Most preschool children would benefit from the innovative curriculum at University Primary School, but it caters primarily to those three- to five-year-olds who are gifted. Located on the campus of the University of Illinois at Champaign, the private primary school serves as a site for the university’s College of Education students to research early childhood teaching practices and to observe and study young children learning.
University Primary School employs a project-based approach to learning; that is, much of the subject matter its classes cover is explored in in-depth units driven by the children’s questions and discovery. The project-based approach generally involves cross-curricular study, with teachers and administrators planning the units together. This approach has been found to attract broad student interest and achieve learning success. Children learn by working on project activities both in groups and individually.
Because some of the students at this school are the children of university faculty families, many classes are exceptionally diverse. In one classroom recently, ten languages were represented. Such diversity challenges the staff to ensure quality learning in a variety of ways.
For example, the unit “Who Measures What in Our Neighborhood?” was spawned by a project about keeping the environment healthy. Noticing the children’s fascination with types of measuring, the teachers planned the subsequent unit to address the ways measurement is important in the world. First the children brainstormed questions they were curious about, from “How do measuring tools work?” to “Why do we measure?” Then they went on field trips to such places as the Fire Services Institute, a sheep farm, and the State Water Survey. Back at the school, they listened to a panel of experts and parents discuss the relevance of measurement in areas as varied as the performance of a car, the work of a seamstress, and aviation.
In small groups, the children constructed representations of the measuring instruments they had learned about. They organized their data in graphs and charts, and the groups then shared their displays and findings. Individually, the children wrote stories, letters, and poems. Science, social studies, math, and language curriculum standards were intermingled.
Working collaboratively on projects, disseminating information, seeing it work . . . is the most enjoyable part of my job.
—Dr. Nancy Hertzog, director, University Primary School
The project concluded with an open house for family members and neighboring classes. The students presented a PowerPoint demonstration that showcased their findings and conclusions. They discussed what they had learned about measurement, and some of them created murals, such as “Measuring Is Important to Health” and “Measuring Is Important for Making Things We Want.”
Director Nancy Hertzog’s enthusiasm in trying out innovative teaching practices is one of the reasons for the school’s success. She enjoys working closely with the teachers to plan and implement projects, and this team approach works well.
Clearly, the children at University Primary School are reaping the benefits of their school’s unique position as a think tank for creative primary school minds.
—Susan Ludwig, M.A.
Susan Ludwig is a teacher and freelance writer who holds a master’s degree in educational leadership, with an emphasis in exceptional student education, from Florida Atlantic University.