by Jennifer D. Klein
Head of Gimnasio Los Caobos, Colombia
I taught college and high school English for 19 years, including five years in Central America and 11 years in all-girls education, and I hold a principal’s license. I currently consult and coach for several organizations around Project Based Learning and global education, including the Buck Institute for Education, World Leadership School, Asia Society, TakingITGlobal, and the Institute for International Education, and have facilitated workshops in Spanish in Mexico and Central America.
My experience with PBL began in pre-school because I was fortunate enough to be experientially educated from pre-K through 12th grade. I taught for most of my career based on how I was raised, without even realizing I was using pedagogies called global Project Based Learning. Student-driven learning is just the way I think about the classroom, and it always has been. I believe strongly that we need young leaders who think differently about the world’s problems, and we aren’t going to foster such leaders through “sit and get” forms of education.
What has most inspired me over the years have been those moments of purpose and innovation we see in students when we create the conditions for self-motivated learning and then get out of their way. I’ve seen many former students go on to do great things that benefit their communities, and this inspires me to continue the journey.
For example, one of my very first alums, from my early years teaching high school in Costa Rica, recently developed an initiative called “Rutas Naturbanas” that will revitalize the watersheds of San José to reduce crime and trash and to create a network of biking and walking paths across this very congested city. When I see a student like Federico create a new solution to an old problem, I know that student-centered learning actually can change the world (see more).
Two Favorite Projects
One of my favorite projects over the years came from a former kindergarten teacher at Town School for Boys. The driving question was “How might we, as kids in San Francisco, support the rights of children everywhere?” Students explored photographs from a partner community in rural Sierra Leone, did lots of “see, think, wonder” routines, and emailed back and forth with leaders in the community to get their questions answered because their counterparts didn’t have access to computers, internet or even electricity.
The kids in San Francisco decided to create and send paper hands to Sierra Leone, decorated with messages about the rights they felt were most important for all children to have. My favorite final answer came from a 5-year-old named Caden, who wrote (with the help of his 4th grade buddy), “I hope that everybody gets access to fresh water. I want to keep learning about access to fresh water so that I can make a solution when I’m older.” Besides teaching kindergarteners about the realities of poverty in Sierra Leone, the project clearly fostered a deep curiosity and sense of empathy for the experiences of other children in the world.
Another favorite project comes from Ashely Johnson at the Madeira School in Virginia. In her 11th and 12th grade science class, students were posed with the question, “How can we share the responsibility of solving borderless problems the world is facing?” In the fall of 2014, Ashley’s students decided to focus their efforts on the Ebola crisis in West Africa. They explored the science of Ebola, learned about its causes and prevention, and created a full-length documentary to explain Ebola to people in North America who, in the opinion of the students, were panicking over very few cases in the U.S., often satirizing the disease while thousands were dying in West Africa.
During a Skype call with local leaders in Sierra Leone, students were asked to create a second product, a PSA for use in Sierra Leone, which provided information in English and Mende, the local language, about how to prevent Ebola. The film was shown repeatedly on local television for a month at the heat of the crisis, and helped many people avoid contagion in the region. It’s an exceptional example of creating an authentic product for a very real audience who directly benefitted from the students’ efforts.
A “Fail Forward” Moment
For several years in my own 9th grade English classroom, students had the opportunity to craft creative responses to the driving question, “Do you agree with William Golding that we are ‘suffering from the terrible disease of being human?’” during our study of Lord of the Flies. The first time I tried this approach, students decided to create short films with their answers. Because of my concern over maintaining high expectations in creative products, I created a minimum time requirement: four minutes if working alone, eight minutes if working with a partner.
The resulting films were excellent, but all were very poorly paced, some moving through material so slowly that they were agonizing to watch. I asked my students about the problem in our final reflection, pointing out that they’d identified pacing as a central criterion for good film making, to which my students replied that I’d created the problem with my minimum time requirement. “You have no idea how long four minutes is, Ms. Klein, much less eight,” they told me. That winter break, I took their advice to heart and tried to create my own four-minute film to answer the same question—and they were totally right. After that, we still set a minimum time for all films, but my students and I set it together, sometimes even adjusting it mid-project if necessary. Student films improved significantly—all because I learned how to learn alongside my students and give student voice the importance it deserves.
Facilitating Teacher Learning
I find it deeply inspiring to facilitate workshops that help teachers move toward these powerful forms of education, whether or not their projects have a global focus. When I see a teacher have a major breakthrough, or suddenly recognize that a lack of choice is why engagement is low, it encourages me to believe that this kind of change is possible for all teachers, across all disciplines and grade levels. I had a teacher approach me once, early on Day One of BIE’s PBL 101 workshop, to tell me he now realized that all of his daughter’s projects had been dessert—which he knew because he had done them all for her, at home, the night before they were due.
PBL can feel like an experience in organized chaos, but seeing ourselves as learners alongside our students—and trusting them to lead themselves forward with our support—is one of the most powerful shifts an educator can make. Doing so opens the doors to independent, divergent thinking and the kinds of innovative ideas that really do make the world a better place, such as those of Boyan Slat, a young Dutchman who is innovating to clean up the plastic in our oceans. I believe there are dozens of potential Boyan Slats in every classroom, just waiting for their passions and talents to be fostered. Our students are hungry for such experiences, for an education that avoids the “drill and kill” of test-oriented culture and instead emphasizes growth, process, and meaning. All we have to do is trust our students a little more, create the conditions for independent inquiry, and get the heck out of their way.
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