I was in my fifth year of teaching in a Denver Public School—a school of choice with a “British Primary” label. This meant it essentially followed a model of the project-based “integrated day,” (Katz & Chard, 2000) the term of choice before project-based learning was known or well accepted. In my first and second grade classroom (family groupings where students stayed with me for two years), we studied two units in depth each year, digging deeply into content from every content perspective.
My students were from a variety backgrounds—some from very affluent families from the surrounding neighborhood and others who “choiced” in from other parts of the city. The school invited parents to make intentional and informed choices about the kind of education their children would be receiving. There were “regular” elementary classrooms as well as those with a “British Primary” tag in my building.
In British Primary, we were encouraged to follow our students’ interests in developing rigorous units that immersed children in inquiry—following their own questions and developing plans to uncover answers (and content) along the way. As you might expect, the discussions and directions each class took were often very different from their neighbors next door. As a teacher, I had great freedom in the way I delivered content. That is not to say that we didn’t have “learning walks” by the district that didn’t wholeheartedly endorse our practices. I remember, for example, being told once that my students’ bird journals (documenting and observing birds in and around our schoolyard and at home including questions for research) didn’t follow the district’s literacy plan. Nonetheless, this was a program well supported by the community and had revitalized a neighborhood school where students were considered “high-achieving.”
In the first semester of the year, my 1st/2nd graders were studying the solar system, specifically, the moon, phases of the moon, and how we perceived the moon from Earth. We learned about Native American legends, lunar calendars, and eclipses. Typical of six and seven-year-olds, my students were full of questions. Some already had a keen interest in the planets, having memorized the order in the solar system (nine planets) by heart.
One of our classroom rituals was to read something from the New York Times “Science Times” section each Tuesday. The Observatory section was always chock full of articles that tied to something we had either discussed in class or something that interested my students. In the September 12 edition, the lead article was titled “Pluto’s Exotic Playmates.” This article, by Kenneth Chang, described some of the details surrounding Pluto’s demotion from planethood only the month before. It was now classified as only a ‘dwarf planet’—one of the many icy bodies orbiting in the Kuiper Belt in the farthest reaches of our solar system.
My students were immediately fascinated by the article. Some, in fact, were distressed about the demotion of the ninth planet. We soon began to discover books and other resources about Pluto, the most notable being The Kid Who Named Pluto by Marc McCutcheon. This book recounted the story of Venetia Burney, who in 1930 suggested the name ‘Pluto’ for the newly discovered planet to her grandfather at the breakfast table. This is the element of the story that most interested my students—the little girl, Venetia Burney, who had named the planet. They wanted to know, as six and seven-year-olds do, if she was still alive, where she lived, how old she was—and had she become a scientist? This last question was one held in high regard in our classroom.
Although this was 2006, we had but ONE computer in our classroom which we used to search the internet. We discovered that Venetia Phair—nee Burney—was still alive and living somewhere in Surrey, England. Immediately, my students wanted to write to her to learn more about her life. They initially thought a letter would be right but then decided that they would like to add their thinking about the big scientific questions in their lives, especially about the universe.
So, a plan was made that we would write a book to send to Mrs. Phair in Surrey—made up of pages written by my students to share their thinking with her.
There was only one big concern with our plan. We didn’t have an actual address. We found on the internet that Ms. Phair lived in Epsom, Surrey. I asked my husband who grew up in the U.K., and he explained that U.K. mail service wasn’t like the U.S. If we had the correct village, it would probably get delivered—not returned because it was missing the correct post code. This was a relief. but, to be safe, the children and I decided to make TWO copies of our book—just in case the one we were sending got lost or was undeliverable in the big wide world of international mail.
In the days following, we set to work on our plan. The students wrote and illustrated their wonderings on individual pages (twice)—and then, the original book was put together in an ‘origami’ style with folded pages stacked on top of each other to complete the book. The second copy was a more traditional hand-sewn, hand-bound book. They titled it—Our Book of Big Questions. Every student worked to complete and illustrate his/her page. We included a class picture in the opening pages and an Albert Einstein quote for the epigraph:
The important thing is not to stop questioning. Curiosity has its own reason for existing. One cannot help but be in awe when he contemplates the mysteries of eternity, of life, of the marvelous structure of reality. It is enough if one tries merely to comprehend a little of this mystery every day. Never lose a holy curiosity.
In the Foreword, we wrote:
Scientists have big questions and big ideas. In our classroom, we are all scientists. We wonder about things in the sky, on the earth, in the water, and in the history of our earth. In this book we wanted to share some of our own ‘big questions.’
Ms. Jeannine’s Class
September 20, 2006
On September 20, 2006, we wrapped our book up carefully and tucked it into an envelope addressed to:
Venetia Burney Phair
And then, we waited…
A month passed. And then, on October 24 I looked in my mailbox in the school office and saw a letter neatly addressed to ‘Ms. Jeannine West and all the children she teaches…’
I couldn’t wait to open it and share it with my students. The letter was handwritten, and in it, Mrs. Phair addressed many of the children by name in response to the questions they had posed in “that wonderful little book.”
“I was intrigued by Mari’s I wonder if space is a ginormous planet?—but if it is, what lies outside that planet?”
Mrs. Phair said that she was fascinated by many of the children’s questions and added she would love to know the answer to one written by Anna, “If alligators were alive when dinosaurs were, why didn’t they die too?” In closing she said that she had “been lucky altogether in naming Pluto because so many interesting things have happened to me as a result—hearing from you for one—and at the age of 88 that is very nice.” and “with love and good wishes to you all.”
In the days that followed our classroom was abuzz with children talking about the letter—parents coming in to see it, and even an email from a grandparent telling me about the excitement it had generated in the household.
Thus began a wonderful correspondence between Mrs. Phair and my students that spanned more than two years including numerous exchanges of long letters, Christmas cards, and another volume of a similar book written by a subsequent class of 4th/5th graders in my next school. Her correspondence included details of a visit by Alan Stern, from the New Horizons Project at the Southwest Research Institute at Boulder, Colorado in December of 2006. His project launched a space probe on January 19, 2006 and did a flyby of Pluto in the summer of 2015. It yielded many exciting photographs and new facts about the dwarf planet. He also brought news to Mrs. Phair that Asteroid 6235, discovered in 1987 was named, ‘Burney,’ after her.
The last card arrived from Mrs. Phair in January 2009 in response to a Christmas card sent by the class.
We were deeply saddened when we learned that Venetia Phair died only a few months later on April 30, 2009, at the age of 90.
This kind of real life, authentic connection made by my students is what engages and drives curiosity and learning in my classroom—even today. I could never have scripted such experiences, and I couldn’t have anticipated the impact it would make on my students.
One of my mentors once said to me in a discussion about writer’s workshop that “writing floats on a sea of talk,” a quote by James Britton. I have come to believe that great discussions—the ‘sea of talk”—in classrooms drives the great thinking and learning that goes on there. Without my students’ curiosity, this correspondence would never have happened. The collective thinking of my students far outweighs any plan I might have for ‘where a unit should go…’ Although this was not a planned stop in our study of the solar system, it was one that had a profound impact on us all.
When students are able to put something out in the world, and it is received and responded to, learning is validated and therefore, valued.
In the current iteration of ‘project-based learning,’ I sometimes see teacher colleagues driven—and driving students—toward an “expected outcome,” convergent thinking that pushes toward that big finish at the end—and somehow ALL classes in that grade level will arrive at that place at the same time with a similar ‘product.’ In reflecting on this experience with Pluto and Mrs. Phair, I am reminded how important it is to honor my students’ thinking, questions, and the opportunity to negotiate and design the way they will demonstrate their understanding in any unit.
The path to learning—and the uncovering of content directed by the students sitting in front of me—is far more important (and relevant) that any plan I might have scripted for them. There is always an element of risk in a student-led approach; every unit doesn’t have a guaranteed element of “magic.” But, when those risks pay off, it is well worth it all.
Katz, L. G., & Chard, S. C. (2000). Engaging Children’s Minds: The Project Approach (3rd ed.). Praeger.
McCutcheon, M., & Cannell, J. (2004). The Kid Who Named Pluto: And the stories of other extraordinary young people in science. San Francisco: Chronicle Books.