My PBL Adventure Year 3 Reflection–UPDATED

Writing this post has been put off for almost two weeks now. Partially because the end of the year hadn’t quite arrived, but also because I wasn’t sure what I wanted to write down for others to consume. The year has not been bad in the least, but I found myself maybe more uncertain and cautious at the end of this year than in years past. From the most positive perspective, we have finally reached our four year program goal of concluding the fourth year as an internship. We have about twenty-five of our students participating as interns next year, which is exciting since this has been part of the dream. We expanded the program to pull in another teacher as well as a fourth to help run the internship program. Our freshman group has been the highest preforming yet with great projects as well as scores. (Note that AP scores will not be in until July.) We had more people than ever take notice of our program including our own county finally noticing what PBL has to really offer our schools. The middle grades program is finally in-line with our program effectively creating a 6-12 PBL model for our schools. There is plenty to be excited about and to feel pride in, yet a few issues linger that have bothered me at the end of the year.

Our first group to go through from freshman year to now were essentially guinea pigs as we went through the trials and errors of creating PBL for our school. Their results have varied in many areas. Some amazing students have flourished in the program and will continue onto those internships, while many others took for granted what the class offers. Many of those students, however, have still moved on to great opportunities with dual-enrollment and even ivy league opportunities. This first group taught me about myself as a teacher, made me grow and change my line of thinking; they forced me to come facet-to-face with the best and worst parts of myself as a professional. Because of their willingness to start this journey, those younger than them will have a continued opportunity to thrive–if we can continue to get the community on board. That continues to be a sticking point where some people just don’t like what were doing, and the excuses are endless and mostly unfounded. Although we’ve done a better job communicating what we’re doing, there is still plenty of stigma around our program.

Our second year group grew this year by about twelve new students. Some students really thrived, while others struggled to use the class productively. Those who struggled all struggled for the same reasons–they have a hard time using their time well, can be easily distracted, and struggled being dependable in group settings. This is not to mention those who have other variables like home life that may have been affecting them negatively. Still, this group was solid. Projects varied in quality, but were full of great content in most cases. Test scores were solid as well. Although, from a language arts perspective, they should certainly have been better. Our county’s writing exam proved to be easy enough for our students to succeed in and we don’t know the AP results yet. What become disheartening is the amount of students leaving the program who are quite good at it. This exodus has been a wake up call for me and colleagues to the point where we’re redesigning the purpose of year two and three of the program to offer the development of new and valuable skills. We’re still scavenging through the reasons students are leaving, but they typically provide reasons such as parental pressure, a feeling of having learned all they can from the program in terms of soft skills, a general frustration with group projects, or a general uncertainty about what they are getting out of the program. As disheartening as this is to see and hear, it helps us refocus our efforts and ask important and timely questions of ourselves: are we providing the right classes? Is our vision in line with what we’re doing? What must change to enhance the courses? Where are we falling short? What resources do our kids need? Are we putting enough time into the program? The questions are numerous, but important to assess nonetheless.

Overall, we’re still successful and we’re seeing gains. I’m growing as a teacher, and this environment helps me remember why I love my job so much. But there are challenges and pitfalls we’re facing. As we evaluate another year of PBL in the books, it is vital that my colleagues and I strive to mend what is broken, scrap what doesn’t work, and keep a keen focus on the goal of preparing students for the world outside of high school. It’s been another year of ups and downs, but the ups continue to heavily out weigh any of the pesky downs. Here’s to the future!

UPDATE: It is with sadness and hopefulness that I must inform those of you who might care that we are foregoing our junior level of the Studio next year. The decision was difficult but necessary as our third cohort deserves the best we can offer to them from our PBL classroom. We will be retooling the program to ensure clarity and fidelity as we move forward. Our first cohort will still participate in their internships, however. The biggest reason for this decision is we are facing a deficiency in the number of teachers we need to support the classes and students. This too, we hope to rectify this next year. Stay tuned for more updates.

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