Highland’s third and fourth graders recently took a trip to Laughing Dog Farm in Delaplane, VA, where they searched for milkweed and monarch butterfly caterpillars. They drew pictures of the animals and plants they observed, planted coneflowers, and played the migration game to learn about real-world threats to monarch butterflies flying South for the winter. That real-world application is an integral part of project approach learning in Highland’s Lower School. The Laughing Dog Farm field trip is the start of a significant comeback for the innovative method of education in Highland’s post-CoVID world.

In 2015, Lower School students became fascinated by butterflies and concerned for the well-being of the majestic creatures. After hearing from a visiting expert about the dangers monarchs face due to climate change and human interference, the students decided to help. That passion for real-world intervention culminated in creating the Lower School’s butterfly garden, a milkweed sanctuary for migrating monarchs that is now recognized as an official Monarch Waystation by Monarch Watch. First graders also wrote letters to local leaders asking them to let milkweed grow in public spaces so that monarchs could eat on their way down South.

After seeing how the project got lower schoolers excited about their learning experience, Lower School Director Lise Hicklin and Lower School librarian Janie Banse decided to travel to Durham, North Carolina, to learn more about the project approach, an education model developed by Lilian Katz and Sylvia Chard. Under the project approach model, children are tasked with performing a deep study of a topic and immersing themselves in a related real-world project. Upon learning more about the project approach, Hicklin and Banse decided to implement this method on a larger scale, and the enthusiasm caught like wildfire amongst Lower School teachers. Of course, the prominent topic to cover was butterflies.

Thanks to Lower School teachers’ diligent application of the project approach, the students’ passion for butterflies has increased exponentially. Now, students don’t just have a butterfly garden—they participate in butterfly projects each year that help them learn the skills needed to think critically in any situation. Each grade learns about a different aspect of butterflies’ lives, from their life cycles to their behaviors and even dangerous “caterpillar killers.” Despite the differences in individual curriculum grade by grade, at its heart, every butterfly project centers around the project approach.

There are three parts to the project approach. First, students come together and share their knowledge of a topic—in this case, butterflies. They’re encouraged to share personal experiences with butterflies, building a community database of information. Next, they’ve got to ask good questions and research what they don’t know. They learn to follow their curiosity, interview experts, and record observations based on what they see in hands-on scenarios. Then, they dive even deeper into specific topics of their choosing and present their findings to parents and expert guests.

Lower School librarian Janie Banse helps coordinate the research and activities for each class’s various butterfly projects, and she is consistently amazed by the outcomes. Every year, she sees students go from asking self-referential questions like “Do the butterflies get married?” and “Do they like pie?” to wondering about the science behind their metamorphoses, how the animals understand their transforming shapes, and more. “Their questions, as they know more, just become so much better,” she said. Banse believes it’s never too early to start learning vital critical thinking skills that lead to such great questions. Of course, as a teacher, it can be challenging to give your students free rein to ask about things you may not know the answer to, but engaging that curiosity gets the children excited about their learning and plants seeds of problem-solving skills and real-world application that will be useful for the rest of their lives.

Last year, coronavirus put much of the Lower School’s project approach learning on hold, but teachers are passionate about getting the program back on track this year, starting with the recent trip to Laughing Dog Farm. In Banse’s words, “It’s about learning how to ask the next great question. Really, it’s the best way to learn.” 

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