Teaching independence through open-ended projects

Giving students more control and ownership over their lessons and experiences in school is a double-edged sword. Educators want independent learners who want to find out more and know how to study but young people need to learn to self-regulate.

The process of learning how to manage time and own behavior is hard on teachers! Not only is it difficult to witness children sabotaging their own education but our colleagues may judge the noisy classroom as chaotic and unproductive. One horrible project can be enough to put teachers off forever.

Teaching should not be like curling, the winter sport where you clear a path on the ice for the moving rocks. But it should not be like bobsleigh racing either, where you give the team a nudge and they careen down a mountain.

Procrastination, fall outs during group work and issues with focus are all part of the process. Make it easy on yourself (and your class), act as a coach by increasing the difficulty of completing an open ended project gradually. You can increase the difficulty in several directions. If your students are just starting out, it’s best to make one thing harder at a time. You will be able to see where they need the most practice the first time around.

Base level

  • Have your students work in pairs or alone
  • Give a very detailed project specification and tell them how they will know they are successful
  • Give resources/a lecture on the topic at hand
  • Give them time management sheets (I love Gantt charts but they made one of my students cry, so use your discretion)
  • Make them discuss the big picture and the little details
  • Check in with them regularly with mini-deadlines for different stages of the project
  • Bring the class together to share progress updates every lesson
  • Have them grade themselves on their teamwork, time management and effort

More independence

  • Ask them to write their own project specification and success criteria
  • Leave them to decide if they want to focus on big picture or small details
  • Give no background information about the topic they are working on

More teamwork

  • Have larger groups (but usually no more than four, the fifth member of any team goes on cruise control)
  • Have them assign roles (like leader, writer, resources etc)
  • Alternatively: have pairs collaborate with another set as critical friends

More time management

  • Have them decide their own mini-deadlines
  • Take out the mini-deadlines entirely and only have the “Big Date”. This usually ends in disaster… and that’s alright. They have to learn not to leave things to the last minute somewhere. It might as well be with you. Just make sure it’s not a grade YOU need (like an important piece of coursework.)

Stick with it. Some students find this incredibly difficult at first and it is hard to watch them struggle. But stick with it. You will be amazed at their progress over the course of the year. You will also see how this independence affects other types of lessons: once a child knows how to, say, research a topic, write a script, perform it, edit the footage and evaluate it, they are more than capable of pretty much anything else you throw at them.


New Teacher Survival (series) #2: Establishing a classroom community

Can’t we all just get along?

Sometimes a class will just “click” on day one and you won’t have to spend too much time developing a sense of community with your students. This has yet to happen for me or anyone I know. It is easy, especially with all the pressure of new standards, to breeze through or even do away with this important first step of the year. I can’t stress enough how critical it is do something to create cohesion amongst your students from day one. It may just be the most important thing you do. Think back to your learning theory class, remember Maslow’s hierarchy? Feeling safe and included is a necessary foundation for learning.

There are so many great books and programs out there to choose from. I tend to pick and choose from several, but the one I keep coming back to is Tribes. It’s not just a philosophy, it is a treasure trove of useful lesson plans and resources. If you buy just one book about community building, I’d start here.

Embed it into your instruction and daily routine

I like Tribes because the “agreements” apply to every possible situation. Attentive listening, no put-downs, mutual respect, pretty basic stuff. If you review what each of these looks like, sounds like, and feels like regularly, it will be easier to discuss what went wrong when problems arise. At the very least you can do a community circle each day.

Take a look, it’s in a book

When I focus on social and emotional learning in the beginning of the year, I find it helpful to use great literature as a guide. These are some of the books I have used. Sometimes it’s a simple read-aloud, but I also love challenging groups of students to find the hidden lessons in each story. If you have older students, some of these might seem babyish, but I’ve used all of them with fifth graders successfully.

Enemy Pie


This is a great story about befriending those you may consider your enemy, and not judging people before you know them.

Mr. Peabody’s Apples


Yes, I know, Madonna. But it is a great story about how saying negative things about people cannot be undone.

The Sneetches


A classic story about how physical differences don’t really matter.

Have you filled a bucket today?


Great for all ages (even adults). This book teaches kids about how they have the power to make someone feel better or worse.

Simon’s Hook


A great book about dealing with bullies and put downs, helps if you have a tattle-prone bunch.

The wonderful thing about sharing all of these books with your class is that you develop a common language. It can open up a dialogue and help kids solve their own problems. After reading Simon’s Hook, I don’t have to explain to students how to respond if someone is pushing their buttons. I just say, “Oh no! You took the bait, just like Simon!” Sometimes they think I’m ridiculous, but they get the point and they remember some of the strategies Simon used in the book. The more books like this you read, the more characters they can turn to for advice. So, read, read, read! Let me know if you have any other great books to add to the list!

This is Post 2 of a 4 part series by Emily Dahm. Read Part 1 here, Part 3 here, and Part 4 here