I spent fourteen years in the secondary classroom as a social studies teacher, department chair, and career academy coordinator. Throughout my teaching tenure, I implemented Project Based Learning in my Advanced Placement classes, my honors classes, my co-taught special education classes, and for every class in between. Through this, I learned that an authentic approach to PBL was an important way to empower my learners to want to try to effect change in their world.
It was a hard decision when I left the classroom nearly five years ago. However, my continuing journey has allowed me to work with teachers from all over the world and spend time writing. My first book, Authentic Learning Experiences: A Real-World Approach to Project Based Learning paved the way for my latest series of books. The first in the series, Developing Natural Curiosity Through Project Based Learning: 5 Strategies for the PreK-3 Classroom is currently in production. It is my first co-author experience with Jill Ackers, a fellow National Faculty member. In my spare time, I am a doctoral student in Instructional Technology at Sam Houston State University, a program that uses a Project Based Learning approach!
My Start in PBL
I was using a PBL-ish approach early in my teaching career and long before I knew it had a name. It was just good teaching, in my opinion. However, about four years into my teaching career, I participated in a professional development planning day that required us to use an audience for a project that we were asked to develop. That was what really sparked my belief that students had the potential to effect change if they were connected to an audience that was authentic to the work that they were doing.
In 2008, I was part of a grant program called Classrooms for the Future that was sponsored by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. That program propelled me even further in my quest to connect my curriculum to authentic work. I also discovered how to tie my curriculum to the use of technology in such a way to push my students to the creation level of Bloom’s, rather than simply doing a research paper in disguise. Now, nearly a decade later, I am inspired by the teachers with whom I connect and the ways in which they push themselves to discover the ties between their own curriculum and authentic challenges.
A Favorite Project
I always struggled with how to teach my 12th grade law students how the appellate court system worked. It usually ended up being a boring two days of lecture and case studies with a video thrown into the mix. Then, I stumbled on the organization, The Innocence Project. It inspired me to change my approach, even if they weren’t open to my students working on a case with them!
I had my students use case studies from the Innocence Project as a scaffolding tool to focus on our driving question: How can we bring attention to the plight of innocent individuals who have been wrongfully convicted? The real meat of the project was when my six teams of students investigated six inmates in the Pennsylvania system who claimed they were innocent of the crime for which they had been convicted. My students read hundreds of pages of court transcripts, interviewed people involved in the cases, and came up with an action plan to bring attention to their case, if they did in fact believe they were innocent. If they determined they were not, the group created a general action plan for the plight of those who are wrongfully convicted.
The range of end products were diverse, as was the authentic audience. I had one group of students that contacted the governor. One group wrote to Dateline NBC to ask them to do an expose on the case. Another group wrote a series of articles for a local paper. In short, my second semester seniors, who were enrolled in an elective class that they didn’t need to graduate, were engaged throughout the entire process. It was a true moment that exhibited the power of Project Based Learning.
A Fail Forward Project
I was inspired to create an interdisciplinary project after viewing a program at the National Constitution Center. I was so excited about the project that I dove right into the planning. After I planned the project, I approached the other teacher with whom I wanted to work on implementing the project. He seemed excited, as well. However, about four days into the project, my students were crying and begging me to give up on the project. It turned out that the other teacher, and therefore his students, weren’t invested in the project. Upon reflection, I realized the lack of investment was due to the lack of inclusion on the planning. Had I approached the teacher and invited him to co-plan the project, I think the project would have been successful. It was a great learning moment for me.
Just like students in a classroom, not every teacher walks into a professional development session with the same background knowledge. It is important to remember this and differentiate for teachers, as needed. It is also important to honor the work that teachers do. We shouldn’t ask teachers to start from scratch, but rather ask them to take the really great stuff that they are doing and level it up to make it more authentic.
Moving to a Project Based Learning approach is not an overnight transformation. It takes hard work to plan and even harder work to facilitate, but the benefits far outweigh the costs. We must realize that we can never plan the perfect project. A project implementation must be a fluid process on which we reflect and revise, often on the fly. Once we become comfortable with this fact, we open ourselves up to the limitless possibilities that empower our learners.
For information about BIE’s professional development services, click here.
Do you have questions or comments? Please enter them below.