by Erin Sanchez
PBL wasn't exactly a choice for me. Many educators talk about the generations before them that were also teachers—how a parent inspired them to follow in her/his footsteps, or how a grandparent was a brilliant principal. I could tell the same story, only my educator parent started PBL schools and insisted that if I were to follow his path I had to be a disruptive innovator, never settling for school as it is but as the instrument of change and equity it can be. It's a tall order but one I try to fill in my own way.
Student Ownership, By Design
I started my work in a self-directed PBL environment where students design projects from their own passions, align them to standards, carry them out in the world and present before a public audience. There are no classes, no bells and no teachers (they're called advisors) and it spoiled me to teach anywhere else. A student rode a paddleboat down the Mississippi river doing water quality testing and creative writing. A team of students started an embroidery business selling baby blankets (and more) across the midwest. A student brought her horse into the school, packed with community members, to demonstrate hippotherapy techniques, partnering with her classmates with autism. I am continually amazed at what students at Minnesota New Country School do when given the voice and choice they are so capable of exercising.
Proof is in the Practice
I've seen countless projects both on paper, in person, and lived in my classroom and school, and I unabashedly say I don't have a favorite. Sure, I could tell you about the giant 18 week projects that have multiple products, scaffolded in complexity, that involve many community partners and are remembered by students for the rest of their lives. I also see the teachers at the conclusion of those projects shut down, fall apart and shy away from PBL out of pure exhaustion or the desire to save their personal relationships.
I'm much more interested in the small, sustainable projects that teachers and students improve upon and build upon year after year. I love the projects that teachers design to teach content and concepts in a new way, not sure if they will succeed or fail forward. I love the projects that students come up with because they are outraged or emboldened and their teacher runs with it, finding resources and community partners just in time. I love projects that are personalized but not personality-dependent. I love the messiness of the work. I love the projects that make both teachers and students want to immediately do yet another. At the height of my project-based teaching I was able to teach about 80% of my standards through projects. Some were ambitious, some were limited in scope, some were planned by students and interrupted what I thought I was going to teach. The important point was not the particular project but the practice; I was doing PBL for the long haul.
The BIE Gift
When I first experienced a PBL 101 workshop from BIE, I was teaching at a project-based STEM school near Seattle. As a teaching staff, we did some pretty cool stuff but we all designed and implemented projects in vastly different ways and lacked a common language to talk about our work. The 101 revolutionized our practice. BIE gave us the gift of common planning tools, essentials for project design, a revision process and a way to reflect and grow. Students felt part of the process and their engagement went up. In my six years as National Faculty, I try to infuse every PBL 101 I facilitate with the same transformative power. BIE is a practitioner-run, practitioner-fueled organization and we keep improving our understanding of what it takes to do this work well. It never gets stagnant as we strive for Gold Standard PBL.
Present and Future
At my job as a PBL instructional facilitator at a tribal school in Washington State, I support teachers and students new to this practice as they plan and run their first projects alongside tribal elders and community partners. It furthers my belief that it's the small, fledgling projects that take wing over time that are so rewarding. PBL is an instrument of change and I can't wait to see where we take it next.
When Erin is not sharing her enthusiasm for PBL she can be found jumping in the Pacific Northwest's abundant muddy puddles with her daughter.