by Gabriel Fernandez
I am committed to seeing that marginalized student populations have access to powerful, transformative pedagogy. I have led implementation of Project Based Learning in two continuation schools and one comprehensive high school—all in traditional school districts.
I got initial exposure to PBL at Camino Nuevo Charter Academy when I received Buck Institute training in the early 2000’s. It left a mark on my mind and soul that it was the right pedagogy for the students in Macarthur Park, who I was serving at the time as a teacher. Later, thanks to a UCLA Teacher Initiated Inquiry Project Grant, I was able to share the same PBL 101 experience with a committed group of teachers at North Park Continuation School in Baldwin Park. I had a hunch that continuation school students needed to be engaged differently in the classroom to succeed; Project Based Learning definitely engaged the minds and hearts of kids who had given up on traditional schooling.
What inspires me most about PBL is the excitement you see in students’ eyes as they work together to solve complex problems that have meaning for the communities they live in. I have seen teachers at different grade levels and subjects implement their own passions as teachers in the classroom. Project Based Learning truly empowers students and teachers with authenticity and creativity at the core, but at the same time continues to develop critical thinking and students’ abilities to transfer learning to new contexts.
A Favorite Project
One of my favorite projects was an 11th-12th grade school safety project that English and math students collaborated on. The challenge was to examine the conditions around a local elementary school that determined student pedestrian safety before and afterschool and then make recommendations to the school principal and local school board to address concerns in the conditions. The major student product was a traffic analysis of student arrival and departures from the elementary school over a two-week period. Student work was made public to the school principal and teachers. The students were excited to see that math and expository writing made a difference to challenges in their own community.
Another of my favorite projects is seeing a group of 11th and 12th grade leadership students doing a literacy mentor project with local kindergartners. The driving question is, “How can high school students engage and develop younger students in learning how to read?” The students are using PBL unit and lesson planning techniques in designing their own small group teaching assignments to kindergarten students. The continuation school students have taken on a significant challenge and been rewarded with younger student excitement and engagement. The work has been made public on social media through the district’s public relations firm.
Lesson Learned About Voice & Choice
Once as a high school English teacher I had spent roughly a month planning an in-depth project with lots of pre-screened resources for students to investigate a relevant social issue and design an advertising campaign and letter writing drive to influence legislation at the national level.
Right after the entry event, students decided they did not want their voice and choice limited by my carefully chosen and designed project idea—instead they wanted to go in depth with issues of their own concern. I had to adapt on the spot and adjust my planning to account more for student voice and choice. In the end, the students were appreciative of my flexibility. I learned that voice and choice has to be a critical component of planning from the beginning and that one has to be comfortable ceding almost complete control of learning to students sometimes when they are ready to take ownership.
Working with BIE
I’ve learned that the true power of BIE’s 101 workshop is the practical application of best practices in educational theory. Teachers are given the chance to follow their passions and their critical perspectives in designing high quality educational experiences for all students. Feedback and revision are at the heart of the professional development sessions and BIE’s model truly respects the knowledge and experience of every person in the room. I’ve seen Project Based Learning work in multiple school environments—charter schools, continuation schools, and comprehensive district high schools.
I’ve seen teachers get excited about teaching challenging material in more relevant ways and students get excited to collaborate on assignments that have meaning to them beyond the walls of the school. PBL is an engaging and empowering pedagogy that truly is worth the time and effort.