In LOVE with Letters!

We strive for an active education for all students here at Parker. At every grade level, our students are lively, engaged, and learning-by-doing. Parker students are natural investigators, and the emergent curriculum here inherently lends itself to following where their curiosit leads. To do this most effectively, Parker teachers use a unique method of progressive education called project-based learning.
Project-based learning is a model through which students gain knowledge and skills by investigating and responding to an authentic, engaging, and complex question, problem, or challenge. In so doing, children construct an understanding of the world around them, learning how to ask questions and solve problems. This gives them a sense of agency and responsibility, making their education relevant, vital, and interesting.

One outstanding example of project-based learning currently underway at Parker is our new Post Office! Pioneered by Debbie’s 1-2 class, our Parker Post Office has quickly blossomed into a beloved, school-wide endeavor. However, it began humbly as a simple idea for skill acquisition. As Deb explains, “I am always trying to find authentic ways to encourage kids to write. I went to an elementary school where there was some sort of post office, and I remember getting mail and thinking it was exciting. Many of our classroom ideas bubble up organically. I thought this was a perfect example of something that I could introduce, but then we could dive deep into making it our own.”
And dive deeply they did! As an emergent educator, Deb initially launched her project by capitalizing on a few simple but persistent curiosities within her class: “It started with the kids noticing that all the doors in the school had numbers. We took a walk around the building, and we also noticed that rooms in different hallways began with different letters, so naturally then we had to also count the hallways.”
Deb says that the early days of their project were filled with questions, like ‘How does our school look on a map?’: “We realized that if we wanted to send mail within our school, we would need a universal system that everyone agreed on. This led to us creating our own map (where we named the hallways as ‘roads’) and an address directory. All the while, my kids were exercising literacy skills like spelling, alphabetizing, learning the difference between proper and common nouns, and when to capitalize or use lowercase, not to mention creating a system of organization. Finally, we decided we were ready to launch our project school wide. We sent an envelope to each classroom with a directory, a whole school class list of names, and a letter explaining what we were doing.” 
Since then, all of Parker has been abuzz with the excitement of writing letters, receiving letters, and making trips to the Parker Post Office (headquartered in Debbie’s 1-2 classroom) for supplies like envelopes and stamps. Within Deb’s classroom, meanwhile, the project has taken on a life of its own, evolving and branching into multiple aspects of classroom life. Every day, Deb’s students partner in groups of two and cycle through one of six jobs:
Mail Carriers: Unload the mail once per morning and bring it back to the classroom.Counters: Organize and count how many letters they’ve received per day.Sorters: Sort the mail by hallway into bins.Delivery Routes 1 & 2: Take the letters out of the hallway bins, sort them by classroom, put them in the bag, and deliver them. Organizers: Responsible for tidying up and keeping everything in good working order.
In addition to the very real and substantial work of running the post office, Debbie’s 1-2’s are also eagerly acquiring rigorous academic skills that they can immediately apply to their real world learning: “My kids have learned very concrete skills like the formal procedure for addressing an envelope, literacy skills like when to use upper and lower-case letters, the graphic design of formatting an envelope, the importance of spacing between words and correct directionality of their print. Those pieces are all very mechanical, but then the writing of our letters is very open-ended. This has generated a lot of really productive class questions, like ‘Why do people even write letters?’ We’ve talked about how a letter has an audience and a purpose, and how the format and content of your letter might change depending on your audience or purpose for writing.”
This is true, project-based learning. Work like this reflects how our students will eventually be asked to work in the real world. Solving complex problems requires that students have both fundamental skills (like reading, writing, and math) and more intricate skills (like teamwork, problem solving, research gathering, and information synthesizing). When students are given the opportunity to combine these skills, they begin to take ownership of their learning process.
As Deb explains, “I love how projects like this really empower kids because they are taking something that started as a vehicle for skill acquisition and breathing life into it to make it their own. The teamwork and collaborative learning that goes into an endeavor like this is staggering. Instead of taking direction from me, the kids are talking to each other to figure out what they want to do, how they are going to execute their vision, and how they will divide up the work to get this done. Within that, kids naturally begin to recognize each other’s strengths and also notice opportunities where they can step up and offer their own skills. They are also learning to evaluate their own performance and take feedback from peers. We frequently talk about what went well, what was unexpected, and how we can improve in our various post office jobs.”
Deb goes on to share, “Wherever you are at with your skill set, there is something in this project that you can access. To have a curriculum where every kid can have an entry point – whether their passion is writing letters, helping serve our ‘customers’, or sorting and delivering mail – allows kids to experiment and learn by absorption. No matter what any student is doing, they are all engaged in related skills that complement and enhance each other. And watching one another try new things helps to build their confidence in ways that I simply couldn’t push as a teacher alone.”
Doing project work is not just a way of learning; it is a way of working together as a community. The work our students do now will form the basis for the way they will work with others in their adult lives. Project work gives students the opportunity to demonstrate their capabilities in working both cooperatively and independently. It allows the teacher to learn more about each child as a person, enabling them to communicate more meaningfully on a range of issues. Students become active and engaged hunters and gatherers of new knowledge, and they enthusiastically take control of their own learning. This is how we build lifelong learners. 
*When we return from break, we would like to start tracking where our letters are coming from SCHOOL WIDE! We’ve hung a large map of the United States in our front lobby, and anyone receiving a letter through our Parker PO will be invited to mark their return address with a small push pin. Let’s see how wide our Parker community truly is! If you would like to send a letter to any student, class, or faculty member, please follow the address instructions below:
First & Last Name (of Student or Faculty)c/o Parker Post Office4254 NY Route 43Wynantskill, NY 12198
*Please be sure to include your RETURN ADDRESS in the upper lefthand corner, so we can track where our mail is coming from!!!