by Chris Margolin
Curriculum Specialist, Vancouver Public Schools, Vancouver, WA
I was not a good high school student. I did not appreciate what my teachers had to offer, and even if I did, I wouldn’t have let it show. I was defiant. I skipped school on a regular basis, and decided that I knew so much more than my teachers; therefore, anything they said was obviously boring. And yet, here I am, 14 years into my career in education. I feel like this is a fairly reoccurring theme for many who choose this profession. We didn’t get what we wanted out of our educational experiences, and so we want to offer something different - hopefully better - to those who occupy our former seats. We want them to be a part of their education, and not simply a product of it.
Herbert Kohl’s The Open Classroom was the text that cemented my desire to become a teacher. His manifesto of allowing students the ability to choose not only how they learned, but what they learned, gave me a more sculpted view of what I so desperately wanted as a student. Given the current landscape of the Common Core State Standards, we are no longer tethered to the textbook, or scripted curriculum. Instead, the Common Core State Standards are now the basis for the curriculum taught, and we can manipulate the content in order to best help our students to achieve proficiency. Unfortunately, so many teachers seem to rely on the same materials they’ve used for the entirety of their career, and haven’t really looked at the yawning faces in front of them. It’s much easier to teach for rote-memory than design something that might actually interest a class full of students who are truly hungry to learn.
But learn what?
The idea of Project Based Learning is nothing new. Kohl spoke of differentiating the learning process, by offering students the opportunity to work together in order to create their vision of whatever was being asked of them. It was as much a social experience as a learning experience. But, they were learning. They were observing each other. They were speaking to each other. They were challenging each other to envision different ways to complete their goals. They were developing their own learning process, thus allowing the teacher to actually work with several groups of students, offering individual assistance on what each group had chosen as focus of their learning.
It took me a long time to put theory into practice. I wanted the script. I wanted to teach out of a textbook because it was easy, because it was there, and because it meant I didn’t have to plan anything beyond what I was told. I was a young first-year teacher, entering the classroom at just twenty-two-years-old. I didn’t know much of anything at all. I was given five preps, with no idea how to actually plan anything. Teaching school doesn’t really prepare anyone to be a teacher. So I ran to the nearest can-o’-curriculum, and popped the top. It wasn’t until almost four years into my classroom that I noticed the boredom seeping from the pores of each of my students. I wasn’t instructing them, I was destroying their desire to learn anything.
And then I just asked them what they wanted to get out of their English class. I asked them for ideas, for subject matter. I asked them about their lives outside of the classroom. I gave them topics, but not necessarily instructions on how to get to the end result. I wanted to see what they wanted to learn, and how they wanted to learn it. I wanted to play the role of the facilitator, the spectator, and the student. We took all their wants, wonderings, and lesson ideas, and designed the class they wanted to attend—that I wanted to attend. It was structured; it was guided by learning targets, and success criteria. Each person who proffered an idea, had an end goal in mind. Every group worked together, not necessarily because their topics were the same, but their themes, ideas, and learning standards aligned perfectly.
With the CCSS leading the curriculum, the door is open for options, rather than instructions. Sure, there are students who want the micro-manager standing in front of them, but the majority of them just want to be excited by whatever they’re attempting to learn. Project Based Learning does not have to be this overwhelming concept. It simply challenges the teacher to ask a few questions of their students, and more importantly listen to their students.