This year, I've been experimenting with doing more open-ended, engaging play with my fourth graders.
It's not easy to do this in the face of increasing test pressure. Every day I wonder, "Should I put away the hands-on materials and get out the test prep?" This thought is usually accompanied by an increasing heart rate and a tightness in my chest as I think about my value-added scores for next year.
But I know that my students deserve more than the narrow band of learning the tests represent. They deserve a real place of learning and collaboration. Or--really--a place where they can play at the sink, where they can keep a stinkbug as a pet, where they can build with the Erector set--"Mrs. Kissner, we don't have a piece that we need but we'll improvise. We're good at that"--where they can start a business making bracelets and have time to write down the stories that they are thinking of and use Google maps to find where they went on that last vacation their whole family was together. They deserve to be able to use the science materials again and again, not just on one day, and to explore and immerse themselves in lots of different kinds of activities.
As you can probably guess I feel passionately about this!
I spent a great deal of time thinking about centers over the holiday break, considering where I wanted students to go. One concern that I have felt is that kids flit from activity to activity, and don't slow down to really explore a topic in depth. As 9 year olds mature into worldly 10 year olds, many of them are ready for deeper investigations.
Last week, I introduced learning contracts to students. These contracts are basically classroom agreements for an individualized activity. As you can see, there are places for the student and teacher to record when students will work, whether they will need to work on the project at home, and what specific steps they will need to complete.
...And students were very enthusiastic! Many students are writing reports about topics they have studied in the past. One student is making a periscope. Two students are writing a play together, and another went home and found an essay he had written in third grade and wants to type and revise.
The free exploration of centers is naturally settling in to some more focused, sustained exploration--just what fourth graders need developmentally.