Monday, April 28th, was a bittersweet evening for me, my colleague Mr. Nic Carroll, and our students. After four stellar years of student projects and the celebration of them each semester, that Monday became an important memory and mark in history for all of us. For me, it is an end of era that has changed my entire pedagogical perspective. I think back on my educational philosophies just four years ago and marvel at how much they’ve changed in that short span of time. I am in awe from what I’ve learned from my students and our experiences together. Within this post, I’ll be reflecting on my four years, but more specifically that night and the kids who all helped change my life.
Honestly, it is hard to know where to even begin. While I love language and writing, there are times that experiences are not easily put into words; my time with my Studio students is exactly that kind of experience. As mentioned above, my time with these young men and women has changed how I teach, my philosophies on instruction, and how I see the world. I have sincerely learned as much from them as I hope I’ve taught them.
The last Studio expo in the form that I’ve known it the last four years is a prime example of what mutual and cooperative learning looks like. Students generated projects that ranged from public service to the creation of educationally focused social media platforms. What it took to create these one-of-a-kind projects is what sets the night a part from most educational assessment. Instead of evaluating the fleeting knowledge of a student who has prepared to master a multiple choice test, I get to see their learning in action, applied to the world they have to engage in daily. They focused on matters that speak to their concerns, questions, and uncertainties in the world. They built products that could benefit themselves, their friends, and much broader audiences. You could see potential start-ups or business ventures waiting to continue development that night. I could see the pride each student took in his or her own work. There was ownership there; there was a commitment to finishing the task and presenting it to anyone willing to listen. There were hard lessons learned there as well. Students had to face the realities of poor planning or execution. But unlike many of their peers, they do not see their mistakes as failures–these students see a much bigger picture. A picture that reminds them that those mistakes are valuable takeaways moving forward in their life pursuits. The event is truly one of my proudest moments as an educator.
Beyond the learning accomplished through such project work (our kids know how to lead, collaborate, mediate, communicate, and think critically), this type of work builds community. There was a true sense of family that night. I felt loved, and I loved them right back. The event was a lesson in what reciprocal and cooperative learning looks like–where student and teacher both see the benefits of their relationship and realize goals together. The students that night were invested in its success; they showed they cared deeply for each other and for us as instructors (Mr. Carroll and I). They surprised us at the end of the event with speeches from freshmen, sophomores, and seniors who all spoke to the power of the program, what it meant to them, how it changed their young lives, and how they too will never see education or the world the same. And then they spoke directly to us, thanking us, and it took everything within me to hold back my tears of joy and appreciation. While I don’t mind succumbing to my emotions in many cases, I knew that if I broke down then there would be no way for me to recollect myself. They gave us gifts; but while they are certainly special tokens, it was their words and their hugs–embraces–that meant the most. I was overwhelmed by each child coming up to the front to embrace us. I even had one young man tell me that when he is ever asked who inspires him to do good and better himself, he always mentions me. That, my friends, is why I know what I’ve done for the last four years is right.
One of the most important jobs a teacher has is to create relationships that help change lives, and my time project-based learning and the Studio program has given me that opportunity on another level. While I will always acknowledge that the program I helped build and PBL may not seem like it is for everyone, I know that any parent or student truly open to trying it would see its benefits. There are complications for sure. Their are students who feel more comfortable in a traditional classroom where a lecture and assessment is how they feel successful, and I know there are students who struggle cognitively and need more support; however, I also know that those same students can benefit from PBL and community learning, especially given the added difficulty a student may feel from learning in a new way–a way that stretches his or her abilities and comfort zone.
Two weeks ago I was thankful and humble, and I sit here writing this feeling exactly the same. For any student who may read this, thank you for all you’ve done for me, all you’ve taught me, all you worked so hard to accomplish. I am truly moved at my core by what you’ve done in my life over the last four years. My prayer is that you pay what you’ve learned forward to others–your peers and you future children. Know that I will always love you, and I will beam with pride the rest of my life when I speak of you all. With no children of my own yet, you have been my inspiration and the reason I know my life has purpose. Thank you all for that beautiful reality.
I promise my speech is over. Below I’d like to share with you some photos from the expo. Enjoy. Still images can’t always tell the whole story, but hopefully you’ll see part of what I’m talking about in these photographs: