The child has one intuitive aim: self development

Project-based Learning Endures Despite COVID-19

Pagosa Peak Open School (PPOS), Archuleta County’s only charter school, is centered around Project-based learning, aka PBL. They are dedicated to offering learning opportunities through real-world activities, multi-age classrooms, character development, and discovery-based education which is the essence of Project-based learning. But how does this learning style continue when in-person education is halted by a pandemic?

This past spring schools across the country scrambled to figure out distance learning, or more appropriately crisis learning, as COVID-19 caused the shut-down of in-person education nationwide. Pagosa Peak Open School faced transforming Project-based, hands-on education into a digital format. Quite the task for a small, rural charter school.

With one day of training before the distance learning shift, staff became quick experts on digital platforms like Zoom and Google Classroom. School Director Angela Reali Crossland and Instructional Coach Emily Murphy helped the advisors brainstorm ways to take their PBL projects and connections home to the students.

“I wasn’t sure how it was going to work,” admitted PPOS 4th and 5th Grade Advisor, Thomas Davenport. “Luckily, at PPOS, there are a couple of things that make our school special. First, we have two grades working together in mixed age classrooms, and I happen to teach in one of those. My relationships with my students are long-running and well-established, and their trust in me is strong.

Second, we have been working hard to implement restorative practices instead of a traditional approach to discipline in our school since we opened. It has not always been easy, since it requires a change of mindset, but all the teachers agree that restorative ways of giving consequences to kids help them to actually take responsibility instead of just taking punishment.

All of that work has meant that my kids are used to having dialogue with me as their classroom leader and advisor, and they aren’t shy about telling me and each other how they are doing. Distance learning has been hard on all of us, but with our relationships in place, we were able to recover a surprising amount of ground.”

To follow Governor Polis’s COVID guidelines, PPOS established a mixture of take-home and digital methods to continue teaching students. Each advisor created choice boards tailored towards their class where students can choose from activities from different categories. They included reading, writing, math, social studies, music & fun, Spanish and PE. Important Project-based learning work was incorporated into both the daily Zoom circle time and choice boards.

These PBL projects ranged from home gardening to the creation of a class family cookbook. Some students engaged in a discovery of the aspects of Pagosa’s water and others studied the American Revolution. While one class witnessed the metamorphosis of butterflies, another class created their own version of a business “Shark Tank”.

“6th grade has spent distance learning diving into business and economics,” shares Kelsey Wright, PPOS’s 6th Grade Advisor. “We have taken the popular TV show “Shark Tank” and focused on creating our own version. Each student worked on creating a business or a product that would benefit the teenage population in Pagosa Springs. After learning about what it takes to create a business or a product, they made a pitch to present to our very own Pagosa sharks! Due to the distance learning, each student recorded their pitch for our very own episode of shark tank to share with the community!”

Lexi Bernstein, Pagosa Peak Open School’s AmeriCorps Team Member, challenged the whole school to a take-home gardening project.

“At PPOS, we believe there is no better way to learn about healthy food choices than by growing our own food!” Lexi noted.

“While embracing distance learning, we have tried to incorporate as much experiential learning into the new structure as possible by sending home a planter kit. Included inside the kit was everything necessary to start seeds in recycled planters including soil, containers, seeds, and an instructional guide.

Three weeks later, students saw their first sprouts and recorded their observations of the lettuce, tomato, spinach, and pea plants growing in their window sills.”

PPOS 1st and 2nd Grade Advisor, Kelle Bruno pivoted her entire cookbook PBL project. “Before COVID, we were working on a unit titled “My Unique Family Project” where we were discussing the differences in our families through reading story books and sharing about our families,” Kelle explained.  “My original plan had been to have a class potluck where families could bring the food from the recipes they shared in the cookbook. 

“However, distance learning made that impossible, but I thought we could still make a cookbook to showcase family recipes.  We began discussing recipes during our daily “connection circles” through Zoom. We looked at many types of cookbooks and talked about what we liked about them (big pictures) and what we did not like (strange formatting and no pictures). I did lessons on how to follow a recipe, how to write a recipe, how to draw food, the importance of food traditions within our family history, and we discussed our favorite foods. 

“I asked parents to send me a copy of a family recipe and requested that students draw either the finished product of the recipe or an ingredient that went into the dish. I think the book came out great!  I used a program called “Create My Cookbook”. I have had lots of positive feedback from parents and the kids were excited to see their work!”

Robyn Villarreal, the 2nd and 3rd Grade Advisor, overcame obstacles around translating her PBL water project to distance learning. “We had one water monitoring kit, so we had to divide the kit up for 3 groups. 

“One group is in charge of testing the pH, nitrate, and phosphate levels. Another group is testing for coliform (a type of bacteria), checking the water temperature, and looking for bugs in the water or in the mud around the water. The last group is checking for dissolved oxygen in the water, the biochemical oxygen demand, and they are on bug duty also. 

“We put all the materials they would need to complete the testing, with instructions, in a ziplock bag and handed them out with their packets. They are testing our river water, the river where the hot springs enter the river, lakes, ponds, and sink water. They record their results and I put them in a graph so we could analyze them together. Our end product is to take our findings and make different PSA’s around the community to tell the community what we have found in our water quality.”

One very timely PBL project during the spring, as people across our nation debated constitutional rights, was Thomas Davenport’s 4th and 5th Grade class’s exploration of the American Revolution. “Through a wonderful partnership with Josie Snow at the library, I was able to obtain and distribute a whole library of books on the American Revolution for kids,” he explained. “It gave us all plenty to talk about. Even though we were far apart, our relationships kept us so connected that we were able to read the Declaration of Independence and select articles from the US Constitution together as a class which was something I wanted to ensure happened this year.

“As we finished up our examination of our founding documents, it became clear to me that the kids had been successful with a number of different American Revolution-related activities from our previous choice boards. It wasn’t long before the kids were practically telling me that we had enough material to hold an exhibition night, just like our exhibition night at school would have been – only virtual!

“We wrapped it all in a fun theme related to the show “Some Good News”, an uplifting news show that was being published weekly on YouTube due to everyone in America needing a pick-me-up during quarantine. The kids all prepared slideshows and documents. Using Zoom we were able to invite parents and grandparents to our very own episode of “Some Colonial Good News,” showcasing all the uplifting stories the kids cooked up set in the late 1700’s.”

Every year Pagosa Peak Open School’s Kindergarten class ends the school year with a butterfly release. “The kindergarten class witnessed the miracle of butterfly metamorphosis,” illustrates Karla Parket Choat, PPOS’s Kindergarten teacher. “Each student received a baby caterpillar and pop up mesh habitat in their take-home paper packet. Our driving question for this Butterfly Project was: ‘How can the study of butterflies improve our understanding of the natural world?’  

“During our PBL Core Zoom classes we observed, documented, and drew the process of metamorphosis as we witnessed the transformation of our baby caterpillar to a butterfly together. Once the caterpillar created a chrysalis the students carefully transferred their chrysalis to the mesh pop up habitat.  

“While we waited for the magic to happen, students shared a butterfly challenge together in our zoom PBL Core class. Students dug up new butterfly facts to share with the class and show their drawings of butterflies. When the butterfly emerged, students learned to care for their butterfly for two days. Then, after observing, and caring for their butterfly, they released the butterfly to be free to pollinate.”

“This is a rite of passage for the students as they “fly’ into their next stage of learning as first graders,” explained Parker Choat. Even amongst the challenge of distance learning, this year’s Kindergarten class experienced this rite of passage, virtually, but still together.

As Pagosa Peak Open School moves forward towards whatever form of education the 2020-2021 school year morphs into, whether that be all in-person instruction, distance learning, or a hybrid of the two, one thing is for certain. This small charter school in the middle of the San Juan Mountains has proven the ability to adapt and carry Project-based learning through whatever challenge they may face.

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