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by Andre Daughty

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Topic tags: Culture


July 26, 2017
Subtle Things Make or Break a PBL Classroom Culture

I had the honor to read a story during a PBL project in my friend’s classroom. Customary to her classroom, I gave her a hug as she welcomed me back. We stood by the door and as each student walked in, we greeted them with a handshake, dap (fist bump), or a hug. The students took their places ready for the read aloud. Before reading, we reviewed and shared some things great readers do, how those strategies would help us connect the text to our PBL project. As I read the text, we continued to build upon making connections. One student had a great connection building upon another student’s connection. When he spoke he stumbled around what he was trying to say. I stopped him and explained how great readers also connect thoughts with others and provided a quick demonstration with the teacher. While we role played, I could see his eyes light up with understanding and asked for a redo. He tried again and said, “I want to connect and build on what Kierra said…”. Next thing you know, every student who wanted to add on to a thought from another student used similar phrasing.  At the end, students reflected how those connections and phrases from the story could help support our PBL project. The class continued right along with their PBL project as I stayed and participated. Later, the teacher and I debriefed what aspects of a healthy classroom culture are most important to sustain when implementing PBL.

As transformative and meaningful as it is, building a PBL classroom culture can be a scary road at first because culture building looks different in every class. It can look messy, chaotic and/or plain. It can feel comfortable, safe and inspiring or vice versa. It can sound as noisy as a lunchroom cafeteria and quiet as a library. There were subtle things I observed that my friend (perhaps) overlooked even in an amazing classroom like hers, such as:

Embracing the Wiggle
When I was in school, I was THAT wiggler inside the classroom. The students who could sit for hours were deemed perfect little angels as I was considered a jitterbug troublemaker consistently getting corrected. No student learns exactly the same way. Use hand/body movements and hands-on learning during instruction to help those who learn differently.  When your students wiggle during independent and group work time, provide options for them to stand and work. Students naturally become more energetic when they are engaged. Embrace the way your students need to move as it has value in student learning.

Be Intentional About Students’ Race and Culture
Sometimes the small things are overlooked when building culture. Yes, there are educational posters around the room of historical heroes and heroines. How many look like the students inside of your classroom? In you hallways? Your library? How intentional are you in selecting stories with different ethnicities as lead characters? Having only one type of race showcased around the room is a subtle way of not valuing students and the skin they are in. Provide students with books with characters who look like them in the pictures or describe experiences with which they would be familiar, such as in these elementary and secondary books. Imagine having many young women in your classroom who love math and science reading about the women in Hidden Figures and discussing how Black women played a significant role for NASA! 

Honor Every Voice
One of the gold standard design elements is authenticity where PBL Keeps it Real (real world, real work, real-evant/relevant). During our read aloud, a student kept blurting out his connections in his excitement of the story. He saw how the story fit perfectly with the work he was doing in his project.  One of his connections involved Spongebob. The students laughed because they remembered the funny episode. He connected the text to media and kept it real to his world. Another student made a text to text connection with Charlotte’s Web. Both students were given the opportunity to share; however, giving the Charlotte Web connection an emphatic “Great connection!” but an “um…okay,” to the Spongebob connection isn’t honoring every student’s voice and causes harm to the culture in a subtle way. The amazing thing was the entire class knew the Spongebob episode and started making their own connections of the text and their PBL projects.

Greetings Are Important
I was curious why my friend greeted each student after specials (Arts, PE, etc.). She replied that she did a 5 Love Language test with her students and the majority scored words of affirmations and physical touch. Greeting each student when coming back from lunch, art or PE provided an opportunity to give a quick encouraging word or sharing love. By doing so, the students felt encouraged and loved which produced a safer environment to help others not just within the project and group work, but outside of the classroom. It’s an amazing atmosphere to observe other students affirming each other to success during a project and seeing that carry forward to the community.

Be Consistent
Lastly, there has to be consistency within a PBL culture. If some groups have the option to work outside of the classroom but others never get the opportunity or spending an entire hour facilitating discussion with one small group and helping them cultivate their project is great but if other groups only get 10 minutes, that inconsistency could divide a classroom culture and eventually destroy the culture of teamwork during a PBL project.

As we finished our conversation, the teacher and I agreed having a positive culture in PBL means to consistently reflect on how you treat every student and how every detail in your classroom matters to producing high quality work.

Follow Andre Daughty on Twitter at @andredaughty


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