by Eric White
I am a passionate educator who is, above all else, devoted to student and teacher empowerment. I currently provide professional development and coaching for school districts on a full-time basis. I previously served as PBL Instructional Coach and Lead Teacher of Project Based Learning at the secondary level. I enjoy all things PBL, but I have a particular interest and experience with starting school-within-a-school PBL programs.
I gravitated toward PBL because it empowers students to be agents of change. When authentic PBL is implemented, students do not have to wait to impact the world around them; they can begin today.
We’ve all had some experiences in school that felt like Teflon moments, when the learning really didn’t stick. However, Project Based Learning can serve as Velcro moments that endure. In short, PBL sticks!
The Wall Mural Project
One of my favorite projects came from 9th grade Humanities teachers Tom Lee and Julia Cagle. I was fortunate enough to collaborate with these two teachers while serving as a PBL Instructional Coach. Tom and Julia sought to address their content of local history, immigration, civil rights, and writing conventions. Students were given the driving question, "How might we honor an agent of change in our community?" Through a process that included walking field studies, interviews, in-depth research and collaborative prototyping, students decided to honor their city's historical heroes and promote some much-needed urban revitalization in the downtown area. Students identified an area in need of revitalization and worked with a local artist to design a mural that highlighted five major figures in their city's history. Both teachers and students loved the impact their work made in the community. As Julia Cagle put it, "Eventually, our students will be able to bring their own children to the mural; they will be able to explain the impact these heroes had and will be able to share their part in the creation of the mural. Generational learning, that's what we're most proud of, and you can't learn that from a textbook."
The “Ex Umbra” Documentary Film Festival
As a 9th grade Humanities teacher, I was fortunate enough to be involved in a project that made a positive impact on others, particularly one individual who was struggling with poverty. Students were given the Driving Question, “How can we bring an issue “out of the shadows” and “into the light?” In an effort to make an impact on their surrounding community, students observed and engaged the public to discover issues that have gone unnoticed. After thoroughly researching their issue of interest, students created documentary films to bring these topics “out of the shadows.” Along with Humanities content, script writing and statistical analysis were heavy components in the filmmaking process. Additionally, this project challenged students to effectively develop their creativity, collaboration, and communication skills while making a true connection with their community.
To capstone the project, a documentary film festival was staged to highlight all the hard work students put forth. Spectators, which numbered in the hundreds, were treated to six different documentaries. At the end, viewers voted on the best production. The winning film was titled “Rocky Road,” a powerful look at a homeless man and his struggles to recapture the American Dream. You can check out the winning video and a video synopsis of the project by clicking on the following links:
Learning From Mistakes in My First Project
It’s often true that your first is your worst, and that was very evident during my first try at PBL. I learned so much during my first attempt, but the biggest takeaway was to have checkpoints along the way to ensure the learning is occurring and that the products are developing at a quality level. The students did not perform well, and I was pretty upset at the output. After a bit of reflection and conversation with colleagues, I realized that I did nothing on my part to formatively assess work and provide feedback while work was in progress. To relate it to the medical field, assessment should feel like a check-up, not an autopsy. I didn’t realize that in the beginning, and the projects I received were dead on arrival.
Let It Grow!
By far and away, the most rewarding part of facilitating professional development for BIE is the staggering amount of interactions that I get to have with educators who are willing and able to interrupt the status quo. School doesn’t have to look like it’s always been, and I’m lucky enough to be around other teachers who can envision a different path.
For those thinking about taking the leap with PBL, lean on the words of Meryl Streep: “Start by starting.” Take action, stretch yourself to keep the work authentic, and trust your students. Along the way, document the process and use it to reflect and share with others. We have so much to learn from your efforts.
For more information about BIE’s services, click here.
Do you have questions or comments? Please enter them below.