by Michael Niehoff
I have been a secondary educator for 25 years, mostly in the high school environment as a teacher, advisor, director of activities, learning director and site leader. After an initial career for several years in the media industry, I became an educator to empower students to create, innovate and advocate. I am currently the Career Technical Education Manager at the College of the Sequoias, a community college in Visalia, in California's San Joaquin Valley.
All of my early experiences as a high school media teacher have influenced my educational pedagogy of PBL, student voice and choice, career technical education, real world applications and community connectedness. I was the founding principal of the award-winning, 1:1, project-based Minarets High School/Minarets Charter High School that opened in 2008. Additionally, I am a freelance education writer for such online entities as Odysseyware, Educational Technology & Mobile Learning, USC Rossier Online, GreyEdSolutions, Ed Social Media and many others. I also have my own edu blog entitled Edu Change & Student Advocacy. I am a Google Certified Innovator and CUE Lead Learner who regularly presents on contemporary and progressive education issues.
As a student, and a professional, I was always attracted to contributing to real world solutions and improving the lives of others. It began in media and then extended to education. In all arenas, I realized the most powerful thing I could do was to inspire and empower others to take on things that were meaningful, impactful and real. Through advising student media, I experienced the power of student voice and engagement. As a leadership teacher, I experienced the power of service learning and having students address real world challenges and issues.
I always had faith and confidence in youth. But I think PBL greatly influenced and strengthened that. Nothing is more powerful and inspiring than seeing young people take charge of their learning, careers and lives through meaningful and engaging work. For too long, too much of education has been removed and isolated from the real world. The time has come—socially, culturally, technologically and economically—for all students to be engaged in what they do and have the opportunity to change the world through their learning experiences. That’s the power of PBL.
When I reflect, I have so many favorite project memories. As a media teacher, I was very proud of my students who took on campus and community issues related to racism, suicide, education and more. As a leadership teacher/activities director, my students focused on service learning projects. Indeed, my students in 1999 created a diversity talent show entitled HARMONY that still exists today to promote equity and acceptance for special educational students and students of color. They also created events that benefit our local children’s hospital, the blood center and many others. They also did amazing passion-based projects called School Improvement Projects that also carry on today.
At Minarets High School, which was completely immersed in PBL pedagogy, we had so many great examples of student work. A project called Senior Legacy Experiences connected to community needs and global issues. We also had an annual portfolio presentation project called the Personal Brand Equity that capped each year for a student, as well as served as a public showcase for their best work. One of my favorite projects was from our history teachers, who first had The History of Anything, then the History of Anything in U.S. History. To this day, I hear from students how their projects impacted and transformed their lives. It gave them confidence and connections and influenced their academic and professional careers in many ways.
Learning from Failure
As we know, PBL is not perfect and indeed is messy by nature. It’s real world work with real world challenges, including failure. There are many times that projects did not go well or accomplish what they intended to. I can remember many projects that did not meet the intended deadline, address the initial issue or driving question and more. However, each time, students learned and reflected upon their growth. To this day, none of the projects that I mentioned above are perfect; they are still evolving and improving. I think PBL demonstrates for kids that work, as well as real learning, is never done and is never perfect. Indeed, it’s what always leaves space for the next generation.
PBL is the Path
Working with BIE, and all of the great educators and schools, in pursuit of PBL is indeed an honor. I think that PBL is truly the path to address all of our educational needs. Whether it’s relevance, engagement, tech integration, new standards, career prep or more, PBL can really do it all. It allows for both teacher and student ownership, creativity and flexibility. To see teachers, as well as their students, become engaged at high levels in their learning and addressing real world challenges gives me hope for the future of schools, as well as our global society.
I firmly believe that PBL is the path for all of our students, educators and schools to truly address the needs of the new economy and global future. Anything short of PBL is just that—short. Students need and deserve these learning opportunities.
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