That Time I Let My 5th Graders Do Their Own Thing (And Lived to Tell About It)

Last year, I wanted my fifth graders to plan and implement their own project. A commendable idea, right? I wanted them to take their own work through the entire creative process with minimal input from me. 

This was one of the hardest projects I've ever done with kids. Even though, it turned out great and projects were amazing, I wore myself out (as we say in the south). 

My students were really excited and engaged in this, and I learned a lot as well. I thought I'd share the projects AND what I learned about trying to do this with elementary kiddos.

Here is what we did:

I modeled the brainstorming process and how to identify what materials I would need to complete a project. I also modeled writing a plan to accomplish my idea. Then, I had students do the same. Then, I had them start bringing in materials. I also created a database in Google Docs for them to list materials that they would need but didn't have at home. I helped them attain those materials and brought in some other random things that I thought they might be able to use. I sent out an email with a list of things the students needed that I couldn't find. Teachers and administrators helped gather up those things. I had the students store their materials in baskets by table. Each week the class would enter and get their basket. All of the students who sat at a table would have their materials in that basket. I also taught the students how to get out their own paint, etc.

This is a canvas. The student painted the colors and then attached items that matched the colors. I like the feathers.

This is a mobile. The student found a stick outside the art building and attached old tshirts/string/ribbon. He used Mississippi State University's colors. He even painted maroon on one of the white shirts before he cut it to get that extra color.

This was created by two students. They got together and presented an idea to me and told me why it would take both of them. So, I allowed them to work together. These kids had their families meet for dinner one night to discuss this. Their grandmothers helped make sure they had all of the materials. They used the top of an old school desk and a canvas. They put oil pastels in a zipper seal bag and smashed them with a hammer. They put the smashed oil pastels on the canvas and used baby oil to smear the color. Then, they cut the shape of the guitar out of the canvas. The used air dry clay for the top of the guitar and a roll from wrapping paper for the neck.  At first, they were going to donate this to the school, but one of the decided he couldn't live without it. He took it home hoping his dad would help him put some lights on it for his bedroom. His grandmother came and picked it up because he was afraid it would get damaged on his bus ride home! 
This is wire and wood.

A robot!

This is a Pollock-style action painting, which was done using plastic spoons.

The first two photos show the whittling and process that took place to create the sculpture of an ice cream float in the last photo. 

A lot of this work took place outside, which the students loved. I believe this is a photo of the girl working on her shoe vase.

A shoe vase!

A collage. The student who did this really surprised me. I'd not seen a lot of initiative out of her until we did this project. That is one reason why I felt it was successful and worthwhile despite some of the other drawbacks. 

This student created a piggy bank. It is functional. He used a foam football and bottle. 

There were a couple of other projects that I really loved, but didn't get photos of. One student brought a turtle shell that had been sitting in his garage for years. He painted it. It was cool. Another student made a mobile out of cans. I helped him spray paint them white so that he could splatter paint them. It turned out really cool, too. I would've loved for my child to make that and bring it home. It was cool enough that I would have hung it in my backyard for a season. There was another student that brought a book jacket that she painted over and created her own book cover. I thought that was a really good idea. She said she wanted to write her own children's book someday. (I wish I'd had time to help her write it, but there are only so many hours in a day!)

Anyway, I know you can see by the photos that when I said they had to plan and implement their OWN project idea, I meant it. If I ever do this again, I will remember what I learned. If you would like to try this with your own students, make sure you keep these things in mind. 

So, here are my takeaways from this:

1. This is definitely developmentally appropriate for fifth graders. However, I won't ever let it be the very first project of the year again. I feel that I need more time to establish rules and procedures before giving them so much freedom.
2. I wish I'd spent more time making sure the students knew the reason we were doing this. The objective/learning target was for them to carry out a project from start to finish. I remember my principal telling me he asked them what they were doing, and they essentially thought they were just playing. For sure, the next time I do this, I will make sure the students understand WHY they are doing it. It was fun, but they need to understand that there is a purpose to it. I also think this would help me get back to my original goal for the project, which was for them to complete it with minimal help from me. I could say the same for number 1 as well!
3. The planning part took about three weeks to complete. I only have my classes for around 50 minutes each week. So, this was a considerable amount of time. I would set a deadline and clearly communicate this to the students next time. I think they should be able to do this in one class period if they are on task.
4. I ended up gathering materials for 150 kids. It was unbelievably demanding. That Google Doc of needs got way out of hand. I think having the students complete a project in a small group would accomplish the same goal with less random materials. However, I will have to be very diligent in making sure one or two students aren't doing all of the work. I think I could put some time in up front to group the students in a meaningful way, which would help to prevent that issue.
5. I might ask for parent/community volunteers next time too. There was so much going on at once that it was hard for me to handle it all. 

What do you think? Have you ever taught something like this? How did it go? What are your takeaways? I'd love to hear from you!