That’s Gold, Jerry!!!

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After attending the Buck Institute for Education’s PBL 101, we embarked on our first project based learning (PBL) unit. If you viewed the classic Seinfeld clip above, projects versus project based learning is much like the comparison of Ovaltine™ versus roundtine. Be wary of calling your project PBL if it is just a project, else you are committing Ovaltine™ fraud. If you are doing a project, don’t call it PBL, just call it a project. If you’re doing PBL, make it gold standard. One of our goals was to reach theGold Standard PBL status instead of implementing a cool project. In many ways the results of our PBL unit exceeded our expectations. That said, we learned that we can improve our practice for future PBL units. We analyzed our 60 day PBL experience and came away with 3 lessons for other educators implementing project based learning:

Lesson 1:

Without a doubt, the most significant takeaway of our first PBL unit was seeing the students blossom while engaged in project based learning. The power of that experience, however, is closely matched by the power and importance of embarking on this journey with a trusted teacher. Planning and executing PBL with another teacher is a strategy we suggest for many reasons. If you are charged with doing PBL on your own, do not hesitate to reach out to a building level instructional leader, mentor educator, or even a fellow teacher via social media.

The first and most obvious reason to co-teach and co-plan is that it allows you to share the workload. Although there are many ready-made PBL units available for your use and adaptation, there will be significant groundwork for you as teachers. The amount of preplanning may be intimidating and a reason to convince yourself to opt out of PBL. Picking a trusted partner to work with lightens the load.

Next, and perhaps even more importantly, having another teacher experiencing the PBL unit allows for greater reflection on daily lessons and activities. PBL units will be filled with unanticipated (but valuable) twists and turns. Student achievements, large and small, will occur every day and celebrating them with a teacher magnifies the experience for you. Moreover, having a teacher to help troubleshoot stumbling blocks and create scaffolds and lessons based on student feedback makes the experience much more manageable. Having taught with the teacher previously is certainly not a prerequisite; having a teacher whose practice and knowledge you respect and trust is. We never taught in the same building (nor in the same decade) prior to this experience. The debriefing that occurred between us immediately following each lesson allowed us to pivot and adjust our goals for the next day to maximize student success. “Debrief” sounds consuming and official, however, these conversations happened in hallways between classes and transitions.

A trusted teacher who can remind you to continue stepping out of your comfort zone, trusting the kids and the process, and sharing in the delivery of content will prove to be a highlight of your PBL experience.

Lesson 2:

Our culminating public display of student learning involved a museum featuring how natural disasters affect the physical and human geography. Asking students to plan, design, and host a museum is a significant undertaking. It requires a multitude of opportunities for student voice and choice: researching a topic, choosing a method to showcase learning, making the exhibits, practicing public speaking, inviting the community (expecting the community to actually come), and many more details. At times we worried if our kids could do it. We should have been more worried about stifling their creativity and underestimating their capabilities. While we assumed the students may be captains of their own canoes, we were surprised that they were fully prepared to commandeer a cruise ship. Don’t underestimate the problems your children can address, products they can produce, and levels at which they can think.

We required our kids to engage in types of thinking and problem solving to which they had little exposure in previous lessons. With the right supports, the students were able to handle the rigor we demanded. Unprompted, students even went beyond expectations and worked on projects at home and during recess. If you’ve given the students ownership, autonomy, and trust from day one in your PBL unit, they’ll take the project so seriously that they will not let themselves down, let alone you, when it is time to set sail.

Lesson 3:

Over 400 community members, students, teachers, and district staff flooded the Teaching and Learning Lab in March to witness a public display of knowledge by elementary students. After engaging in an inquiry driven learning experience for approximately 10 weeks, students hosted a museum entitled “And Still, We Rise”. This showcase of student work was the first of its kind in Saluda County Schools.

Of course, the parents and community members did not show up out of thin air as in the Field of Dreams. PBL inspires kids to own their learning and as a result, parents become curious about it and learning becomes valuable enough for the community enough to witness. Students created invitations that were sent home and to district employees. We called every child’s home to personally praise their efforts in the PBL unit and to invite families to attend the museum.

Parents were in awe of the products their children created. Many parents were overcome with emotions as they watched their students speak professionally about their museum exhibits. This authentic showcase was not just good for parents, though. Other teachers in the district saw the power of PBL and were immediately inspired to sign up for professional learning offered this summer in our district on PBL. Fellow students were similarly inspired by the work of their peers, even asking their teachers if they might ever get to do a PBL unit in their classrooms.

Just as with the kids, the learning happens in the revision and reflection on the process. Mistakes will be made, lessons will be learned, but not without amazing student success. Do not avoid PBL because you don’t think you can pull it off perfectly or because you fear you won’t reach gold standard on your first try. If you are an instructional leader in your district as we are, the power of jumping into PBL with two feet (or better yet, four, if you are co-teaching) is indeed worth it. So, have what she’s having, get a bigger boat, build it so they will come, but most importantly, go for gold.

See more at Follow the authors on Twitter @shawnblove and @bradyvenables

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