by Myla Lee
After facilitating a PBL World 101 Workshop, a participant wrote me a brief note on a Post-it. It simply said, “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” I carry that note with me in my journal. It captures the essence of me as a PBL practitioner, professional learning facilitator, instructional coach, and colleague.
PBL Specialist and Instructional Coach
As the instructional coach in Novi Community Schools, I provide job-embedded or group professional learning opportunities to its educators. I coach teachers on their teaching practices, and teachers consult with me as their PBL resource. In 2013, I left the classroom after twenty-three years for a special two-year assignment as the Project Based Learning Specialist with Technology Integration for our district. After four years of implementing and refining PBL in my own classroom, it was time to pay it forward and help others.
Through a grant funded initiative, I was charged with supporting a cohort of teachers in Project Based Learning. This grassroots approach was based on the willingness of sixteen teachers to take that first step in their PBL journey, with me as their cheerleader and their teacher. With over 300 community members in attendance, the teachers and their students showcased their learning at the end-of-the-year Project Palooza. Since then, our initial cohort of 16 has grown to over 100 teachers volunteering to learn about PBL. Both in my former role as PBL Specialist and currently, as the instructional coach, helping teachers shift their thinking towards a more student-centered culture of inquiry is an essential aspect of my work.
Reflective Practitioner: My PBL Unit of Favorite Fails
I must admit, one of my favorite PBL units was far from my best. My very first third grade unit, the “Amazing Race,” was one I adapted from a unit that was more dessert than main course. It was an integrated literacy and social studies unit that was heavy on student voice, student choice, and success skills; however, it was light on content standards and had a weak driving question to launch the inquiry. It looked fantastic on paper, but in hindsight it lacked some of the best practices of Gold Standard PBL. It was more of a simulation and didn’t have the authenticity in process and product that I would expect from my PBL teachers now.
I had also made it too complex for my first project implementation, so orchestrating project management was at times overwhelming. In terms of individual accountability, I could have done a better job formatively assessing students as well as providing more time for revision after each of the critiques. These shortcomings were the signs of a newbie teacher implementing PBL for the very first time. But despite all this, my students survived, were engaged, and had FUN.
So, why would I claim this to be one of my all-time favorite PBL units? It was my PBL unit of favorite fails. From management to assessment, with each mistake I made I learned a lesson, a “gold nugget” of wisdom, that sparked questions such as “Why did this happen? How do I know the students are learning? How can I make this more student-centered?” The gift I gave myself was time to reflect throughout and after the project. Those small, but sometimes monumental, stumbling blocks remain at the forefront of my mind and guide my instruction of teachers beginning their journey in PBL. Novice projects will NOT be perfect. Please accept that fact. What will make a difference is taking the time to reflect and transform those first fails to epic lessons learned.
PBL-ing Professional Learning
Two years ago, one of my colleagues, Sherry Griesinger, a second grade teacher in my original PBL Teacher cohort, said to me, “I finally figured out what’s been happening with my learning. You’ve been PBL-ing me all this time.” What does that mean? Sherry explained that every professional learning opportunity I provided began with an open-ended question to spark curiosity. She was at times frustrated that I never gave her the answers and pushed her thinking to be innovative and creative. Reflection and critique of each other’s work became part of our professional learning culture. Collaboration was encouraged and learning was celebrated. In other words, I was modeling, interacting, and providing opportunities for her and others to engage in learning that was relevant and rigorous.
As a classroom teacher, I knew the foundation of successful PBL was a rich student-centered culture. The same holds true for teachers. Most teach how they learned, which for the most part was a more traditional lecture style. Learning for teachers needed to be more innovative as well. My PBL-ing professional learning recipe continues to include the following ingredients: the authentic lessons learned as a practitioner, a growth mindset acquired as a student-centered learner, and professional learning gained by immersing myself in organizations like the Buck Institute for Education.
The BIE National Faculty: My Tribe
Sir Ken Robinson, author of The Element, a book on how to find work you’re passionate about, argued that your tribe is essential in helping you find your element. Tribe members share ideas with and affirm one another, driving fellow members to explore the true potential of their talents. In those moments when tribe members with common interests collaborate, a synergy is formed; they are able to create something beyond what any of them individually could have produced. For me, BIE’s National Faculty has become “my tribe.” Seven years ago, I attended my first National Faculty Summit and was humbled by the talent, professionalism, and wisdom represented at my table and in the room. Being on the National Faculty has given me opportunities to work with phenomenal educators nationally and internationally. Through these opportunities, I have learned about people and myself as thinkers and learners, which has further propelled me along my PBL journey.
My PBL journey of a thousand miles began with a single step: my PBL project of favorite fails. Before you begin or continue YOUR journey, here is my simple advice.
It all starts with a step.
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