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Reaching Students through Project-Based Learning Following our exhibition, I interviewed my focus students on how they felt about

having choices during projects. My hope was that building autonomy, competency, and belongingness in the project would help my students love learning despite the challenges they faced with the work and in their teams. I found they enjoyed how their curiosities were meaningful to an audience. Ultimately, my first graders became empowered. This experience encouraged them to use their voices with confidence and to drive their own learning. This experience lived beyond this moment. My focus students responses highlighted a few themes about the impact of choice and listening to students within projects. Students want to take the work home I love trying to look at [butterflies], see what it does when I do nothing. I test it, test it, and test it. When I talked with Abbey, she explained how she explored butterflies (her project topic) while at home. Because Abbey had chosen her topic, she was excited to work on her project, even when we werent in class or when it was expected. Brown states, In play, most of the time we are able to try out things without threatening our physical or emotional well-being. [...] We can create possibilities that have never existed but may in the future. We make new cognitive connections that find their way into our everyday lives. We can learn lessons and skills without being directly at risk, (2009). When student curiosity is incorporated into what they learn, they retain skills easier because it feels like play. Play makes learning fun. Her reference to testing showed that she was learning how to be a close observer to dig deep into her topic. By asking Abbey to choose what she wanted to learn, she treated what she learned as if it was play. Since Abbey felt safe to explore her passion through play, she was willing to invest more time learning about butterflies. Abbeys quote revealed that when kids have choice within their project they are excited about the work that they take it home, even when its not required. Students learn how to rely on each other I asked Dante to help me with the map. Asking for help was a big step for Charlie. He was used to working alone because he didnt think he needed anyone. When I asked Charlie how he felt working with his volcano project team, he said he liked working with his team. In the beginning of the project, he wanted to work on a product by himself. But after we formed teams to create one product together, he had to work out of his comfort zone. Charlie was patient and willing to help his team members find research information during the project. When

there were times of conflict, he talked it out with his team and found ways to share roles to finish their product. According to Gloria Ladson- Billings, students are to care . . . not only about their own achievement but also about their classmates achievement (Sluijsmans et al, 1994). Charlie began to learn how to depend on and trust others. Students embrace the hard work Its harder and we learn more. I like to make the projects. Andy was the most vocal and resistant to doing hard work, like writing. But when I asked him how he felt about projects, he said he liked it despite the hard work. There were plenty of writing in our projects. He was motivated because it was in the context of a project that was meaningful to him. Andy was willing to do the hard work because having choices met his innate need to direct his own life, to learn and create new things, and to do better by himself and his world (Pink, 2009). Andy moved away in the middle of this project. Teachers were surprised that I wasnt relieved but instead was saddened to see Andy go. He taught me how to listen to student voice and implement it. He taught me to not judge student voice as a form of defiance, but as a way to help students understand the relevance of what we do. His voice enabled other students voices to be heard because he advocated for choices and his courage gave them courage. Teachers remember certain students in their career for various reasons. Andy will be remembered as the one who taught me how to teach with relevance through the power of listening. I am grateful for the gift of being taught by Andy. Students know what they want I want to have [choices] because teachers dont know what we want. Annas response to having choices was profound to me because she was right. I do not know what she or my other students wants are. I spent most of my time assuming what it was before I simply asked them. Having choices on what they wanted to learn, the questions they wanted to research, what they needed more instructional help with, how and who they wanted to share their work with as well as choosing how to solve problems when working together through projects, motivated my students to come to school. Their learning had purpose and it gave them perseverance to do the work even though it was hard because they had a team to provide kind, specific, and helpful feedback. Project-based learning motivated my students to learn because it honored their innate need to have autonomy, belongingness, and competence or mastery. Students are individuals who need opportunities to practice what it means to be a citizen who contributes to a society that prides itself on human dignity, equity, freedom, and justice (Apple & Beane, 2007). Anna needed me to trust her to practice her basic

human right and freedom to make choices. My trust in her through the opportunity of choice, gave her confidence to recognize her contribution to our community. It was worth it! In the beginning of my findings, I asked the question, What did I get myself into?! I was plagued with fear of losing control and yielding chaos. What if I had empowered students to have choices in our norms, curriculum and relationships, but their performance was still academically low? Even though test performance was not why I chose to move ahead with my action research, this common question still haunted me. When I took a look at each of my precious first graders and the hopes that their families had for their futures, my fears paled in comparison. I couldnt ignore that I had an opportunity to pursue the possibility that my students would come out of this research empowered and in love with learning. That was a risk I was willing to take. Playing it safe and continuing to do what didnt reach my students year after year now seemed ridiculous. Was it hard? Yes. Were there times of chaos? Sure. Did I ever fall into my old controlling habits? Some times. Was it worth it? Absolutely. Its worth it because I now recognize the moments of discomfort for myself and my students as the natural process of a democracy. In democratic classrooms, Kohn argues that conflicts or dissention arent seen as threats but as opportunities to strengthen democracy by remaining faithful to its process (1993). My students and I are no longer threats to each other. We are learning how to see dissention as an opportunity to listen to each other and come to consensus. This willingness to listen has strengthened trust from teacher to student, student to teacher, student to student, and finally student to self. Now, when I struggle with how my students are to learn something or when they argue, I dont feel paralyzed with being the holder of the answers wondering What am I going to do?! I share this responsibility with my students. I hate to break it to you, but having choices and listening to student voice within a democratic classroom doesnt change students. I believe students are able to be more of themselves in this learning environment. Students do not enjoy resisting or being defiant to the point of enduring punishment. It is we, the teachers, who are changed. I needed to change to allow my students to be more of who they were, not merely children, but people whose current needs, rights, and experiences are taken seriously (Kohn, 1993).