by Kristyn Kamps
I have worked in the field of education for almost thirty years, first as an elementary teacher and then as a middle school science, technology, English, and social studies teacher. I most recently taught in Holland, Michigan, and since moving to Grand Rapids, my focus has shifted from teaching in a classroom to working with teachers as an instructional coach and workshop facilitator. I love learning and I am currently pursuing my master’s degree in the area of curriculum and instruction. My graduate courses continue to confirm the need for moving toward a greater contextualization of content that provides richer, more meaningful learning experiences for our students—exactly what happens when students engage in Gold Standard PBL!
While I thoroughly enjoyed my twelve years of teaching elementary students, it was my middle school students who helped me grow the most as an educator. Their need to understand the “why” behind the work was what pushed me toward Project Based Learning.
To this day, my favorite project is an eighth grade science project dealing with power plant efficiency. The project began with a trip to the local coal-burning plant, where my students met with the general plant manager. He explained the challenges he and his staff faced as the machinery and process were growing outdated and lacked the efficiency needed to produce the highest amount of power possible. He then charged my students with the task of creating a more viable plan for meeting the community’s future energy needs. Students spent the next several weeks connecting with overseas experts through email to find out how other comparable communities were meeting their power needs.
Student focus groups analyzed and synthesized the collected information into a proposed solution that was presented to the directors of the power plant. As it turns out, my students’ proposed plan was very similar to a plan the directors had been considering! The directors were so impressed, they invited a small team of students to present their findings at a city council meeting later that spring. My students’ work on a real-world problem had led them to produce a real-world solution. My students were struck by how meaningful the work felt, and that authenticity made all the difference.
Tech Fail = Learning Experience
Of course, projects don't always go as planned—as was the case when my students were creating websites to support a Pure Michigan tourism campaign. After weeks of work (and just prior to their sites going live) we learned of a change to the school network that meant the website application we had used to build the sites would no longer be supported and their websites could not be launched. The situation was upsetting; however, as a class we were able to unpack the disappointment that comes with unexpected setbacks and obstacles. In the end, thanks to the tenacity and motivation of a few students (who, on their own time, did the necessary research and reformatting work necessary to allow the sites to go live) the websites were able to be published. Through that project, we not only learned required content, we also the value of perseverance and collaboration to reach a collective goal.
My Work With BIE
Facilitating BIE professional development has provided me with an amazing opportunity to connect with teachers and school systems nationally and internationally. The work has stretched my understanding of what Project Based Learning requires in a variety of contexts and with a wide range of student needs and abilities. The PBL 101 workshop is an intense but enlightening experience, and I am inspired by the participants who come wanting to create projects that will motivate students and help those students make better sense of their world. I especially enjoy the chance to work with those same teachers in follow up support visits, when we can delve deeper into project plans and determine how to structure the work on a day-to-day basis so that it best meets the needs of all learners. It is extremely satisfying to hear teachers talk about how excited they are to go back to their classrooms and implement their project plans with their students!
Teachers are the very best people to work with—they have high expectations for themselves and for their students. That being said, my advice to teachers just getting started with PBL is to be kind to yourself. Learning IS messy; the only perfect project is the project that never gets taught. As you implement and work out the inevitable kinks in your project plan, you will be learning alongside your students, and there is no better way to help students feel free to intellectual risks than when they see you doing the same. Model for your students what true learning looks like, talk about how you are facing challenges and moving forward. Not only will your students respect your honesty, they will experience firsthand one of the most important lessons of all: what it means to be a lifelong learner.
For information about BIE’s professional development services, click here.
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