by Telannia Norfar
I am a math teacher, new teacher mentor and department chair at a high school in Oklahoma City. I have one goal for my students—how to learn, unlearn and relearn (Alvin Toffler). I have used Project Based Learning to teach key concepts and achieve this goal since I started teaching in 2005. In addition to PBL, I believe in using technology, STEAM and differentiation strategies to improve learning.
After a 10+-year corporate career path, I started teaching at a charter high school in Oklahoma City. During my orientation they showed a video that explained Project Based Learning and how they used this method of teaching in all classrooms. I felt like it was a great method and was glad to see that education had moved in this direction. I thought all schools had moved to this method of teaching and was anxious to discover how to apply it in a math classroom.
Hooked on the idea, I used my journalism background to learn more about the methodology. I studied everything I could find and began to fail forward. After three years of working on implementing Project Based Learning, I became an advocate for the model to be best for all students. One particular student—Melody—inspired my advocacy. She was a beautiful young lady who was in jeopardy of dropping out of school. We were not able to work on a cross-curricular project one day and Melody’s usually happy demeanor was turned to anger. After asking her what was wrong, she said, “The only reason why I came to school today was to work on this project.” I could not apologize enough. I knew then how much my classroom practice changed my students’ lives. Now I tell anyone who will listen about the power of Project Based Learning to transform his or her classroom.
As a result of my experience with Melody, the “Food Project” will always be one of my favorite projects. It was a 9th grade collaboration between math, ELA, science and social studies. It was my first project that I did with other colleagues. It is also the only time where I documented the process of designing a project. The students were challenged with making a proposal to the high school principal on how to redesign the cafeteria. The proposal included a recommended menu and layout of the cafeteria. The recommendations were grounded in evidence collected via surveys, scientific lab results, and examination of the cultures of the school. The school was going to be remodeled the next year and the winning team’s ideas were used in the redesign.
Another favorite project is based upon the high connection to my content and my students’ interest—the cell phone project. All of my students are tied to their cell phones, so they were challenged to answer the question: “How do you choose the best cell phone plan?” Cell phone plans have a clear linear relationship that students can dig into deeply. Each time I have done this project with my 9th grade Algebra I students, the engagement is high from the time it is introduced until they informed the Parent-Teacher-Student Association representatives of their answer to the DQ. Students worked to create a brochure that helped anyone understand how to choose the best cell phone plan.
My final favorite project was students helping a local family. The Cumby family needed to build a home that met their dynamic needs. They had two daughters and twin sons. One of the sons was severely disabled. As the students answered the question of how can they design a home for the Cumby family, they worked with an engineer and construction owner to understand 2D and 3D design in a real context. The students created a blueprint, 3D model, and a proposal for the family. They presented their results to a panel of judges.
A “Fail Forward” Moment
My most embarrassing project was Expressions Everywhere. It was my intention to have students convert situations in the world into an algebraic expression that will be shared on the school website. The students were very polite during the entry event showing moderate engagement. By day 3, I could tell that the content was not deep enough, its authenticity was nonexistent and the inquiry was shallow. My students’ faces were showing signs of pain. I asked one of my students to share honestly what he thought of the task. He said, “To be honest, it is pretty bad.” I thanked him and ended the project. I realized that sometimes it is just not a good project and it is nothing wrong with ending it.
My Work with BIE
Just as I have learned from my own classroom practice, I have been able to grow through helping other educators join me on the PBL journey. Teachers are implementing some amazing strategies in their classroom. They discover that PBL only enhances their work and allows them to really help all students succeed.
There are a few words of wisdom that I offer to teachers during PBL training. One is don’t give up on PBL when things go wrong. There are going to be mistakes and it has hard times but don’t give up on it. My next tip is to take it one Essential Project Design Element at a time if you may discover it’s hard for you to do all of them. Rather than not do it all, try a few elements. Eventually, you will be doing all elements, which is true PBL. On the flip side, you may do all seven elements right out of the gate but a few of the elements end up being weak. Pick one of the poorly implemented elements, revise it and try it again. PBL is a journey not a destination. It is one of the best journeys I have in my life.
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