by Erin Gannon
This is my twentieth year in education, and I currently teach third grade at Hilburn Academy in Raleigh, North Carolina. In addition to my role as a classroom teacher, I also mentor beginning teachers and am a member of our school’s PBL coaching team. I have had extensive training in inquiry based learning and arts integration, so both are prominently featured in my classroom.
After graduating from San Diego State University, I was fortunate to be accepted into a credential program that was housed at an innovative school named Clear View Charter in Chula Vista, CA. Our coursework was taught on campus, and we spent a great deal of time working with and learning from the very talented faculty there. The school was featured in one of Edutopia’s first video productions because of its success working with multilingual students in a PBL environment, rich with technology integration. From my earliest days in the classroom, I experienced the power of PBL and truly, can’t imagine teaching without it.
What I saw at Clear View was a dedicated, passionate group of educators who focused on developing PBL units and curriculum that would engage and excite their students. That was 20 years ago, mind you, and even at that time they were doing things like working with scientists at local universities as part of their research. The students were treated as research partners and scientists and took an active role in developing the very rubrics that would be used to assess their work. It was really exciting to watch, and it shaped who I am as an educator.
A Favorite Project
My very favorite project is one that I did with my third graders in California that we called The Trickster Tale Project. We blended science, language and visual arts standards to create shadow puppet shows, telling trickster tales from around the globe. Their challenge was to create an artistic performance of a tale that would share an important lesson.
To kick off the project, we obtained a collection of trickster tale books by posting our project idea on Donors Choose. After the books arrived, the students read and read and read some more. We compared the tales and discovered the elements that they share, no matter what culture they come from. To help us understand how storytellers perfect their craft, we invited a storyteller to come in and teach us how to block a written story to learn, but not memorize it, with the purpose of sharing it orally.
For the science content, we borrowed materials from the Reuben H Fleet Science Center and investigated how different shadows could be created using various light bulbs and other materials. We then invited a shadow puppeteer to come in and share her work with us. She brought in some beautiful Indonesian shadow puppets and taught the students how to create their own puppets with opposable arms and legs. They focused on how she manipulated the shadows to create different effects and practiced later with their own puppets.
Along the way, the students decided that telling the story and doing a puppet show at the same time would be a bit much, so they settled on recording the story and doing the puppet show live. We invited our primary classrooms to come watch the practice shows and asked for feedback to help them perfect the performances before they were shared at our community event, The Education Celebration. In addition to their performances, students shared the process with the audience. They used our project wall to explain what we did and then reflected on what they learned, what they enjoyed about the work and any challenges they faced along the way.
Lesson Learned About Student Buy-In
Last year, I learned a valuable lesson about how important student buy-in and relevance are when implementing PBL. Two years ago, my students were very vocal about how unhappy they were with our playground space. It was mostly dirt with very little shade and had a very sad look to it. We talked a lot about what kind of changes they would like to see and came up with some great ideas, but just didn’t have enough time left in the year to do anything about it.
My grade level team thought it would make for a great PBL unit to use with our new students the following year. Boy, were we wrong. The new students were very excited about the playground space and didn’t see much to complain about. It was hard to get them motivated and focused, so we really never moved forward out of the imagine phase. We eventually abandoned the project all together.
Discovering what your students are passionate about, and developing projects related to those things is always a win-win. Just because a project is great, doesn’t always mean it’s great for every group. Get to know your students and involve them in the process as much as possible.
My Work with BIE
The best thing about my National Faculty work is the time I get to spend working with educators across the country and in all grade levels. I have been so inspired by all of the dedicated, hard working teachers I’ve encountered during my PBL 101 workshops and learn something new from every group. It’s pretty great to see them walk out on the third workshop day with excited determination, anxious to get back to their classrooms and implement the projects they’ve been so thoughtfully developing.
One of my favorite quotes these days is “Students don’t care how much you know, until they know how much you care.” Effective teaching has so much to do with relationships, and I firmly believe that when you offer students choice and you share in their passions and allow them to be themselves, it can lead to amazing things. A PBL classroom is a dynamic place where children and their interests are valued. We spend time developing strong minds and the kind of people who will get out in the world and make positive changes for others, in their own special ways. It’s pretty awesome.
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