Authentic project results in 'transformative experience' for Heritage Elementary teacher
HIGHLANDS RANCH – Heritage Elementary teacher Lisa McIntosh says a recent project, led by her students, has completely changed the way she teaches. Her second-graders organized a car wash that not only raised $537 for an international organization that battles poverty and hunger, but also opened her eyes to what is possible when students are empowered to show their learning through an authentic experience.
“It has been a transformative experience as a teacher. It was awesome,” McIntosh said.
While working on the World Class Outcome “Evaluate personal wants and needs in relation to societal wants and needs,” Mrs. McIntosh’s second graders were learning about the poverty and hunger in the world. They came across the website for Heifer International, a non-profit where people can buy animals to benefit villages in different parts of the world.
“Immediately they said, ‘we should raise money to buy a goat,’” McIntosh said.
This was a critical moment for Ms. McIntosh.
“We are now in a project-based philosophy where you give them the reins and they drive it,” McIntosh said, who then suggested ways the students could raise money for the cause. “They were like, ‘no, we want to have a car wash.’ I told them, ‘I don’t know guys.’”
She had a choice— to stay with her comfort zone and to do the traditional teaching she has done for the past 18 years or to embrace Heritage’s new teaching model, empower the students and allow them to take ownership of their learning.
“I had embraced this new way of teaching and I loved the concept of giving them more voice and choice, but giving away control is hard because as a teacher we have been trained to control and organize. In fact, I used to pride myself on that,” McIntosh admitted. “It was more structured. We would follow the curriculum, sequence and everyone would read the same story.”
There were probably a million reasons to say no.
“I could have said, ‘you know guys, we can’t,” McIntosh said. “There’s no water, it’s too cold, and it is November.”
This time, with students eagerly waiting, McIntosh took a breath, and then took the jump. She let the students take the lead.
“You have to change,” McIntosh said. “Loving kids just isn’t enough anymore. In order for them to be ready for their futures, they need more.”
Acting as a guide, McIntosh supported the students as they began to plan, beginning with perhaps the most important question, where would they get the water?
“The [second-grade] boys went on a field trip, so to speak, visiting our custodian and found out where the water source was. The class then sent a proposal to Ms. Pauley. They did it all. From setting it up to organizing the group to making the SignUpGenius for their parents,” McIntosh said. “They even wrenched it, putting the hose on the spigot. They initially put it on wrong, but I let them figure it out.”
Again, this was a monumental change for McIntosh, who would have normally been completely in control and orchestrating every last thing—even what to do with the wet towels.
“Before that would have been me. ‘Here is our drying rack, put them up there,’” McIntosh explained. “They had to figure it out. The sun was shining and one of the boys took charge and said, ‘Don’t wad them up. Let’s lay them out, so they start drying.’ They were thinking.”
McIntosh says with the planning, the event and the aftermath, the carwash was an invaluable lesson in the 4Cs (Critical Thinking, Creativity, Communication and Collaboration).
“They now all can tell you what it means to be a problem solver, to be an innovator to critically think or communicate. It was all integrated,” McIntosh said.
The entire experience, even counting the money, was a learning opportunity, developing confidence, empathy, as well as 21st Century Skills like global awareness and financial literacy.
“We are not supposed to do money until spring, but we started to do it now, because they wanted it,” McIntosh said. “In the past, I would have said, ‘no I’m sorry, we can’t do it until chapter 10, and we’re only on chapter 4.”
McIntosh says she appreciates the fact that Douglas County School District’s Guaranteed and Viable Curriculum allows her and her colleagues to have this kind of flexibility.
“There is so much freedom as a teacher. We do not have to do it a certain way. We can do it the way we feel is best as long as we can justify it and show that students are truly accomplishing the World Class Outcomes,” McIntosh said.
In her 18 years of teaching, she never has had an experience like this. She and her students are beginning work on their next project and she plans to integrate even more Voice and Choice. Additionally, she is encouraging other teachers to integrate authentic projects into their classes.
“If you have an opportunity to do this, it will change you,” McIntosh said.