Feet to the Fire

Part of what makes my Studio classroom unique from many is that I will always contend with students and parents alike that, although guided, there is room for error, exploration, and re-mastery. What makes this possible is a mind set me and colleagues have fondly coined putting our students ‘feet to the fire’. The idea here is that our students will really only learn what it takes to deliver a great product is if you take the time to learn many points of emphasis on their own. By points of emphasis I mean developing a new technology skill or developing better researching skills. The truth is my colleagues and I don’t have all the answers in terms of how to make a certain product or how to even use certain computer apps. (That’s not to say we don’t know how to use many of them, but there are times we want our students to try something new even if we don’t know how it works.) Most students take on these challenges proudly, and it sets in motion a level of motivation you rarely see in lecture-based classrooms; however, like with all parts of life, there are those few who see the challenge and shy away from it for fear of failure. We’ve built up an education system that deems failure as an insurmountable mistake. This is especially true in high school when everything begins to ‘count’. The reality we all know we live in is that mistakes happen, failure in many cases is eminent, but without those failures, we never see the solution.

The fine line between learning from one’s mistakes and being a fool is a thin one, but one that can still be clearly defined. We encourage students to make mistakes, reflect on them, change the pattern of behavior, and move on. Students only become self-depleting vessels of their own self-destruction when they refuse to learn from a mistake and continue a malfuctionary set action. (Yes, I made up the word malfunctionary, but it works and I’m claiming Shakespeare as my inspiration.) Students must make mistakes, sometimes big ones, in order to succeed in our class and by doing so, we hope we are setting them up for greater success well beyond high school.

The caveat to our ‘feet to the fire’ policy is that it can isolate a student quickly. You have to be observant at all times of a student’s struggles; otherwise, you may be faced with a student who never sees anything but frustration and failure. They will feel unsupported and quickly disconnect from the class. We encourage self-advocacy with our students, but it is still my responsibility to notice when a student is struggling and unwilling to admit it.

So what does ‘feet to the fire’ look like for us? Well this year it means generating infographics using summer research while constructing an argumentative essay or even a multimedia timeline that spans from 8,000 BCE to modern day all in a matter of just a few project planning and execution days. (Roughly a week.) Scary, right? Sure, but students have to learn to trust themselves and we have to learn to in turn trust them because we never know what any of us are truly capable of until we set our feet to the fire**.


** – To clarify, I’m a big fan of archetypes. Here think about fire’s ability to destroy, but also bring about renewal and new life.

It is Decided!

I received word this past Friday from our administration that we’ll be able to continue as we had intended with our project-based classroom. If you remember, I posted several weeks ago about playing the waiting game as our county, like most, is experiencing financial issues that has put additional strain on our classrooms. (There is no such thing as doing more with less; at this point, we’re looking at our situation truly affecting student learning!) I stayed hopeful throughout the process, and thanks to the support of our students, parents, and admins we’ll be able to continue with our junior level course. This will hopefully set us up to continue with our senior plan of connecting our students to very real, very hands-on internships in fields of their interest.

Although we still face criticism, some from our own colleagues, I think it has become clear that PBL has a place in large public schools. I still imagine it will take years before it comes anywhere close to mainstream, but it feels good to be at the foundational level. I have come to understand why most successful PBL programs are a part of small schools with small class size numbers, but it is a mission of mine and others to prove it can work in a large public school setting. If this truly is one of the more valuable ways for our students to learn and prepare to be future leaders and molders of society, then we must find ways to give students across our nation an opportunity to take part in such learning. I’ve stated this before and I’ll state it again here, PBL is an option, it is not the final solution. I’ve seen students thrive in this environment, and I’ve seen others fall victim to mediocrity and procrastination. The difference is and always will be motivation. (Which I still feel firmly begins in the home.) The same student who does little work in a traditional classroom will also struggle with PBL unless he or she is more motivated by the challenges of self-learning and independent study. I think it is important to remember that PBL is an alternative. That being said, I do feel strongly that students who take advantage of the PBL classroom learn a great deal more than how to score well on a multiple choice test.

I’m looking forward to next year knowing that we are moving forward. The best part is that a new teacher will be able to be brought into the mix with new ideas. It has always been my hope to pass this concept down to other teachers to use and help progress the course. Here’s to next year!

Hit the Ground Running

The first week of school has come and gone and with it a very cool and welcome product has been produced. In our second year of PBL, my colleague and I decided to really challenge our returning students by having them work in two large teams that had to be organized from within to accomplish the task. This meant electing a team leader, breaking into subcommittees and then organizing the various tasks by delegating roles to subcommittee leaders and their team members. (Real world anyone?)

What was the task you may ask? To create an interactive, multimedia world history and literature timeline. The idea is that by creating these products, the teams would establish a resource they both could reference throughout the year as they study various eras of human history and literature. The results honestly overwhelmed our expectations. I wouldn’t be so bold as to say they are perfect products, but it was amazing to see our students literally ‘hit the ground running’ in the first few days of school. I’m only displaying one of the products in this post, but it’ll give you a great idea of what our students are capable of creating. Click on the link below to download and view for yourself. Oh, and did I mention this was created in just two and a half days?

Steps into the Past – Timeline (Click the link to download)

Shakespeare’s Workshop

One of the more fascinating practices I learned from this previous year developing a PBL program is workshopping. As I type the word ‘workshopping,’ there is a red squiggly line reminding me that it is not  word–yet. Many of you probably understand what a workshop is meant to do. Dictionary.com defines a workshop as “a seminar, discussion group, or the like, that emphasizes exchange of ideas and the demonstration and application of techniques, skills, etc.” There are plenty of workshops out there too. The Home Depot holds them all the time to teach participants how to tile a bathroom, build  a birdhouse, etc, and people gladly go to these workshops because they want to know. And there is the crux of one of our greatest educational issues–the want or desire to know. I found out for myself just how powerful the word workshopping really is in the classroom.

One of the challenges that faced me and my colleagues as we developed our PBL classroom was how to get supplemental material to the students that might not be covered in a project. We originally used what we deemed the ‘coffee chat’ to get ideas to students. I realized, however, that there was some material that would take more than just one mini-lesson to cover, so I decided to develop a workshop. This first workshop I labeled the Shakespeare workshop as I spent two and half weeks presenting interactive mini-lessons to the students that revolved around Shakespeare and his play The Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet. It was an immediate success.

I have no hard data to use as evidence, but just by using the word ‘workshop’ rather than lesson, lecture, or discussion, my students were immediately engaged in learning about Shakespeare. I’ve always had students who enjoy Shakespeare in a regular class setting, but this was the first that I had the attention of almost the entire class for over half a month.

The key was making each workshop simple, short, and interactive. We never spent more than thirty minutes on any lesson, and I used handouts, video, audio, and images rather than a text book to present the playwright, his life, and one of his classic tragedies. Some students used the workshop as a spring board for exploring Shakespeare more closely. A handful even read several of his other plays. Others discovered there was nothing to be frightened of in concern to his words and works, while even more students used his poetic style to create poetic work of their own.

By workshopping Shakespeare rather than lecturing him, I captured student attention and more of them enjoyed encountering the famous playwright. It is amazing what simply using a different word and using a slightly different approach can do for encouraging students want to learn.

A Whole New World: Part II

Several weeks ago I began this journey into explaining and sharing the world of Project-Based Learning (PBL). You can see that post here.

To say that PBL is extraordinarily exciting for me to talk about would be an understatement. As a warning up front, I am quite biased in my views on PBL; this is mostly to do with the successes I’ve seen students accomplish through this mode of learning. Here is a quick definition of Project-Based Learning for anyone who is unfamiliar: Project-Based Learning (pbl-online.org, 2005) is an instructional approach built upon authentic learning activities that engage student interest and motivation. These activities are designed to answer a question or solve a problem and generally reflect the types of learning and work people do in the everyday world outside the classroom.

What does that really mean? It means relevant learning.

Times have changed and we can all mostly agree on this attitude; what most of us do not agree on is what has changed and what that change means. Right now, in headlines across America, you can see the role of public educators attacked. No matter your party affiliation, I would hope we all can agree that teachers are not the core issue in our country right now. Could we be producing better teachers out of college? Yes! But it is awfully hard to do that when bureaucracy and entrenched traditions are the characteristic of what decides how to produce a good teacher and how to define a good teacher. Although I firmly believe these political obstacles should be extirpated, the core issue is not the teachers–it’s in how we teach. PBL has given me great insight into this notion. Let me tell you a quick story–

It is time for the second project of the year in my inaugural PBL course year. The first round of projects were rough, and many of us, including me, are reeling from the reality of how difficult getting a PBL class off the ground really is. A group of young men approach me and the other instructor of the course and present an idea to create an event for the community that would teach them about their local economics and culture. As the class is a mixture of human geography, language arts, multimedia, and even heath/PE, we were curious to see how this project would unfold. With our guidance they began to ask and answer the question of how do you boost your local economy while learning more about the people who make up your community? The event started to take shape as they researched the demographics of the the community and its history. In time they came up with an event called “Get Active!” The goal of the event was to encourage physical and mental health and help boost the local economy of their city. This was shaping into a very real product quickly. Both instructor and student alike were becoming excited about the possibilities of the project/event. During the course of their research and project building, they developed technical writing skills, research skills, academic resources skills, speaking skills, productivity management, team work, learned about their local community’s growth and history, and how to maintain a healthy lifestyle. All the aforementioned skills are incredible learning moments considering they did all of this in three weeks, but the icing on the cake is when they went to the city event coordinator to pitch their idea for holding the event in the city. What happened next is what reminds me why I’m an educator. The event coordinator heard their pitch (they set up the meeting by themselves and met with her by themselves) and considered their words and ideas. She then looked at each of them and told the young men that they were more prepared than most adults that she meets with about events and that the city would love to hold to the event. The had done it; their event was now real; their product was now real. Let me please emphasize these young men are all only fifteen years old.

The story above is true and incredible at the same time. Since this project was developed, several more have been created that have blown me away. Seeing what a young teenager is capable of creating and conceiving when you just give him or her a chance is astonishing at times. These students are learning true 21st century skills while also learning the content and skills demanded in the national, state, and county level standards. These students will be more prepared for their first year of college after their freshman year of high school than most of my high school’s graduating seniors. What does that tell you about our traditional teaching approach? Do not get me wrong. There is a balance to be had here. There is a time and place for lecture and test preparation, but on a daily basis the actions and concepts of project-based learning and even problem-based learning is the constructivist theory in action. Teaching students real skill sets for the world they are a part of is possible and desperately needed! I believe in what PBL can do because I’ve seen and experienced it with my own two eyes.

By the way, the project from the story above will come to fruition on May 14th this year. Here is a link to the event’s website that the students built and maintain 100% independently (even as they work on new projects): Get Active!

In my next post on this series, I’ll share with you practical ways to get PBL involved in your classroom or in your life for that matter. In the meantime, check out The Buck Institute and their resources. Happy project building!