by Katrina Martinez
Born and raised in Texas, you can bet that I bleed burnt orange... “Hook ‘em!” Upon completion of my undergraduate degree at The University of Texas at Austin I began my teaching career in lower elementary. Shortly after seeking a M.Ed in Curriculum & Instruction, I left the ISD world and embarked on the educational leadership journey with a charter school organization in Dallas, TX. I’m now Director of Elementary Curriculum & Instruction at Legacy Preparatory Charter Academy, responsible for adopting district-wide initiatives and overseeing the implementation of programs, and the professional development of the educators in the areas of Project Based Learning, Dual Language Immersion, Engineering and Guided Reading, to name a few.
How I Got Into PBL
PBL found me! Although having implemented projects during my teaching years, I know now that they were faux projects, or as BIE refers to them, ”dessert projects.” It wasn’t until I fell into the charter world that I got exposure to true Project Based Learning and the elements necessary to produce effective, meaningful learning. With the ability to bring alternative learning methodologies to our scholars that we were not seeing in traditional ISDs, it was decided that PBL would be the most impactful route. Thus, the road to quality professional development, project implementation, organizational and community networking, and forward failures began!
I am a full supporter of PBL because of its focus not only on academic achievement but on culture and whole child development as well. The elements of quality project design allow for students to deepen their learning and remain interested and committed to their work. What truly inspires me about Gold Standard PBL is that although PBL aspires to make a community impact, and it certainly does, it makes the greatest impact on our inheritors.
Two Favorite Projects (& One Lesson Learned)
Our lower elementary teams truly plunged into authentic PBL projects during last school year. Due to their success, the momentum is alive and well this year!
Planet Nine was a kindergarten project that focused heavily on science and language arts content. The challenge was for the scholars to investigate objects in the sky and our solar system, and create a media announcement in the form of a newspaper headline for their findings. Facilitators (teachers) had already conducted pre-work and discovered that recent astronomers revealed that there could be a potential new planet. Adding to the value of this is current event, scholars researched the history of planets, specifically Pluto, and what characteristics were required to be considered a planet. Additionally, scholars gained an understanding of different types of media as they reviewed headlines from Pluto being dismissed and modern-day headlines around “Planet Nine.” Although Planet Nine had been broadcast through many forms of media. The media focus was on newspaper headlines, which they created as a part of their final product. For this project scholars were engaged and challenged through the driving question of, “How can we, as astronomers, study the solar system so that we can make new discoveries?” and the entry event of investigating and making observations about a telescope.
Although the Planet Nine project displayed an authentic connection and had the bones of a high quality project, the focus along the way missed the mark. While the final project allowed for a news caption informing audiences of this remarkable possibility, one of the formative checkpoints along the way was the creation of a solar system model. Allowing this as a formative assessment opportunity within the project, largely pushed and supported by the teachers, became too much of a “dessert” focus and overshadowed the final product. Unfortunately, there was evidence that the specificity of the state standard may have driven the idea of the project, but was not referred to enough or referenced purposefully throughout the project design.
Another all-time favorite that has flourished into a more authentic project with continuous reflection, critique and revision over the last 3 years or so is a first grade project titled Disney Characters. The literary genre based project presented the driving question of, “How can we, as authors, create a storyline that will captivate Disney audiences?”
With the plot setting in outer space (to address science standards), a class product representative of original characters, setting, and plot was co-created amongst teachers and scholars. The writing of the original fairy tale underwent the five steps of the writing process: draft, writing, editing, illustrating, and publishing. Scholars contributed illustrations for the story. A video of Walt Disney himself paired with a letter from Disney addressed to the scholars’ class came together to launch the project. Additionally, students were able to participate in a live wax museum as they presented their original creation of characters and justification as to why their character should be cast for the final product of the proposed fairy tale. Talk about engagement!
My Work as a BIE Facilitator
When facilitating a 101 workshop, I tend to tell the participants that Day 1 will usually confirm why PBL for them, Day 2 will push their thinking to a degree that may have them asking, “Why PBL?!”, and by the end of Day 3 we will be hugging and crying tears of joy for our new understanding, knowledge and accomplishments! In working with BIE, I enjoy the relationships that it allows me to build with clients, specifically when I get the opportunity to return to a school or organization following a 101 workshop, to continue the PBL momentum with BIE’s Sustained Support Visits.
As I mentioned earlier, PBL is an opportunity for teachers and organizations to fail forward. The fact that you have taken the leap to begin the PBL journey is already a cut above the rest. Be patient, devote an adequate amount of time, ask for assistance, breathe, and most of all...have fun! STAY CALM AND GET YOUR PBL ON!
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