How Failure in the Classroom Improved my Teaching

Once upon a time, I had this fabulous idea. I had just been employed by an fabulous, innovative new school who highly valued project-based learning, student-centered learning, and the expertise of the teacher. With three whole years of teaching under my belt, I felt that I was ready to introduce a semester long project to middle school students at a Title I school.

The objective and purpose was beautiful: Research an ancient civilization and then work with a group to create a board game where the characters are based on the civilizations that they researched. It was perfect. On paper. On paper and in the mind of a teacher who had not previously taught middle school students. There were definitely moments when I would give myself a high five or two after the students left, but after the dust settled, I had a lot of reflecting to do.

Project Based Learning is a fantastic method to teach students of all ages, grades, and abilities. I do not for a second regret what I did with this project. After all, teaching is trial and error. What works one day with one class may not work with the others. However, as PBLs go, there are do’s and don’ts. I’d like to give you the don’ts.

First, I think it is important to know what a successful PBL looks like. For that, I will direct you to the professionals at the Buck Institute of Education and their Gold Standard PBL. In short, it is more than a tri-fold poster board or PowerPoint presentation. End products should be meaningful and reflect content, student interest, and higher order thinking and problem solving.

If you are considering trying PBL for the first time, take just a few moments to learn from my mistakes.

  1. Have students keep learning logs. Make it a part of the routine. Students — especially those who struggle with reading and writing — will only benefit their learning. They need something tangible to go back to reflect on their learning. It is also helpful to teachers who can’t physically document the progress of every child.
  2. Give feedback. It is a pain in the rear end, and I did not do a good job on giving proper feedback to my kiddos. Better yet: Teach students how to give feedback. I discovered this a little late, but it was much easier to manage the load.
  3. Gradually increase the rigor of your projects. I tried to do an elaborate project. I thought that I was providing the proper scaffolding to ease students into it, but the end results indicate otherwise. I have successfully done PBL in the past, but this group of kids wasn’t ready. It should have been more of a gradual transition.
  4. Have plans in place to properly differentiate. One of my major hangups was expecting most of my kids to follow the timeline that I had very carefully planned. Some finished much more quickly, while others took longer. I found that I didn’t support my more advanced students like I should have.
  5. Don’t forget about the content. I did. We focused on content for a couple of weeks, but spent nearly one month on creating the project.
  6. Don’t try to teach “all the skills” in one project. One plus for this project is that I had great opportunities to teach students how to do proper peer review, search for valid sources, write bibliographies, “pitch” their board games, and so on. All of those are great skills that students need to learn, but not in one project.

I could go on…I am hypercritical of my teaching skills, but six seemed like a nice, even number. I’m glad that I did this project exactly like I did it. If I hadn’t made so many ridiculous errors, I would not know how to improve for next time. I do worry that my students did not learn the content that they needed, but I guess I will just make up for that in the upcoming year!

I always like to end on a positive note, so without further ado, here are some pictures of the work my babies did.