Learning in Action

Saint James School Transitions From Traditional Teaching to More Student-Centered, Project-Based Approaches to Learning

Students in the fifth grade at Saint James School in Basking Ridge were presented with a problem: A town needed a library. It was their job to take the concept through to fruition. In each of their classes—English, Math, Science, Social Studies, Art—they got to work. They started by researching library floor plans and watching videos on architecture and how to meet the needs of a community. They completed lessons on adding fractions and understanding scaled drawings. They collaborated on the design process, creating preliminary drawings on graph paper and final designs on vellum paper using architectural stencils. Their project complete, they put on their public relations hats and wrote newspaper articles on the opening of the library. Finally, they presented their designs to classmates, parents and the administration.

It’s not your average school day. 

In each grade, students at Saint James School are “learning by doing” as the school transitions from traditional teaching models to more student-centered, project-based approaches to learning. In this instructional method, teachers make the content come alive in their classrooms as students learn by actively engaging in real-world and personally meaningful projects.“Project-based learning is an excellent avenue for teaching many of the skills students need to develop. I witnessed tremendous growth in teamwork, creativity, cooperation and perseverance,” says fifth-grade teacher Loren MacTaggart.

“Children who are instructed through project-based learning reap many benefits, including developing a deeper understanding of the material being taught, critical thinking, time management, writing, collaboration, creative problem-solving and autonomy in learning,” says Suzanne Florendo, principal. “It even can lead to future career insights.”

Take, for example, the candy store that the first graders “opened.” After being placed in groups of four, the students collaborated on a name: Video Game Candy Factory. From that springboard, the teacher guided them in creating artwork for their store based on a video game theme. Each group focused on one type of candy: gummy bears, licorice, chocolate and Skittles. In Social Studies, the students listed the qualities that described an entrepreneur. They learned about the needs, wants, goods, services and scarcity that occurs in retail and discussed why a candy shop owner should know about needs and wants. 

Continuing the project in Math, the students decided to sell the candy for 1 cent to 25 cents to learn the value of a penny, nickel, dime and quarter and practiced identifying and counting plastic coins. In Art, the students created a sign using geometric shapes to advertise the store, made cardboard controllers and computer screens, cut out geometric shapes for game pieces and created bags to hold the candy purchased. 

When the students opened the store for business, they took turns serving as the clerk and as customers who used plastic coins to do the shopping for Base 10 Blocks that were used as the candy. 

Seventh graders researched something that affected them directly: hurricanes. They began the project by creating four categories related to hurricanes: geography, recovery costs, destruction and the science behind the hurricane categories. Working cooperatively in small groups, the students designed a presentation for a specific category based on three different states (Louisiana, New Jersey and Florida) and four different Hurricanes (Ida, Sandy, Katrina and Irma). They used data-collecting skills, measures of center and graphing to analyze, compare and contrast each. Then, they presented their findings to the class through PowerPoint, Google Slides and on posters.

Engaging their writing skills, the students wrote speeches in which they attempted to convince an audience to increase aid to hurricane victims. They addressed specific actions that citizens, governments and charitable organizations could take to reduce the suffering caused by hurricanes. The students also compared and contrasted the other named hurricanes’ severity, casualties, response and affected area to Hurricane Ida through charts and summary sentences. 

In Science, the students performed research on hurricanes and the role of actuaries in hurricane preparedness. They investigated when and where hurricanes form, how they form, how meteorologists predict them, how monitoring the Earth’s systems impacts hurricane preparedness and different types of hurricane models.

“I loved the hurricane project because I was learning about them and using my knowledge of them in all my classes,” says seventh grader Veronica Hekiert. “I learned how to use many different mathematical strategies, using measures of center, graphing, data collection, categorizing and comparing and contrasting to make my project the best it could possibly be. I look forward to doing another project.” 

Saint James School is a private, Catholic, co-educational school, fully accredited by Cognia. It is a vital, important ministry of the Church of Saint James and part of the Metuchen Diocesan educational system. To learn more about Saint James School, financial aid and to schedule a tour, visit

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