by Kali Kurdy
Former BIE National Faculty
I taught high school social studies and English for 33.5 years. During those years, my primary assignment was economics, but I taught just about every subject you can imagine within the social studies and language arts curriculum. I left the classroom with a sweet taste in my mouth for a profession, and a school, that had given me a great career. My greatest desire was to give back to it in some small way. In 2010, I started a non-profit called TeachIdaho that supports and advocates for teachers.
Like most of the BIE National Faculty, I always had a tendency to teach students through projects. I loved the “collective brain” approach to learning. Most of my assignments started out as dessert projects, but evolved into Project Based Learning over many iterations. The strength of using a project to demonstrate learning lies in the fact that students can take pride in something they created. I have never seen a student exhibit with great pride a test they took, or a paper they wrote. Visible learning through projects is a powerful way of validating a student’s effort.
About 4 years before I “graduated” (I attended as a student and taught my entire career in the same school) from teaching, I had the opportunity to take a workshop from the Buck Institute for Education. I loved everything about the approach and the idea of using projects to actually teach content started to take shape. My last years of teaching I was completely dedicated to using PBL as a way of “uncovering” material. Even when I taught students in a more traditional manner, I still used many of the elements of PBL within my units. I realized that you can have a PBL culture in your classroom without having to do projects every unit.
Two Favorite Projects
I was fortunate to work in a building that was highly collaborative. We were always looking for ways to approach content from a multi-discipline perspective. In the late 1990s, my colleagues and I began a program for all seniors called Global Citizenship. The students completed activities and mini-projects in each of three subject areas (Economics, American Government, and Senior English), then at the end of the year participated in a Model UN and an International Economic Summit, which was my responsibility. The student’s challenge was to prepare a proposal and a strategic plan that would both benefit “their” country and at the same time garner support from other countries through trade.
Throughout the year, students developed a proposal that would solve a problem in their country or area of the world and come with a plan of alliances and trade that would benefit both their country and alliance countries. The International Summit is where it all played out. We invited volunteers from the community to be scorekeepers and advisors at the summit. In final reflections, students indicated that they not only learned from the experience but that they had fun negotiating and finagling with other countries.
From 1992-2002, three teachers (myself included) created a semester course called Discover Idaho. It combined government, economics, social problems, geology, psychology, forestry, water issues, and much more into a three-hour-plus-lunch block of time each day. The semester was divided into three distinct projects: a group presentation, an individual presentation, and a community project. Students were given research time (one week) to prepare a week’s presentation (15 hours) on a topic of their choosing, including a speaker and a field trip. Then, they were to develop an individual presentation on a problem in the community along with a possible solution. Finally, students had to work with community organizations to provide support or help with a community issue.
The class had 4th grade buddies to whom they taught everything about Idaho that they learned. Many semesters, students choose to work with the school to develop curriculum units on a variety of subjects. Other projects included curriculum for a Human Rights Center, a multi-town evaluation of rural Idaho, and a co-project with a school in north Idaho. Students had to be seniors, but no GPA restriction was part of the application process. Almost to the person, students reflected that this course was the most formative in their school careers.
Lesson Learned about Guest Speakers
We invited a legislator to come speak with the class on a project they were doing with city government. We asked him to come and speak on a very specific subject: registration and voting for 18 year olds. He came in with his own agenda, lecturing the students about everything from youth crime to graffiti—none of which was on the subject. A valuable lesson was learned that day: never set up a situation you can’t control. When using adults from the community as speakers or “experts”, make sure you outline the time frame and the specific questions you want him/her to answer, and make it clear that you can and will re-direct the speaker if need be. Using adults in your classroom is something that teachers are NOT trained to do, so we have to also learn the best way to plan for problems.
My Work as a BIE Facilitator
I love seeing teachers’ eyes when the light switches on and the potential for Project Based Learning becomes real to them. It is so hard to re-adjust your thinking about teaching methodology, especially when you have been in the classroom a long time. Teachers typically view PBL as a radical departure from traditional teaching. It isn’t as much as they think, because traditional methods like lecture and worksheets can all be a part of the learning process through a project. But it is true that few teachers have any experience with inquiry based learning, so working on developing a culture within the classroom for deep learning is an initial challenge.
I am convinced that Project Based Learning is the best way to engage and motivate students. If teachers are hesitant to jump in with both feet, then they can do it incrementally, by starting to establish a culture for inquiry. We still have work to do to deepen learning through projects, but I remain committed to the cause.
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