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Implementing the Project Approach in Inclusive Classrooms

children's drawings

On this podcast we talk with Dr. Sallee Beneke, who comes to discuss the Project Approach in inclusive classrooms.

More About Our Guest

Dr. Sallee Beneke is an associate professor of early childhood education at St. Ambrose University, where she teaches courses in early childhood education and early childhood special education.



Rebecca Swartz: Thanks for joining us for a podcast from the Illinois Early Learning Project. Our project is part of the Department of Special Education at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and funded by the Illinois State Board of Education. On this podcast we share information about how young children grow and learn as well as strategies adults can use to help them thrive. My name is Rebecca Swartz, and I am one of the project’s staff members.

Rebecca Swartz: Today we are joined by Dr. Sallee Beneke, who comes to discuss the Project Approach in inclusive classrooms.

Rebecca Swartz: Dr. Beneke, we’re so glad to have you here on the Illinois Early Learning Project podcast. We know that you are a professor of early childhood education at St. Ambrose University and director of their online master’s program. We also know that you have strong interest in the Project Approach, particularly using the Project Approach in inclusive settings. So, I’m wondering if you can tell us a little bit about yourself and how you became interested in this topic.

Dr. Beneke: Well, I’m so pleased to be here, Rebecca. Thank you for inviting me. I was a teacher in a variety of settings, beginning in 1976, and over the years I taught in childcare centers, directed some centers, was an early childhood special ed teacher, PreK at-risk teacher, a lead teacher, a lab school teacher, you know, both in urban and rural settings. And over time I started to feel kind of disconnected from the art of teaching, until I learned the Project Approach. And when I learned the Project Approach, all of a sudden it reenergized all of my teaching because I could be creative and I could be responsive to children. And, in addition, I was more and more teaching in inclusive settings, and I discovered how wonderful it was to use the Project Approach in those kinds of settings.

Rebecca Swartz: I’ve heard that you have a new book out with Dr. Lilian Katz and Dr. Micki Ostrosky that focuses on the Project Approach in inclusive classrooms. Congratulations on the publication of that book! Can you tell us a little bit about that and how that came to be?

Dr. Beneke: Yes, that’s been a dream come true, for me. So, my dissertation was about, what would be the impact, I wondered, what would be the impact of the Project Approach on play levels of children in inclusive classrooms who were—some of them were at-risk and some of them had identified cognitive delays, and had IEPs. And, but in order to study that I had to train the teachers in those classrooms. And, I actually trained everyone at the school.

But I, and I coached these teachers so that I was sure they were implementing at a high level, but I could only be there two days a week. And so, just as a practical matter I thought, you know, I’m just going to make them an implementation checklist that they can refer to and then they can write down what they’ve done, what they have questions about. And then when I’m there and we have our meeting, we’ll be more productive because we can compare notes, right?

Rebecca Swartz: Sure.

Dr. Beneke: And I can give them ideas for the things they have questions about or help them think about it. So, that ended up being something that they thought, the teachers thought, was really useful. And so this implementation checklist is divided into the three phases of a project and basically, it includes the major things, that in my experience—and I also asked other teachers, veteran teachers, for input—that in our experience were major components of project work. Or things that a teacher would think about, or do, at the beginning of Phase 1 or at the beginning of Phase 2, and so forth. So, there’s like 52 items on this checklist.

Rebecca Swartz: Wow, so that’s a great resource for many people who would like to implement this approach in the classrooms. So, you talked about the idea of being inclusive. So I want to talk a little bit more about that. So, project work, as many of our listeners know, is about doing inquiry with young children. Why do you think that some of the teachers who are interested in doing project work might hesitate to do that in an inclusive setting?

Dr. Beneke: From my point of view, I’m sure, but I think that sometimes teachers are afraid that it will be too hard.

Rebecca Swartz: Okay.

Dr. Beneke: I believe in sensory-based learning, and so children have to use higher order thinking skills, and they have to be capable in order to do project work.

Rebecca Swartz: Sure.

Dr. Beneke: And, you know, maybe this child needs more drill and practice.

Rebecca Swartz: Okay.

Dr. Beneke: So, I think what happens in our classrooms is sometimes that children are included physically, but they’re not included emotionally, or in the learning experiences of the classroom. They are a little bit separate, and they’re working on different things than other children. And so, that’s necessary to some extent, for them to work on other things sometimes. But the Project Approach is an addition to the curriculum, not the whole curriculum. And it would be, it provides an opportunity for children to get involved with the other children using their strengths.

Rebecca Swartz: Great. So, you’re thinking that the project is an opportunity for everyone to be involved and to join where they can join, to a very high level.

Dr. Beneke: Yeah. And I think for all the children it’s beneficial, because I mean if you’re familiar with the term Universal Design for Learning, sometimes, like making curved cuts or making doors that open automatically at the grocery store, that’s wonderful for people in a wheelchair, but it’s great for everyone. Right? It makes life better for everyone. And the Project Approach is a wonderful component to the curriculum for all children.

Rebecca Swartz: So tell me some of the challenges that teachers, some of the challenges that teachers have in implementing the Project Approach. What might they encounter when they’re trying to work with a group of diverse learners?

Dr. Beneke: Well, I’ve been asked this before. I think really, they’re probably the same challenges that they’re having now, if they’re using thematic teaching. Whatever it is they’re currently doing, to me, I just see it as such an opportunity because it does provide kids with opportunities to use their strengths, or what they’re good at, rather than focusing on some area of deficit.

So for example, in a project done with semis, there was a little boy in this classroom where I was observing, who we’ll call him Ethan, that’s not really his name, but he was on the autism spectrum, and he played by, he was just by himself all the time. He would sit at the snack table, you know, not make eye contact, or he would go by himself and work at the computer. And as this project on semis got going, he became—the teacher was just kind of astonished. 

He just became more and more involved and going to the dramatic play area, getting into the cab of the semis that they were constructing out of cardboard boxes with other children and taking on roles. So, there also was a grocery store associated with this where people would buy things and they would unload them from the semi, take them to the grocery store. And I still remember the day that Ethan was sitting next to the checkout there, at the grocery store, and he was the bagger. He was just holding the bags.

And I think it’s the fact that, you know, with thematic teaching or themes that tend to change quickly, from week to week, and a project can go on long term for, you know, six to eight weeks. And that extra time seemed to give him the opportunity to, because of the repetition to some extent, to understand how to join in the play or what the roles might be that he could take on in play.

Rebecca Swartz: Okay. And so, it seems that there was some natural excitement or interest generated by the semi project that invited him in, as well.

Dr. Beneke: Oh, yeah. I mean, there are lots of real things. I mean, that’s the thing about project work, you’re setting real, real people’s jobs and real objects. So, we actually had a semi and a semi driver come to the parking lot of the school. And the children got to get in the semi and talk to the driver, and so forth. So, I think that’s a component of it also.

Rebecca Swartz: Sure. So, at our project, the Illinois Early Learning Project, we spend a lot of time trying to help teachers and programs use those Illinois Early Learning and Development Standards in their planning. So, can you give us some suggestions for how teachers can use a project to help them do this?

Dr. Beneke: When, in my experience, children are involved in project work, they’re really motivated to produce more authentic examples because, because it’s important to them. It’s not something that the teacher has demanded that they do. It’s something that they have decided on their own, that they would like to do. So, they have a lot of ownership in how this project moves forward, and so what you end up seeing is their best work. And you can see it across the domains of development.

So, you might see, for instance, observational drawings of the semi. So, there is the child’s symbolic thinking, fine motor, watching the, you know, you notice what the child has noticed because of what they draw. And they interviewed the semi drivers, so, thinking about what questions they might want to ask, using language skills to interview the semi driver.

They constructed their own semi, so they had to use, they had to think about the physics of it, the science of it, for instance. So, “How are we going to attach the steering wheel to the cardboard dashboard and make it stay? And, how will we make it so that it can turn?” And they conducted surveys of other adults and children in the class, in the building, for instance, which caused them to do a lot of, again, language. But, counting, you know, tallying and counting. And, which has more? And, how many, how many people would like to use the big steering wheel, rather than the little steering wheel? 

Rebecca Swartz: So, it sounds like teachers need to do some anticipatory planning where they’re thinking about what kinds of skills children might use, what kind of times the standards might, opportunities to meet those standards? 

Dr. Beneke: Yeah.

Rebecca Swartz: But allowing it to unfold more naturally.

Dr. Beneke: Well, exactly. And I tell my students all the time, and I do presentations for teachers quite a bit. And I, one of the things that I say is, you have to know those standards really, really well, and you have to know what it looks like when a child demonstrates movement toward mastery of the standard. So, you’ve got to know it when you see it. A lot of teachers will say, “Well, I’m going to cover this standard this week,” and then they’ll plan a lesson. And, so then they end up, perhaps documenting that where the child is on moving toward mastery of that one particular standard.

But in project work, kids are meeting multiple standards all the time because it’s such multidimensional work. And if you’re aware of what the standards are, you are able to document it. And the other thing I would say is that it’s important for teachers to have really effective strategies for documenting in the action. Like, jotting notes or having matrices, as you say, where they’re anticipating what standards or benchmarks might be met, taking photographs and then reflecting.

Rebecca Swartz: Sure.

Dr. Beneke: I think sometimes we document, but then we don’t reflect on what it means.

Rebecca Swartz: Sure. So, I’m wondering if that implementation checklist could be a really great tool to help with that planning, as well—that you talked about in the book.

Dr. Beneke: Sure, sure. And the great thing, and I forgot to say this, Rebecca. But, one of the things that Micki, Lilian, and I were really excited about in this book is that the publisher, (Paul H.) Brookes, worked with our idea of making a lot of resources available to teachers and presenters. So, we were able to put the implementation checklist online as well as in the book. And you can download it, and you can type right into it.

Rebecca Swartz: Oh, wow.

Dr. Beneke: And, it expands. So, yeah, so you could make it your own. You could use it however, you know, if you want to use it to think about standards—however you want to use it—it’s a very flexible tool. 

Rebecca Swartz: Wonderful. So, are there other resources that folks should know about? 

Dr. Beneke: Oh, yeah! This was one of my favorite things that we, at our center, the Children’s Campus at St. Ambrose, they’ve been implementing project work there for many, many years, which is one reason it was a really good fit for me to go there. I was able to videotape one of their, Mahi Harrison, one of their veteran project implementers, through the course of an entire project.

And so, there are little 1, 1, 1½-minute video clips that are examples of the things that are on the implementation checklist, that, say you’re reading along in the book and you’re going, “I’m really not sure how I would do that.” You can actually look at the video clip and see how Mahi did it. There also are PowerPoints for someone who maybe wants to do training on the Project Approach that cover every, all the major components of the book. And there are activities, and task sheets, and handouts, and discussion questions, and there’s a lot there that I hope people, we hope people will be able to use.

Rebecca Swartz: Well, that sounds like a wonderful resource, especially for those who are really committed to the idea of doing inclusive project work that allows all children to take part. Now, you’ve told me some great things about this project, the semitruck project, about ways that teachers can document and think about meeting the standards. But, what do you think you would tell a teacher who says, “I’m just not sure how to get started with the Project Approach.”

Dr. Beneke: You know, I always say, “Well, what have you got to lose?” The Project Approach police are not going to come and take you away. If you struggle, I struggled! Everyone struggles. And I think, I think the, one of the things that I like to say is, project work motivates children. It interests children. It can’t be worse than doing a thematic unit.

So, in a thematic unit, for instance, you might plan for kids to—say you were doing a thematic unit about semitrucks, since we’re already on that—you might plan opportunities for them to dictate stories or draw pictures about what they already know about semitrucks. You might put some props in dramatic play, so that the kids can pretend semitruck driving. You might put some little semitrucks in the block area.

That’s basically the kinds of things you might do in Phase 1, just trying to get the children engaged with the topic and to find out what they’re curious about by observing them and talking with them. And at the end of that, you might say, “well, what else do you want to find out?” And just by observing, you might be able to tell what else they want to find out, and what they’re curious about. At that point, then you might go on into the further investigation because you know they’re interested. But, if not, then you had a really nice thematic unit and you’re done.

I also sometimes advise teachers to just get their feet wet with some of the strategies that we use in project work. Like, letting kids dictate a list of questions, or doing webbing with children, or teaching children, giving them opportunities to engage in observational drawing, instead of drawing from memory. Opportunities to vote. Those are some of the strategies—doing surveys—some of the things that we use to promote the engagement that the children have once they get into the actual investigation.

Rebecca Swartz: So, try out some of those components and just having resources that you can look to for solid examples, such as your book or finding colleagues who also tried to implement the Project Approach, could be very useful.

Dr. Beneke: Well, yes! And I almost, I’m glad I remembered this, we have the Illinois Projects in Practice page of IEL, which has many, many resources—some contributed by me, some by Lilian, some by Jean Mendoza, some by you, I think. And also, on there, there’s a Facebook page.

And I think that’s pretty magical because it’s a large group of teachers who implement Project Approach, or are working on implementing Project Approach, and a teacher can go on there and say, “Oh, I’m just learning about the Project Approach and I’m trying to figure out how that’s going to fit in circle time activities. Or, I’m thinking about lesson planning.” And lots and lots of teachers will chime in and tell you from their own practical experience how they do it.

And the other thing I almost forgot to say, which I want to be sure to say is, that we do, for those who really want to take a deep dive and be ready to hit the ground running, we do have a summer institute on the Project Approach, which is the last week of July. And that’s held at St. Ambrose, but we will also probably, on the Illinois Projects in Practice, or IEL, have the registration information available for teachers. (Note, this institute has been canceled for 2020.)

Rebecca Swartz: Wonderful, that sounds great. A good way to get a deeper look at project work. You’ve definitely made me more curious about learning about projects and teaching teachers that I work with about projects. Is there any other final thought you’d like to share with our listeners?

Dr. Beneke: No. I would like to say, thank you so much for listening and be in touch.

Rebecca Swartz: Alright. Well, I will encourage people to connect with you and to connect with you especially through the Facebook group to learn more about the Project Approach and to develop their own teacher curiosity, just like they wish to develop the children’s curiosity through project work.

Dr. Beneke: Ah, good point. Thank you!

Rebecca Swartz: Thanks, for joining me. 

The Illinois Early Learning Project website at www.illinoisearlylearning.org is a source of evidence-based reliable information on early care and education for parents, caregivers, and teachers of young children. Thanks for listening and for helping the children in your home, classroom, and community have a strong start in their early learning.

About this resource

Setting(s) for which the article is intended:
  • Child Care Center
  • Preschool Program
  • Kindergarten

Intended audience(s):
  • Teachers / Service providers
  • Faculty / Trainer

Age Levels (the age of the children to whom the article applies):
Reviewed: 2020