My class has embarked on a new and exciting adventure. We are doing individual long term open ended projects this semester. We've done extended projects before. It's the open endedness that makes this experience difference, and to some extent, the individualization. In the past we've typically done a whole class project (learning about oceans, learning about the rain forest, a novel study, etc.) with a definite beginning and end. Everyone worked on pretty much the same things, with differentiation for skill level and a bit for interest. After getting caught up in some reading for my own children (specifically related to the Reggio Emilia approach to early childhood education) I thought, "Why not?" I was really encouraged to give this a go when two of my girls were enamored by the African mask paper sculptures that the 8th grade art classes did and displayed in our halls. They are beautiful and the girls are fascinated by them. When asked if they wanted to make their own, they both gave a resounding YES. So they are researching masks, African culture, learning about color and symmetry, and exploring paper sculpting techniques. One of the girls has discovered quilling and is enjoying working on with that. The other has had a blast checking out some truly awesome paper sculptures. Both are fully engaged and actively learning as well as using previously gained and new skills. I have no idea if they will even make the masks that originally started it all. This journey is about the PROCESS not the PRODUCT.
So why not just do this same project with all six students? Mainly because two of those students have next to no interest in art and would be totally disengaged in the activity and two of them have a complexity of sensory issues that would make it difficult to adapt this project for them in a meaningful and fully participatory way. But also because I wanted to really inspire them to learn about something they individually find fascinating. With that in mind, I talked to one of my boys who loves music and banging on things and asked if he wanted to explore something along those lines. He was excited and we narrowed things down to learning about percussion instruments and maybe guitar music with the initial thought that maybe he could compile an itunes collection of music he likes for his ipod. This was still fairly directionless and we were floundering a bit until today, when I introduced him to Stomp on a video. He was immediately hooked! He asked to repeat the first 7 minutes of the performance four times and was thrilled when I gave him a variety of brushes and a hand broom to experiment with on different surfaces. I watched my No Talk Boy be the most engaged I've ever seen him as he experimented with the brushes and attempted to copy the actions of the performers on the video. At one point he even got upset because he couldn't accomplish exactly what he had in mind. Talk about an opportunity to communicate and problem solve! He now wants to create and perform his own Stomp-eque performance, with maybe a few Blue Man Group overtones.
Boy #2 is interested in what the other kids are doing and at first I thought he would get into the music project as well. No dice. He wanted to do something unique to him. Knowing he has always enjoyed doing science activities I asked if he wanted to do some kind of experiment. That got him excited and he finally narrowed his scientific interest down to biology, specifically something with plants. Currently he is learning about plants (and enjoying every minute) but has not decided what his project will be or even IF he will do a product of some sort or simply learn more about a topic that interests him.
Boy #3 was totally disinterested in doing any type of project and that is OK. He is one of my oldest students and spends a lot of time out of the classroom in the community. He recently started a new volunteer job that is taking a lot of his attention and energy so time in the classroom is frequently spent in sensory regulation activities as well as ADLs. To include him in open ended explorations I have relaxed some of his "must ask before he gets" rules and am allowing for more open ended play and discovery with his favorite interaction items (he's too old to call them "toys") as well as introducing novel items and sensory activities for him to check out as he wishes.
Girl #3 is my most complex and involved student. She is fairly medically fragile and gone a lot. In addition, she is almost finished with school and had a sad lack of appropriate services before coming to me (sersiously, what SLP puts a nonverbal kid with NO effective communication on CONSULT!!!!). Consequently her skills levels and behavior states are nowhere close to what they should/could be. She has come so far in the year and a half that our team has worked with her but still finds too much to be overwhelming. We have always used open ended explorations with her (Lilli Nielson's Active Learning) and she has responded well. We allow her the freedom to participate in what any of the other kids are doing or to do her own thing with sensory experiences. So many of the sensory experiences that are commonplace and routine for my other students are new to her. It's been fun finding new ways for her to experience and control her world. Who knew that an accidental encounter with a large bin of pom poms would bring so much pleasure? Without that happy accident we would never have known that this student likes to stick her hands into containers. Perhaps it was a new discovery for her too.
The real challenge to these projects is the open ended nature. The staff, myself included, are all used to having a definite end goal in mind. If I had let them, the staff would have had those African masks completed in a day or two. And while the girls would have made color and some design choices, in the end they would have been consultants on a para's project, rather than having true ownership. Now don't get me wrong. My paras do NOT do "macaroni" art and they always work hard to involve the kids in projects. We are just working to take it several steps further and learning new ways to look at "full participation." A couple staff members are also learning that it's OK for a student to say "no" or "I need to stop" before an activity is "finished." They are having to accept that mistakes are not only OK but essential to the learning process and are actually enjoying the process of helping the kids problem solve solutions, with often unexpected results. And they are being forced to accept "messes" as part of the learning experience as well. Doing truly open ended projects with kids with complex disabilities including limited communication skills is extremely challenging. They can't just get up and go get a seemingly unrelated object to add to their explorations or make profound comments about what they are doing to give as direction (or at least no that we can understand yet! Another lesson in thinking about things differenly). And while we do have some structure and an initial "end goal" in mind, we try to stay very aware that the direction could change at any time and stay open to and aware of the the kids' interests. All I can say is, "Wow!" when I see the growth and learning that is happening with students and staff alike. It will be very interesting to see how these projects play out.