this product is impressive. The teacher had a critical role in the success;  Waspe took the initiative to meet his students’ needs, he engaged in ongoing assessment of his own methods, and he was motivated to expand his own professional knowledge. All very essential habits of effective teaching.

As he talked about his experimentation with the emergent project approach, it struck me how closely this matched our ideals in Vermont around personalized learning. The Emergent Project Approach could fit nicely into our personalized landscape.

How could you use the Emergent Project Approach with your students?

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