Independent Learning Projects

A collaborative independent learning project in the form of a puppet play being presented to the class.


In my intermediate multiage classroom when students finished their work in a couple of self-paced areas, they were eligible to do an independent learning project. Students loved doing these projects perhaps because they had so much choice in their creation. They decided on the topic they wished to learn about, the product they would produce, and the means of sharing what they’d learned. I did not grade any of these projects but I did support and encourage the students.

Below is a copy of my Independent Learning Contract. When students were ready and had an idea of something they would like to learn, they had a brief conference with me to discuss it. During that conference I helped them refine their idea and begin filling out the contract. They then took it home to discuss the project with their parents, bringing it back to me signed and with any changes. I would add my signature and give any assistance they needed in gathering materials and in getting started. After that they worked on their project independently at appropriate times during the day, both at home and at school. I checked on progress from time to time and when the project was complete we would set up a time for it to be shared with the rest of the class.


Independent Learning Contract

name: __________________ 
date: _______________

Before you begin working on your independent project, you will need to create a plan of what you want to learn about and how you want to show what you’ve learned. You will also need to share this plan with your parents and your teacher. This contract is a part of your project. In addition, it will help guide you in making your plan. Please use a pencil as you may wish to change some of your plan when you share it with your parents or teacher.

1. Questions related to a topic that you wish to learn more about. 




2. Possible resources you will need (may include places to visit, people to interview, 
books, computer databases, etc.). 




3. How will you show what you’ve learned? 




When will your work begin? __________

When do you think it will end?__________

When do you wish to present your finished project to the class? _________________ 



student signature

_________________ _________________ 
parent signature(s)

teacher signature



My Teaching Philosophy



I have been a teacher of children ages 7 to 12 years old in both public and independent elementary learning environments.  I have taught both single-grade and multiage classes.  Two principles have always been at the heart of all that I have done as a teacher. First, is my believe that education should be student-centered and second, that fostering an enjoyment of learning is probably the most important thing educators can do with their students.

Learning and not teaching has been the focus in my classrooms. This simple statement is filled with implications. If teaching is the focus of a classroom, then control over student academic, social, and behavioral actions becomes the job of the teacher. Management of the details of individual students, of the classroom, of academic progress and pace, and even of recess behavior becomes the primary concern. An information delivery model in which knowledge is passed from the textbook company or state department of education through the teacher to the student would be the major route for knowledge acquisition in a teacher-centered classroom. This type of classroom supports a “culture of silence” as Paulo Freire has observed, a programming of conformity if looked at on a societal scale. It is also, as I see it, a Behaviorist way of managing instruction in which management of learning is reliant on forces external to the child, including reinforcement and an emphasis on consequences administered by the teacher.

In contrast, a learning focused classroom, as I see it, puts the primary emphasis on the process of learning and the use of knowledge. The teacher’s job is then one of helping students acquire learning skills and the practicing of those skills in ways that are useful and meaningful to the student. The teacher does not act as some sort of all-important filter of information determining all of what each student needs to know, but rather becomes more of a guide, setting up learning and practice situations and showing or modeling new ways of acquiring and using information. For instance, in my classrooms I have used many ideas from Gestalt Psychology when helping my students in math. My instruction has been based on a problem-solving model in which I guided my students to find a variety of solutions to various problems, then set up experiences for them to transfer their new skills to similar but different situations. I also used Vygotsky’s concepts of the zone of proximal development, scaffolding, and social interaction in my classrooms. By using peer tutoring and modeling thoughtfully along with my own support of the individual student, children frequently showed tremendous cognitive growth. Thus I believe that the learning environment is not limited to the classroom and to what the teacher can always control but rather is made up of the tools of learning, including social interaction.

In looking at how I came to believe such a classroom is most conducive to student learning, it is important to first visit some of my past classrooms.

In the first 3 years of my teaching career I was learning how to survive each day. My task was to get through the curriculum while still keeping school as enjoyable for the students as possible. Thus I concentrated on orchestrating a classroom full of students, keeping them “on task,” rewarding good academic and social behavior with material and nonmaterial rewards, and including negative consequences for “poor student choices.” Overall students and their parents responded well to this. Part of this orchestration was to present instruction in a variety of teacher-determined ways, including the occasional learning project. I created many “systems” in the classroom for everything from independent reading to small group management. Although I did this with input from students (I’ve been known as a very democratic teacher), I still put an emphasis on my being in control of each and every situation. I believe that nearly every conflict or negative situation could be traced to my overemphasis on teacher control, on being the giver of consequences.

In the 1993-1994 school year I was fortunate enough to get a group of students that would push me and teach me about what they needed and wanted for their education. The student labels ranged from “severely gifted” to “How do you deal with him every day?” As the months passed I found it increasingly harder to always be in control of the students. Projects would work well, whether individual or group, but anything that had even a smattering of more traditional whole group instruction would be met by resistance and/or conflict. Students would even divide themselves into factions, those who sided with the teacher, those who wouldn’t, and a few who would articulate a third or fourth stance. A number of students could not focus on instruction long enough to be able to successfully complete many or most individual learning tasks. For these students I would regularly give them individual instruction immediately after I had given whole class instruction, helping them get successfully started on the practice task. Others would be finished with the practice task at about the same time I completed the whole class instruction. They “got it” right away and began working early even when they were told not to (waiting didn’t make sense to them, and they would usually complete the task with a high degree of accuracy). For some of the students, a great number of the “learning tasks” were just busy work, they already knew how to “do it” successfully. As you can probably tell from this brief description, I was teaching most often to the middle ground (and sometimes to the lower middle). This seemed to work best for me, as most students seemed to stay “on task.” But I had to ask myself, “Am I really meeting the needs of all my students?”

After having survived that year, I reflected quite a bit on my beliefs about teaching and learning. I came to realize that children are complex and that they need to have some control over what and when they learn, that they are, and need to be, an active participant in the learning process. It finally occurred to me that I had been keeping the focus of my classroom on myself, it was a teacher-centered environment and that in order for students to really learn and to enjoy school, I had to refocus on the children, to make my classroom a child-centered one.

At about this time I discovered the ideas surrounding multiage educational practices. For me the two mixed quite well. My needs to change the underlying beliefs and structure of my classroom were a near perfect match with the beliefs and structure of multiage educational environments.

In addition to “student-centeredness,” I also believe that school should be enjoyable. I realize that not all learning tasks are going to be viewed as fun for all students, but that if school in general is considered fun, then learning is fun and the motivation to learn more is enhanced. I believe that engendering a love of learning is probably one of the most important things I can help elementary age children achieve. With that, every other learning task comes relatively easily to a student. As John Dewey stated in Democracy and Education, “Study of mental life has made evident the fundamental worth of native tendencies to explore, to manipulate tools and materials, to construct, to give expression to joyous emotion, etc. When exercises which are promoted by these instincts are a part of the regular school program, the whole pupil is engaged, the artificial gap between life in school and out is reduced, motives are afforded for attention to a large variety of materials and processes distinctly educative in effect play and work correspond, point for point, with the traits of the initial stage of knowing” (p. 195)

As a result of my classroom being both student-centered and a place where learning is enjoyable, the educational opportunities I gave my students were varied. Learners and the learning process are very complex. I believe that there is no one formula for teaching that fits all situations or all students. For this reason I believe that a variety of approaches thoughtfully geared to both the content to be learned and individual students is the best way to structure a learning program. This matches Howard Gardner’s Multiple Intelligences Theory, there are many different ways knowledge can be gained and learning can be assessed. Hands on learning activities will work well with many students and with a number of content areas. Research projects jig-sawed among the class members facilitate learning best for some students and some subject areas. A discovery approach in which the tools for a learning task are given to the students, a simple question is asked, and the procedure is left up to the students to discover works well in other situations and with some students. Again, variety of learning opportunities allows for the most number of children to both enjoy learning and, if choice is incorporated into the activity, to give children some control over their education.

I believe that structuring classroom management to allow for a wide diversity of children and for shared student control of the classroom environment is at least equally important as academic goals. The degree to which a classroom is student-centered or teacher-centered shows up in its management structure. During parts of each day I had students take over various management tasks. Students managed the opening portion of each day (attendance, reading the schedule, discussing the weather forecast). Students also ran a discussion/transition time in which we discussed the various books we were reading. These are things in which I could monitor but that didn’t need to be done by the teacher. Students in my classrooms also had the privilege of choosing their seat. It was not uncommon for a child to be seated at four or more different places in the classroom during the day. They were given the responsibility to choose a place where they could best learn and where they were most comfortable. What a difference from when I assigned seats and decided whom would sit where based on my needs and my perception of each student’s needs. By giving students some control over their school lives, I supported a belief within the students that they, and not some external force, have control of their behavior and their learning. Also that through their own effort they can achieve success. This matches the idea from Attribution Theory that learning is acquired through constructive effort.

As you can see, the two principals of student-centeredness and enjoyment of the learning process underlied all aspects of my classrooms and are two cornerstones of my philosophy of teaching.

Appendix – Multiage Education

The term “developmentally appropriate” is used a lot by multiage educators. The idea, from the work by Piaget, that certain educational practices are appropriate for children of certain age spans but not for those of different age spans, allows the educator to design lessons that match the individual child. This becomes important in a classroom of children of diverse ages. The interesting thing about Piaget’s developmental levels and multiage education is how the idea is used to determine the age spans appropriate to be placed in a single classroom, and how multiage teachers use the diversity to help children transfer from one cognitive level to another. Multiage programs are most often considered “primary” or “intermediate,” roughly matching Piaget’s Concrete Operational Level, divided in two. This recognizes that some children transition from one level to another at different times and that there is a substantial qualitative difference between cognition at the Preoperational Level and the Formal Operational Level, the levels bordering the Concrete Operational Level. The transition from one developmental level to another is supported through peer interaction and modeling and takes into account the four factors that allow movement from stage to stage, maturation, experience, social interaction, and equilibration. The heavy use of peer modeling by multiage educators is supported by Albert Bandura’s Social-Cognitive Learning Theory. By using these “live models,” the students in a multiage classroom learn vicariously through the success of the model. In this way instruction is enhanced and learning is engendered through more than simple reliance on the teacher as model.

The following is from a brochure I produced that explained to parents what underlying beliefs I have and some of the general methods I used in the classroom.


A multiage educational program is a union of an organizational structure and unique combinations of teaching and learning strategies. The way learning occurs is made possible by the multiple age structure.

Why Multiage?

  • Allows for flexibility in the grouping of children according to need, ability, or interest; not just by age.
  • Problems associated with a yearly transition from one grade to another can be overcome. The teacher has a nucleus of children; trained in the details of the class organization who keep it going while newcomers absorb it.
  • As the student-teacher-parent relationship develops over a longer period of time, students will receive greater support for their success in school.
  • A more natural learning situation is established. Children work at their own pace. Their program is not geared to the work of a single year but can be adjusted over two or more years.
  • Benefits come to the older children from the quality of leadership and responsibility they develop.
  • Younger children are stimulated intellectually by older children.
  • Children have a broader social experience with increased opportunities to lead and to follow, to collaborate and to make stable peer relationships.

It is my goal to use instructional strategies that:

  • Expand the teacher’s role to include that of a facilitator as well as a source of knowledge.
  • Produce cooperation.
  • Allow students to learn from each other through peer tutoring.
  • Give students responsibility and independence in both learning and behavior.
  • Build understanding of action-consequence relationship.
  • Provide choice to students in different areas of learning that will reflect learning-style differences.
  • Allow continuous learning through the use of learning centers, group instruction, projects, and individual pacing.
  • Involve parents in classroom activities.
  • Encourage student responsibility and ownership of the learning environment.
  • Teach goal setting from an early age.
  • Build leadership skills in all students.


Note: The information on this page has developed over a number of years beginning as I was defining a shift in my own teaching practices during the spring of 1995. I have revised it many times since, its latest revision was to meet the needs of this blog.


Ballantyne, Paul F. (2006). Piaget’s Stage Theory (online) Available:

Dewey, John (1966). Democracy and Education. New York: Free Press.

Freire, Paulo (1970). Pedagogy of the Oppressed. New York: Seabury Press.

Ginn Wanda Y. (1995). JEAN PIAGET – INTELLECTUAL DEVELOPMENT (online) Available:

Gredler, Margaret (1997). Learning and Instruction: Theory Into Practice. New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, Inc.

Kearsley, Greg (2013). Social Development Theory (L. Vygotsky) (online) Available:




Problem Solving Form

Problem Solving Form

When individual students make a behavior mistake in my classroom, I have them complete a problem solving form. This process not only gently reminds the student of the expected behavior, it also directs them to find their own workable solution.

When a student is asked by the teacher to “…please fill out a problem solving form,” he or she will walk back to the “problem solving desk,” complete the form including drawing pictures of the problem and solution at the bottom of the form, place it in a specific paper tray, and then appropriately rejoin the class or activity. At the teacher’s convenience (usually the next recess), the teacher uses the completed form to discuss the problem and solution with the student.


Student Complaint Form

Student Complaint Form

When a student has a complaint about another student it frequently comes from a relatively minor (from the teacher’s perspective) incident. Instead of having them air their complaint publicly or to the teacher, I have them complete a complaint form. In addition to helping them to get their complaint heard in an appropriate way, it directs them to finding their own solution. The use of this form has cut down on “tattling” tremendously and often by the time the teacher has read the form and gotten back to the student, the problem has been solved. It is important to monitor the children and to address the complaint quickly however, otherwise you may miss an opportunity to help a child truly in need of adult intervention.


Classroom Management & Behavior

Information for Substitutes on Management & Behavior

In my Guest Teacher Notebook I include a page on management and behavior. I have found this to be pretty important information for guest teachers who are not familiar with teaching in such an environment. Below is a copy of that page.

 Management & Behavior

Classroom Rules

I have 3 rules that students must abide by.

  1. Be Responsible
  2. Be Respectful
  3. Be Curious

Most if not all student behavior can be categorized under these three headings.

In my classroom I teach the following Learner Characteristics that I strive to have all the students exhibit:

  • Thoughtful and Knowledgeable
  • Self-Confident (risk-taker)
  • Creative
  • Resourceful and Organized
  • Industrious and Persistent
  • Collaborative
  • Independent (the capacity to manage one’s own affairs, make one’s own judgments, and provide for oneself)

In addition, I have broken the Independent Learner Characteristic into the following traits:

  • Work quietly so that others will not be distracted.
  • Take care of materials in the room. Put them away when you are finished.
  • Know when and where to get help and materials.
  • Respond to the signal to stop, look, and listen.
  • Work in the proper place.
  • Follow directions for the area where you are working.
  • Keep your records and portfolios up to date.
  • When you finish one activity go directly to your next activity.
  • Focus on your work.
  • Turn your homework in consistently.

Depending on which time of the year you are substituting for me, some or all of these Learner Characteristics and Independent Traits have been taught. I have spent considerable time during the first weeks of school on the”3 Be’s,” or rules listed at the top and you should expect students to act accordingly.

Consequences for Misbehavior

If students choose to misbehave my consequences have been as follows (depending on the misbehavior):

  • Student fills out a Problem-solving form. These are found near the hallway door.
  • The student looses part or all of their recess and spends the time quietly seated with their head down on the table.
  • The student is given a sort of mini time-out in which they put their head down for a short period of time and are not allowed to participate in the current activity (this is intended primarily as a time for the child to reflect).
  • The student is given an assigned seat for a certain portion of the day.
  • The student is given time-out in another classroom (currently we use Ms. X’s and Mrs. Y’s classrooms for this)

The consequence given depends on the infraction and should be considered appropriate. I usually also give a student a reminder as a warning if they begin to act inappropriately. Feel free to modify this system, change it, or use your own system if you find mine doesn’t work for you. Just be sure to spell out the changes to the students first.

Positive Consequences

Feel free to write out Cheetah Pride awards for individual students you see doing an exceptional job during any part of the day. If you’re not sure of the procedure, ask a student, they’ll be more than happy to help. In addition, if you wish to use some of the time after the last recess for a whole class reward, feel free to do so. It could be a class game, a special story you would like to read to them, or something of your own invention.

Stop, Look, & Listen Signal

Hanging from the middle of the whiteboard is a small brass bell. Ring this when you need to get the whole class’s attention. They should all stop what they are doing, look at you, and listen to what you are saying quietly. If not, give them one more chance and if there is still a problem have the few individuals with the problem, or entire class if necessary, put their heads down for a few quiet minutes. After that you should have no more problems.

Student Noise Levels

Use the “Noise Meter” at the front of the class to indicate at what level students are permitted to talk. A “3”, or “Classroom Voice,” is one in which students can hear each other between tables but not necessarily across the room. A “2”, or “Table Voice,” is one in which students can hear each other at the same table but not necessarily between tables. A “1,” or “Buddy Voice,” is one in which students may whisper to one another. A “0,” or “No Voice,” is exactly that, no talking. When you have the class at “Zero Voices” you may want to play some quiet music, it is  your choice.


Unless given an assigned seat (as with math), students may sit at any table or desk (except the teacher’s desk or the computer desks). Of course sometimes students will need to change places in the room in order for certain work groups to meet.


Information for Substitute Teachers on Classroom Procedures

My Guest Teacher Notebook included a page that summarized some of the more common procedures at the one of the schools I taught at. Below is a copy of that page.

Procedures, Etc.


One student per side at a time. They must sign their name and the time they leave the room on the small white board near the hall door. This lets you know who is using the bathroom and how long they have been there.


Near the outside door is a rack that holds clothespins. When the students enter in the morning they are to move their “attendance pin” to either cold lunch or hot lunch. It is rare when they all remember
to do this so you will need to check those clothespins that are left in the absent column to see if they really are absent.
Use the white sheet on the clipboard to record the following:

  • absences – mark A
  • tardies – mark T
  • hot lunches – mark the number of students taking hot lunch at the bottom of the column on the first page.

I keep the white attendance sheet on a clipboard in the upper right corner of the bookshelf nearest to the attendance rack (on the north wall). If you can’t find it, the office can help you (it might still be in my mailbox).

Entering the Classroom

Students are not to enter the classroom before 8:45 in the morning. If they get here prior to 8:40 they are to wait in the Library, otherwise they may line up just outside the classroom.
When they come in from recesses they are to wait outside the door until you open the door to let them enter. Students should also enter walking and with a reasonably quiet voice.


If you wish to purchase a lunch it is $2.50. You may eat in the cafeteria with the students, in the faculty room, or in the classroom.
You need to lead the class from the classroom into the multipurpose room, having those students taking hot lunch line up at the counter nearest the entrance to get their trays of food. After walking the students over to lunch, teachers need to stay with their class until the students getting hot lunch have made it through the line and are seated at their assigned tables. Our tables are the four that are closest to the door.

Exiting the Classroom

I usually dismiss students in small groups. This keeps things more orderly. Students are to walk and use a relatively quiet voice.

Dismissal at the End of the Day

After homework (Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, & Thursday) and handouts have been distributed to the students:

  1. students get their papers, jackets, etc. ready to take home.
  2. students clean up on top of and under the tables and they stack the chairs.
  3. students line up at the outside door.

No earlier than about 3:13 and no later than about 3:16, you need to walk the students in a line to the busses. Teachers are to walk their students past all of the busses beginning with 102 and continuing through 109 until all the students have either walked onto a bus or have been picked up along the way by their parent.

Dear Sub…,

Introductory Letter for Substitute Teachers

I have found that my Substitute Teacher Notebook has been valuable to most subs and it was absolutely indispensable when I was team teaching and both of us were absent. Below is a copy of the first page of my Substitute Teacher Notebook that I kept on my desk at all times.


Dear Sub…

I’m glad you’re here! You are about to work with a GREAT bunch of students! They are usually excited about learning, they want to be good, and they will do almost anything you ask of them!

Read through the information in this “Guest Teacher Notebook” and use the blank checklist for recording appropriate and inappropriate behavior if you need to. If you need help don’t be shy about asking for it. The students, neighboring teachers, and the principal will be glad to help you in whatever way they can.

As to academics, if you don’t get through everything, don’t worry about it. We can most likely make it up later. On the other hand, if you get through with things too soon, feel free to play an educational game or do something from your own “bag-o-tricks.” You’ll also find in this folder a logic worksheet that the kids haven’t done but should have fun with. In addition, if there is anything you are passionate about teaching or sharing with the students, feel free to do so, I only ask that you check with me first.

I hope everything goes well and that you will have an enjoyable time with the kids!