The Project Approach transforms Lower School classrooms into places of joyful learning. Rooted in educational research leveraging children’s natural curiosities, the Project Approach is a set of teaching strategies that enable teachers to guide students through in-depth studies of real-world topics. Projects are flexible and cross-curricular, incorporating subjects such as literacy, science, math, geography, and social studies. Each project is broken into three phases: inquiry, investigation and research, and the culmination. Lower School students in each grade level begin the process by choosing a topic of interest. Teachers then engage students in various exercises, books, interviews with guest experts, and field work, facilitating meaningful learning experiences with the topic and curriculum.
Grade 4 students embarked on a unique topic this year, exploring Stone Ridge’s past and present. With the topic chosen, the students entered the inquiry phase, sharing what they already knew to discover where there were knowledge gaps and what they wanted to explore. In this first phase, they grappled with questions like: Why did a Sacred Heart School start in DC? Why is it an all- girls school? How does Stone Ridge’s history affect daily life today? How did the role of the RSCJs shift over the years? How have School traditions, uniforms, and the physical space changed over time? How did the Goals come to be, and how do they influence the School?
“Project Approach is an instructional pedagogy and method that provides for children’s curiosity about their world to flourish, and it provides for high student engagement and investigation in their learning as they co-plan with teachers and interact with materials and the environment.”
-Ms. Gillespie, Head of Lower School
The inquiry phase fosters rich conversations where students make connections in their daily lives and experiences. Questions students develop help teachers assess the groups’ base understanding and where the project may lead. Teachers can then build on each student’s strengths as children find their niche within a topic. During this first phase, Grade 4 Teacher Ms. Lindsey Holton observed students were “interested in the makeup of the School,” she said, “the physical aspect of how it was built on existing buildings and how it grew.” Students also keyed into the importance of the Goals and Criteria and past and present traditions. Teachers helped the students edit their initial inquiry into essential questions to use as a guide in the next phase, the investigation phase.
In phase two, students observe, experiment, and explore to get answers. Classrooms invite guest experts and conduct field work as they continue their research.
Students practice good listening skills and “what makes a thick question versus a thin question,” says Grade 4 Teacher Ms. Abigail Winek. Guest experts alumnae Julie Ott ’99, Lower School Educational Technologist, and Pre-Kindergarten Teacher Kathryn Gillick ’89 visited the class to tell them of the many changes they had witnessed over the years. Students took field trips to the original 1719 Massachusetts Avenue building where the Convent of the Sacred Heart School first opened its doors, and to the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception to view depictions of American saints and one of the School’s Foundresses, St. Rose Philippine Duchesne.
“I think when kids construct their own understanding, they’re much more likely to stay engaged. I think that that’s one of the biggest gifts of the Lower School—helping [children] develop qualitative aspects of being a curious human, interested and open to hearing lots of people’s ideas, and evaluating them for themselves.” -Ms. Abigail Winek, Grade 4 Teacher.
During their research, students made many discoveries and connections, like how the shift in the RSCJ’s role at Stone Ridge was related to outcomes of Vatican II—when the Catholic Church opened its windows to the world, ushering in a new era. Grade 4 students were able to contextualize other historical facts like the relationship between the short-lived first Sacred Heart school in Maryland, started by Mother Ann Hardy in 1871 at Rosecroft, and the Civil War. The school closed within two years, which the student researchers determined was due to the difficulties in producing and obtaining materials during war time.Children spend most of their time in the investigation phase developing research skills like sorting, comparing and contrasting, and synthesizing various sources. They hone essential skills like note-taking, organization, and writing. They practice critical thinking, communicating ideas, and reading non-fiction. Once teachers see that the students are ready to wrap up the project, they move into the final phase—the culmination.
For the culmination, students complete the study and collaborate with teachers on how their learning will be documented and shared with others. In this phase, children use design thinking and become makers and builders. The classes visited the School’s archives and sifted through photographs and memorabilia to use in their projects. They made representations, used math to show data, and built a timeline. As the children constructed the timeline, Ms. Holton noticed how the students were learning to break down 100 years with past events and to look at and experience time differently.
The culmination exposes students to personal and social development, language and literacy, and physical development as they share with the community what they have learned. “When the amount of involvement in curriculum participation, engagement, experimentation, and investigation increases, the child’s sense of agency and motivation for learning increases,” says Head of Lower School, Ms. Sandy Gillespie. Throughout the project,Grade 4 students grew in self-confidence, learned to be better communicators, gained essential skills, and became resident Stone Ridge experts bound to build on this knowledge and make meaningful contributions to this vibrant community for future generations to enjoy.