by Marnie Masuda-Cleveland
May I share something personal with you? I have, a few times in my life, found myself in a “PBL relationship” with a seemingly awesome interdisciplinary (read: meticulously planned, artfully scaffolded, student centered) project and watched in dismay as it fizzled. Maybe you’ve experienced similar PBL heartbreak. It happens to the best of us. Sometimes projects with “Gold Standard” potential on paper go out with more of a whimper than a bang. I’ve come to believe the key “missing ingredient” is this: personal emotional/affective connection, coupled with the integration of social emotional competencies:
These competencies are too often dismissed as intrinsic personality traits of “good students,” something they acquire at home (or not), rather than skills that can be taught and reinforced every day at school. These competencies are closely related to what we at BIE call “Success Skills,” but they are more subtle and behavior based.
Reflections on a Project
I sat down last October with Karen, an English teacher at Lana’i High and Elementary School, Hawai’i, in one of my Place-Based, Project Based Learning “(PB)2” cohorts, to review student project evaluations from the previous year, and to reflect on overall strengths and needs. The qualitative and quantitative data was better than we’d expected: marked improvement in critical thinking, metacognition, “college and career ready” research skills, written and verbal communication skills, academic confidence and effective collaboration. We did a happy dance, then settled into more professional “cautious optimism.” There was still much to be done.
Based on our findings, and her own take-aways from the previous year, Karen decided to revise project plans, and continue with the same interdisciplinary project focus: supporting more culturally appropriate, environmentally sustainable, and economically viable food options on Lana’i. She felt that last year’s students could have been more personally invested and more accountable to each other, rather than to her.
I considered her concerns and goals, and then Karen focused on improving her entry event.
A More Emotionally Engaging Entry Event
Last year, students had read, and written about, Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. The two-step project entry event included a visit with a community mentor—a lawyer who specializes in Native American food sovereignty—and a close reading assignment about the significance of culturally and environmentally appropriate food availability. During our conference session, and earlier post-observation reflection sessions, I asked Karen to consider how she might adjust her entry events to build deeper emotional investment, and even deeper critical thinking about food and culture.
She had launched projects by asking students to consider food from an intellectual standpoint—economically, culturally, environmentally. This year, I suggested she back up a step and ask students to share emotionally charged food experiences through reading and writing food memoirs. Although this would take extra time, and require some “MacGyvering” of content plans, I was confident the benefits (stronger SEL competencies, increased time-on-task, higher quality projects and products, and, finally a more impactful exhibition night) would outweigh the risks (less time to arrange field trips, schedule filming, collect and grade annotated bibliographies, meet with teams, and plan for exhibition night).
In lieu of handing students a long, heavily-researched article about the widening gap between cultures and culturally-appropriate foods in schools, as she had the previous year, Karen asked students to read, mark, and discuss “Duck,” a one-page personal narrative from the New Yorker by British “über chef” Heston Blumenthal. The piece recounts the complex steps necessary to create a swank update of “duck à l’orange” and homes in on the visceral link between food and memory. I recommend this piece to many 7-12 grade teachers. It contains enough culinary jargon and unfamiliar imagery to require close reading, context-based comprehension strategies, and collaborative meaning-making, yet students still find the content interesting and the message subtly moving.
The lesson plan was fairly simple: After spending half a double-block reading and discussing “Duck,” students would reflect on and list their own food-related memories. They’d select their three most vivid and emotionally-charged food memories, journal for three minutes or so about each one, then choose one to share in a quick “turn and talk.” The next class meeting, students would begin workshopping their own food memoirs. At the end of the week they would “publish” all or part of their memoirs in a writer’s circle-inspired protocol.
I told Karen it was essential that she take time to write with her students, and share her own food memoir in writer’s circle.
A Successful Project Launch
During our follow-up the following week, Karen recounted the events of the week with unprecedented enthusiasm. She couldn’t believe the quality of the written work submitted—especially this early in the school year. What pleased her even more was the fact that several of her most reluctant students, those who rarely completed written work, and who almost never spoke in class, had opened up the most and written with the highest degree of emotional authenticity. One of these students wrote and shared a memory of his last meal with his father before his father was taken away to prison. The class was in tears as he read. Karen’s voice broke when she talked about it.
Now students were ready to launch into the projects, to consider the overarching Driving Question:
How does what we eat affect who we are and what we become?
I visited Karen’s classes last week to observe and chat with students about their projects. They were in the stage of their projects that Tony Harris, Will Fowler and I used to call “the weeds.” Every team was either near-frantic or “in the zone.” Reviewing footage, designing charts and graphs, yelling at each other about missing research, outside the classroom door pacing with cell phones, leaving messages about meeting with community health experts, grocery store managers, arranging visits to the loading docks, downloading FDA food pyramids. When I approached them to ask about their driving questions, final products and presentation plans, it was clear I was interrupting something very important.
Their work was very important because their projects were very important, because food is important to culture, economy, and environment, of course.
But mostly because food is important to them.