I’m not your average educator. I was the student in the classroom who consistently made “beats” on desks, made quirky noises, whistled and hummed tunes throughout the class. Yes, I was “THAT GUY” who annoyed teachers.
Everything changed inside the classroom of Mr. Reginald Irons. He saw a talent in me and helped cultivate it through encouragement and challenging me to tap into my greatness. Along with my parents and other educators, I was encouraged to be myself and that helped me become the educator I am today. My unorthodox style of teaching and high energy connects with students, educators and now audiences nationwide. I love teaching. I love creating a rich atmosphere where all can be themselves, be inspired, be challenged and learn.
I wish I had the “1st PBL = awesome” story. I don’t. The year I was introduced to PBL was terrible. It was mid-September and I was team teaching. My teammate resigned from the 4th grade position in September. No other teachers applied for the position and they only found one retired teacher who came out of retirement to long-term sub and help. I’ll never forget her words as she put her hands on her hips and said, “Hunny, I admire you. You give it your all every day for these kids and they deserve it but I’m too tired and old to keep up with you and the students. I’m sorry, but I can’t do this like I thought I could.”
How I Came to PBL
What do you do with 70 fourth grade students and one teacher? You don’t make excuses nor say “Woe is me” but you dig deep inside and realize that you have an opportunity of a lifetime. You have the fortunate honor to inspire and teach an entire 4th grade class to greatness, tapping into their talents!
There’s no way to be the sage on the stage with that many students in one class the entire year and still be sane, so I used a quote from Dr. Jawanza Kunjufu as the foundation to our class: “If you observe students, they will teach you how to teach them.”
I observed how students loved rap, dancing, making “beats,” loved using technology and how they could talk about everything with one small prompt! I looked to find ways to leverage those ideas as well as looked for a way to keep my voice from going hoarse every afternoon. We did everything inside of the class, rapped/chanted, danced, threw the Nerf football around, made beats, used the interactive whiteboard/clickers and even connected a gaming system to the projector and played Madden in class. The goal was to use anything that engaged and motivated the students. That is how I stumbled upon PBL. With the help of my colleagues and principal, who offered up the greatest support I’ve ever had in education, our PBL journey was a memorable one.
My First Project
That year provided an awesome experience of learning. One day we were wrapping up a student-led discussion and a student made a connection. He asked, “Mr. Daughty, have you heard about Jena 6?”
I had heard about the Jena 6, but saw an opportunity presenting itself for one of those teachable moments we live for in education. I asked the student to elaborate and his eyes lit up with excitement and passion. As he shared what he’d “heard” from his grandparent, others chimed in. Next thing I knew, we’d stumbled upon our first PBL project!
I asked the students what did we need to know about Jena 6 and went from there. It was amazing because it was something authentic to my students’ lives. Jena, Louisiana had ramifications to my students’ lives in Oklahoma City. Imagine great grandparents visiting our classroom to share their personal stories about segregation, sharing how their silent demonstrations and sit-ins were deemed inappropriate. Imagine my talkative and inquisitive group of geniuses having very mature “grown folk’s” conversations and they are only 4th graders! They realized history was left out, why getting an education was important, and discovered that many of their family members were heroes with greater impact than sports superstars. Yes, that’s when I knew I could support PBL in my classroom and it could be valuable for all students.
Success & Failure
The Jena 6 project was a success and failure at the same time. Since the project came organically from the students, I had a difficult time trying to plan accordingly like I saw it in my head. How do you provide multiple assessments for students, especially if over 40% are on an IEP? How do you continue to build a culture knowing that some kids hate other kids because their families are rivals in a gang? How do you provide critical thinking opportunities when many essential skills are missed?
Now imagine having 70 students wanting to curate 70 different final products. Why? I provided too much voice and choice all around the same end goal; to raise money to send to the protestors (of both sides) and families. Some students wanted to create a rap song, some wanted to choreograph a dance, some wanted to create art on canvas paper, others wanted to do a PSA video, record a spoken word poem, write their congress representatives. Some wanted to Skype Louisiana’s representatives, others wanted to “make beats” for the rappers, and some wanted to write a song to sing. These are just the ones I remember. I laugh at it now because it was such an epic fail because of my lack of planning and not asking colleagues and the community to help.
Your ego takes a hard hit after realizing the reason the students failed was because you were not organized enough to set them up for success. That was a hard lesson to learn and somewhat difficult to apologize to the class. The awesome thing was the students realized that failure can be a good thing. We all saw that as an opportunity to grow and try again. That was an additional foundation of our classroom’s culture for the remainder of the year. We rocked the next three PBL projects!
My Work as a BIE Facilitator
I remember the fear trying to step outside of my comfort zone and going to professional development with the concerns of it being a waste of time; overwhelmed by “stuff.” I remember being in a room with educators and I felt like I was the least educated among them and not having a safe place to share my failures in order to improve my practice.
I also remember the feeling of encouragement and excitement after attending meaningful PD and the accomplishment and confidence when applying those strategies in class—and they worked! Learners come in with many of those same concerns and I get the opportunity to inspire, challenge and encourage them. The workshops lend great opportunities to share the reasons behind our PBL failures and successes. Imagine having a space in which everyone in the room (including me) is learning and reflecting! That, my friend is the sweet spot! It is for those reasons why I truly appreciate and love facilitating PBL workshops.
After many years of experience in PBL now, the core of education is still the same. Today’s students will help you teach them if you observe them. Are you teaching the way they learn or are you forcing them to learn the way you teach? How are you encouraging their talents? How are you creating a safe environment to learn from mistakes? Are students happy inside of your classroom? I encourage you become that decisive element indeed whether it’s a class of 8 or 70. They deserve your best. They will guide you because you are the decisive element!
For information about BIE’s professional development services, click here.
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