by Kristy Lathrop
I’m an “Army Brat” - my father was in the army, and we lived in places all around the United States and overseas. Through our travels, I learned how important it is to be connected to a community. Without community, learning rings hollow. I continue to hold that belief, and one of the first things I do with a group of students, teachers, or coaches is to lay the groundwork for a solid community of learning.
I began my teaching career as a very traditional science teacher: I lectured, my students took notes, we did labs, and each unit ended with a test. I had great relationships with my students, but the learning felt empty. This led me to investigate Project Based Learning, and I began to implement it in pieces in my classroom.
I remember the moment at which I realized that Project Based Learning was impacting my students. Cody was an 8th grade student in my science class. He was the type of learner who only raised his hand to ask, “Can I go to the bathroom?” One day during a project on energy, Cody approached me. He said, “Mrs. Lathrop, I went home and told my parents that our country should be investing in wind energy. I feel this needs to happen because…” I was floored! Cody was able to advocate for his belief, and support it with research-based evidence. It was at that moment that I became a full believer in the power of PBL.
I love PBL because it empowers students to make an impact. It also teaches students how to think and use the skills that are necessary to succeed in today’s economy. Most importantly, PBL is a vehicle for creating community, and it is through community that students find their identity, and belonging.
One of My Projects, and My Daughter’s Project
My favorite project from my time in the classroom was an energy project. The project was a collaboration between my students and classrooms in Missouri, Australia, and Peru. The students formed international research teams, and were challenged to explore various forms of energy. They contacted energy professionals/experts, managed their research asynchronously online, and prepared for a synchronous debate. Besides learning the required science and research standards, our students discovered:
Besides being a PBL practitioner and advocate, I am also a Project Based Learning parent. It has been exciting to experience PBL from “the other side,” and I’ve been inspired by the innovation her teachers exhibit. My daughter and I are both hearing impaired and wear hearing aids. Last year, the Deaf and Hard of Hearing teacher at my daughter’s preschool led her through a project experience. She was challenged to be able to explain why she wears hearing aids. The project incorporated literacy standards and her teacher helped my daughter to read books as part of her research. They took photos of my daughter’s equipment, and created a picture book together that my daughter read to the class. I love this project for several reasons:
A Lesson Learned About Managing Teams
I taught on a middle school team in an IB school, and I collaborated with my humanities partner on a project. We thought that it would be possible for our students to experience a project in both of our classes simultaneously, and allowed our students to pick their teams. Unfortunately, we didn’t account for student schedules, and some stereotypical middle school dispositions. If a student chose a group in their science class, they might not share humanities with those people. This made for class periods where some students wasted time, because they couldn’t continue without their partners present. Through this experience, we learned that we needed to:
My Work with BIE
Facilitating workshops for BIE has been an incredible experience. The energy and experience that participants bring to each session is invigorating - I feed off of it! I challenge myself to use each session to build a cohort: a team that is made of individuals who are transparent, encouraging, and willing to help one another make learning better for students. One of the exit tickets I use is to ask participants at the end of the day what inspired them, and I am elated when they respond that they were inspired not by something I said, but by someone else in the room. I also benefit from these connections. I feel that each conversation I have with educators helps me to grow - as a learner and as a person. Teachers are amazing people!
The Fellowship of the (PBL) Ring
I like to use stories to make sense of the world, and one of my favorites is the Lord of the Rings. There are similarities in our journey to the one experienced by those characters:
The journey towards Gold Standard Project Based Learning is long, hard, and may seem impossible. Surround yourself with a fellowship of other educators and be intentional in cultivating that community. There will be successes, and you should celebrate those together. There will be setbacks, and you will struggle. Embrace the struggle, because it is through struggle that we are refined. Above all, don’t be afraid to take that first step away from comfort, no matter how small that step is, because every journey begins with a single step.
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