by Kris Hanks
I have worked as an educator for 16 years in Anne Arundel County, Maryland. In 2007, I began work in a Title 1 school. Along with a visionary principal and thoughtful colleagues, I developed the county’s first elementary STEM lab program. This initiative was met with such enthusiasm by students and staff that it has expanded to a pilot program that focuses on Project Based Learning for elementary students. This program, Enhancing Elementary Excellence or Triple E, brings PBL to students in Prek-5th grade through the lens of STEM, Arts & Humanities, Global Studies and World Cultures & Language. I am privileged to work with an incredible team of teachers that are dedicated to creativity, collaboration and constant innovation. The students in this program are finding their voice and discovering their assets in a joyful environment.
When I began my journey as a STEM teacher, I curated, created and implemented a variety of STEM activities. These activities were engaging for students but I began to wonder if there was a way to dig deeper and have a more lasting impact on students as learners. A quick search for meaningful projects led me to the BIE website and I found the missing pieces. As I began to shape my STEM classroom through the lens of PBL, I found that my students gained even greater insight into the content standards. The content was no longer something they had to learn but something they needed to learn in order to solve problems. Students recognized personal strengths and celebrated successes of peers. From that point on, there was no going back. PBL changed the way that I saw my role as a teacher. Even better, PBL changed how my students saw themselves as learners.
A Favorite Project
One of my favorite projects with students was our “Mission to Mars” module. This STEM project engaged my 5th graders in the driving question, “How can we, as a NASA team, navigate a Rover through a Mars Course?” I created a model of a Mars landscape on the floor of our STEM lab and set the students up in NASA teams. Each team member was assigned a role that required them to create a scaled map of the course, write command dialogue or calibrate a rover. In order to navigate the course successfully, each team member had to communicate and connect with each other.
The interconnectedness of team was critical, all roles depended on each other. As they ran tests on the course, the feedback was immediate. If the rover veered off course, they were forced to check measurement data and commands. The students did not need me to offer feedback for improvement – it was evident in testing and in the cross check between team members. They had to reflect continuously on problems and progress in order to navigate successfully. The students were so invested in finishing the course that self-management was not an issue. They were in it to win it. On our final day the 4th graders were invited to the Mission Launch. They cheered and gasped along with the teams as the rovers moved along our Mars course. Success and struggles were celebrated by all and many of my students reflected that it was some hardest work they had ever done.
Lessons Learned About All Students’ Assets
As I reflected on the “Mission to Mars” project, I was struck by how PBL brought out the strengths of each child. All of my students were able to contribute to this task and the talents of each began to shine as the rigor increased. English Language Learners measured, calibrated and found a real need to build content vocabulary and communicate. Those with learning disabilities found that flexible thinking paid off as there was no one way to solve a problem. Gifted students found that PBL had no ceiling. They could refine and extend ideas without boundaries. Everyone had a role. Each student had a gift. Together the team amplified the talents of the individuals.
Early in my PBL journey, I grouped my students by considering their academic needs. With good intentions, I looked for weaknesses so that I could plan for intervention. The students quickly taught me that PBL allowed them to attack problems through their assets. The authenticity and collaborative nature of the projects allowed them to shine and support each other. Language deficits took a back seat to curiosity and the drive to communicate. Math needs were identified and tackled vigorously as they found the need to apply skills. Passion, talent and strength became the new model for my grouping strategies.
Facilitating Workshops to Exemplify PBL
My favorite part of facilitation is connecting with the educators in the room. The 101 workshop, like any good PBL, encourages the learners in the room to find and communicate interests and expertise. The BIE models uses norms and protocols to support and environment of risk taking and collaboration. It is a particular thrill to see the collaborative tasks and feedback loops begin to clarify for educators what is at the heart of their practice. Effective professional development should mimic the classroom experience. There are goals and deliverables to be met but the learning is always shaped by the humans in the space. The facilitator brings expertise but the collective wisdom of the room is what will lift everyone to new heights.
Deepening My PBL Practice
I found two powerful shifts in my instruction as I deepened my PBL practice. First, teaching in a PBL classroom requires a certain amount of vulnerability. I had to become comfortable with making mistakes and discussing them openly with my students. Perseverance and risk-taking are terms I used often with students but the riskier venture came when I modeled my own perseverance and risk-taking.
Second, I learned to stop hyper-focusing on learning deficits. Identifying needs and scaffolding for students is an important element in meeting learning outcomes. If it becomes the only element considered, then we are missing the opportunities to allow students to shine. These shifts in my practice allowed me to connect to my students on a much deeper level. More importantly, it empowered them to connect to learning on their own beautiful terms.
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