by Krystal Diaz
Project Based Learning came into my life when I wasn’t sure I wanted to be a teacher anymore. I was tired of feeling uninspired. I was tired of the boring same ol’, same ol’. I was tired of measuring my success by how quietly my students could sit in their seats. PBL allowed me to place ownership in the hands of students and create an environment that my students wanted to be in… an environment that I wanted to teach in. PBL has transformed my classroom into a space where students authentically engage in the world around them and continuously reflect on their learning. Reflection is an essential project design element of Gold Standard PBL. I believe that reflection is a powerful piece of the educational experience that often gets overlooked.
Every teacher can relate to being in a hurry. The school year can feel like one big race! We are in a hurry to move on to the next standard, the next book, the next lesson, and consequently we just don’t make time to reflect. This comes at a great cost as we fail to tap into the social emotional learning necessary for student success. I learn best when I am given time to process and make meaningful connections to what I am learning about. This is the case for all learners. We need time to develop the competencies highlighted in Social Emotional Learning:
In my 10th grade English class, we have been working on developing a growth mindset, realizing that in order to grow our intelligence, we have to treat it like a muscle that needs exercising. My students and I have used continuous reflection to exercise our brains. While we make space for daily reflection through blogging, class discussions, and journaling, each quarter we make time for more personal and meaningful reflection. This year, we used the New Tech Network’s Agency Rubric for High School as a tool to guide reflection, which aligns well with the above SEL competencies.
Using the rubric quarterly, my students thought about areas of growth and successes to be celebrated. Students were individually able to track year-long growth by setting personal goals and thinking about their progress toward achieving these goals. Once students individually reflect, I meet with them for a one-on-one conference to discuss their progress and areas they would still like to target.
I have a student named John who suffers from extreme anxiety. His anxiety makes it difficult for him to connect with his project group members and he will often self-isolate when dealing with stress. I made it a point to honor John’s need to self-isolate, but felt disheartened every time he did. He would place himself in the corner, head down, covering most of his face with the hoodie of his sweatshirt. My first priority was to make sure he felt safe. Sometimes, he wouldn’t even say a word to me when I asked, “Are you okay?” I felt like a failure, I didn’t know how to make a connection. I didn’t know how to help him.
Though I felt disillusioned, I never gave up on John. Neither did John’s teammates. Throughout the year our class engaged in the restorative practice of “Classroom Circles” to build our PBL classroom culture. Circle Time allows students the space to be seen, heard, and respected. It was during Circle Time, one day, that a few of John’s classmates shared how they hoped John was okay and really wanted him to know he was an important member of their group. John did not respond but he was listening. His teammates demonstrated genuine concern and empathy.
A few days later, during our one-on-one conference, I asked John to tell me about his progress. As always, he didn’t say much, but he did say he wanted to focus on two specific sections of the rubric, 1) Build Relationships, and 2) Actively Participate. I followed with, “How do you plan on developing these skills?” and he replied, “not running away.”
For the next two weeks I watched John work with his team during a project. John identified a strategy to help him when he was feeling anxious, which was to simply say, “I need a minute.” His teammates would allow him a minute to doodle in his notebook with the expectation that he would only take a minute. I checked in with his teammates regarding their needs as well and made sure they had reasonable expectations of John. I gave feedback on their progress. I allowed them to give each other feedback. I complimented their maturity and teamwork.
As a result, John pushed himself when it was difficult. He stayed. I made sure to let him know that I noticed. I saw a mature young man who set a goal and met that goal. I saw a reflective young man who stayed. John demonstrated that growth is more important than perfection and change takes courage and a willingness to “stay.” These are the moments teachers live for - moments like these are the reason we stay!
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