by Marnie Masuda-Cleveland
During my early years as a teacher in a Communications/Media Academy at San Marin High School in Novato, California, I witnessed the power of inquiry-based PBL. I watched as “at risk,” checked-out students transformed into excited, engaged, creative project managers and idea-generators. I watched “high achieving” disengaged students, who initially mocked the work our academy students did, gravitate to the program and come alive as learners. I watched as students who would never speak to each other on campus began treating each other like close, functional family members. I saw students who had serious truancy issues become students who stayed at school, working on projects, until their exhausted teachers finally turned off the lights and told them “you don’t have to go home but you can’t stay here.” They even asked their exhausted teachers to, like, maybe come in on Saturday morning for a little while so they could get some work done? I saw students with very little academic confidence transform into charismatic professional powerhouses who, for instance, did stuff like this:
Graduate from San Marin High School, fly to New York, walk right in the back door at Le Cirque and say “I want to work here, in the kitchen,” and then go on to start a multi-million dollar company called “Toute Sweet.” Go to top-tier universities to become groundbreaking educators. Kick around Europe a bit, then start a PBL program in Africa for refugees, and then receive an award from the United Nations, and then become one of the creators of something we now call “The Maker Movement,” and then partner on projects with one of her (old, nutty) San Marin Academy teachers.
I saw hundreds of students discover who they really were, what they really wanted in life (not what their parents wanted, or what their teachers and counselors told them they should want), and how to manifest something from nothing. This is what we learned as teachers, too—all of us—and once we saw it, felt it, studied it, believed in it, we were in too deep to ever let it go. Project Based Learning, when it’s done well—with passion and intention—empowers students, activates authentic learning, and changes lives forever.
A Favorite Project
Last year, third grade students in Hawai’i at Lana’i High and Elementary School (one of my “Creative Core” schools) identified community-based issues and came up with this driving question: “How can we help visitors understand what Lana’i is really like?” and “The Lana’i Town Square” project was born. Students wanted tourists to leave with an impression of their island that went well beyond Sweetheart Rock, Manele Bay, a Five-Star Hotel and the (stunning) white sand beach.
Student teams researched the history of the town square, and the businesses surrounding it. They interviewed restaurant and shop owners, family members and community members. They learned about the evolution of each small business, and the social and economic factors that influenced changes in the community. Their final products included an audio tour (which they scripted and recorded) of Dole Plaza for visitors to listen to while they drove or walked around the island; an illustrated book (which they marketed in local gift shops), and the “LTSP” website. Needless to say, they brought the house down during Showcase Night, and student surveys indicated the students not only learned the CCSS-aligned skills and content, but they also internalized and really understood the characteristics of a strong team and a strong project. The Lana’i Town Square Project is now the Third Grade Anchor Project at LHES, and this year’s students are exploring a variety of geographic areas on Lana’i.
Don’t abandon the PBL ship!
There are so many moving parts in every project, and so many moving bodies! It really does take several semesters (or even years) to refine your PBL project plans, and sharpen your “on the fly” skills. During their first go-around(s) many teachers freak out mid-stream and revert to “traditional” teacher-directed curriculum, instead of trusting the process and believing that the students CAN and WILL be able to do it.
I’ve seen a lot of “FrankenProjects” during my years as a teacher and a consultant, strange hybrids of project-ish elements and traditional, voiceless research-paper presentations. Teachers lament, “Oh my gosh! They’re so boring!” Students reflect honestly, take pre-and-post surveys, and I help teachers discover how and why the life (and learning) got sucked out of the projects. Like students, teachers must reflect, self-correct, and move forward. No abandoning the ship! I’ve never met a committed, self-aware teacher that didn’t see amazing gains by the second PBL go-round.
My Work as a BIE Facilitator
Facilitating PBL 101 workshops is so much fun! I learn something new about teaching and administration styles, about my own presentation style and assumptions, and I glean new ideas to share with the next PBL 101 group. My most memorable experience so far was at a charter school near Puna on the Big Island of Hawai’i. It was pouring rain (as it almost always is over in Puna) and we were huddled in their “meeting space” which was a tiny garage. We had an amazing three days together and have kept in touch ever since.
We have a long journey ahead. Advocating for high quality, student-centered, authentic, inquiry-based, interdisciplinary PBL can feel like lonely business, and a life-long, uphill schlep. I am so thankful to be part of the BIE ‘ohana—a family of brilliant, committed educators who are in it for the right reasons and the long haul.
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