by Angela Marzilli
In my work as a PBL coach, I have supported teachers through many challenges. I’ve helped teachers trouble-shoot student teams struggling with collaboration. I’ve spent hours brainstorming driving questions, public audiences, and authentic products. I’ve had difficult discussions with teachers who thought they had a PBL project when they really didn’t and teachers who hit a roadblock in a project and were tempted to give up.
One day, I received an email from a colleague asking for an unusual meeting. She had been a PBL practitioner for several years, and I had co-facilitated projects with her and her class. Her projects were always inspired, with high engagement from students, true authenticity, and a great classroom culture. I was surprised at the urgent tone of her email and went to meet with her as soon as possible.
When I walked into the room, she handed me a piece of paper. “I was out sick on Tuesday,” she said, “and the sub left me this note.” As soon as I started reading it, I could see why she was upset. The substitute teacher called her students “robots” because they didn’t do any of the things he was used to kids doing; he expected students to be goofing around, apparently, and needing help from him. He said he liked being a substitute because he was the leader of the classroom, but in her room he sat behind her desk and read his book for two hours because the students were “working and discussing things without him.” He ended the letter by saying he was going to request to never be placed in her classroom again.
This teacher realized eventually that the very things she had worked so hard to develop in her students were things this substitute didn’t understand. I left that meeting mulling over her challenge. What are some easy ways to help visitors to a classroom understand PBL culture? This is my short list.
1. Review your need-to-know list with students at the beginning of the visitor’s time in your classroom (this doesn’t apply to a sub, obviously). When visitors see how much ownership students have over the inquiry process, they’ll have a better idea of the culture you are working to create.
2. Have specific tasks for your visitors to do. Whether volunteer or substitute teacher, doing a progress check with each team and using a specific checklist can help the adult feel (and be!) productive.
3. Post your classroom norms. Be sure they are visible for any visitor who enters your room and are descriptive enough so that visitors who read them know how the classroom should function. Put them at the beginning of plans for substitute teachers, too.
4. Be proud of it; own your hard work and success in the same way you want your students to own theirs. Creating a PBL culture isn’t easy and is an important foundation for successful projects. Talk to colleagues about the process and share experiences so others can understand the value and impact of a student-led classroom. You might even write a short explanation of what a PBL culture is, for subs or visitors to read.
Do you have suggestions for helping classroom visitors understand PBL culture? Please enter them below.